Meat for the table. In decades past, that’s what rabbit hunting meant for many families across rural Missouri. With a shotgun or .22 rifle, and maybe the companionship of the family dog, a hunter could often, by walking along brushy fencerows, provide supper for his family. Fencerow chicken — that’s what some folks called eastern cottontails.
Today, few people in Missouri hunt rabbits out of necessity. We can get all the chicken — along with most of the meat — we need from the supermarket, which is both good and efficient. In doing so, however, we can easily lose our connection with the land.
Hunting allows people to take part in and understand nature’s designs. Rabbits provide one of the best hunting opportunities in the Show-Me State. They occur statewide, are often common on public hunting areas, and hunting rabbits is simple and can require a minimum of equipment. If you want to get started rabbit hunting, here are some tips.
A Little Biology
Learning about game animals improves hunting success and deepens appreciation of nature. Let’s start with the natural history of the eastern cottontail.
Cottontails are highly adaptable and occur in a variety of areas. They thrive best in open, brushy terrain where two habitats meet, such as where brushy fields and woods come together — what biologists call “edge habitat.” In ideal habitat, a cottontail’s home range will average between 1 and 5 acres. In poorer habitat, home range may be as much as 15 acres. Though cottontails can be seen in the open, they are typically not far from cover, such as brush piles, high grass, overgrown fencerows, or foundations of old buildings.
Cottontails are herbivores and eat a wide variety of grasses, sedges, and herbs. Cultivated plants in their diet include clovers, alfalfa, soybeans, and wheat. When heavy snow covers their usual food, cottontails consume the buds, bark, and twigs of woody plants.
Many predators eat cottontails, including hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, minks, weasels, dogs, cats, snakes, bobcats, and humans. As an offset to this predation, cottontails produce lots of offspring. Their breeding season in Missouri extends from early March through September, with a maximum of six litters. Gestation is 26 to 30 days. Litter size ranges from one to nine, with four or five the norm. An average female produces 16 young per breeding season.
To bag rabbits, some hunters use .22 rifles. The range of a .22, however, can pose safety problems, particularly if several people are hunting together. Most rabbit hunters carry shotguns. Smaller gauges, such as .410 and 28 gauges, full choked and loaded with shells holding number 4 shot, are most popular. Heavy shot loads are not necessary to cleanly kill rabbits.
Larger shot size reduces the number of pellets and, accordingly, reduces the amount of meat ruined by pellets.
You will need a hunter-orange game vest to carry shells and the rabbits you bag. Hunter-orange cap and clothing is not required to hunt rabbits but is highly recommended. The heavy cover where rabbits hide can obscure hunters. Hunter orange greatly increases a hunter’s visibility and is vital for safe hunting, especially if several people are hunting together.
Brush pants, chaps, or heavy overalls designed to be brier-proof are also highly recommended. Rabbits frequent blackberry and greenbrier thickets. Walking through such spots in blue jeans can prove painful.
For many rabbit hunters, the true joy of the hunt is watching and listening to beagles run rabbits. Many a hunter, after first experiencing the thrill of rabbit hunting with skilled beagles, has thought, “This is such great fun, I need to get a beagle or two!” That is understandable, but be informed. You can buy mature beagles, well bred, well trained, and proven as skilled hunters, but they can be expensive. Moreover, beagles bred for hunting are just that — hunting animals. They are cute, they wag their tails, and they can be affectionate. But they are geared to hunt.
If you live in the country, it doesn’t work to let beagles out all day. Hunting beagles, let run free, will get on a track, and with their nose to the ground, they’ll be off. They pay no mind to roads and are at high risk of being hit by a vehicle. Moreover, if let run free, beagles learn to be independent and often start running critters other than rabbits — mainly deer. Some people don’t like the thought of dogs being penned up, but that’s how beagles bred for hunting need to be kept. Let out frequently and allowed to run only rabbits, they develop a sense of teamwork with their owners.
Owning a hunting beagle also requires a knowledge of training. Even trained beagles can develop bad habits. And pups, even out of parents that are proven hunters, must learn to hunt. A well-bred beagle pup, put on the ground with seasoned rabbit dogs, has a good chance of becoming a skilled hunter by learning from the mature dogs. But again, pups can develop bad habits, such as running deer, backtracking rabbits, and barking when not on track. Eliminating these flaws requires training.
Owning quality hunting beagles is a source of pride and great joy, but it involves expense, work, knowledge, and commitment. If you want to get hunting beagles, proceed with these facts in mind.
Safety and How-To Information
As with all hunting, the number-one key is having a good hunting spot. If you have access to ground that supports lots of rabbits — and ground that offers enough open areas so you can see rabbits when you jump them — good hunting awaits.
You have two options: hunting with beagles or without. Dogless, you jump rabbits yourself by kicking brush piles and other bits of cover that might hold rabbits. A good time for this type of hunting is when snow is on the ground, so you can focus your hunting efforts where you see lots of tracks. Snow also makes it easier to spot rabbits when you jump them.
With beagles, when the dogs jump a rabbit and no shot is offered, hunters spread out in the vicinity of where the rabbit jumped and wait for the dogs to trail the rabbit. If the rabbit does not duck into a hole or other cover where the dogs can’t reach it, the rabbit will likely circle back to where it was first jumped. This is the real excitement of rabbit hunting. Listening to the beagles, out of sight, barking on track.
When the dogs approach your location, this is the time to be alert. The rabbit is probably coming your way, just ahead of the dogs. It’s also the time to have safety foremost in mind. Rabbits live in thick cover. To an unsafe, excited hunter, a beagle working through thick cover can appear as a rabbit. Crucial, too, is being aware of other hunters’ locations for safe fields of fire.
Another important aspect of rabbit hunting concerns population management. The best rabbit-hunting spots start with ideal habitat and proper management. All rabbit populations, even those in ideal habitat, will suffer under relentless hunting pressure. Non-human predators, such as foxes, eat a variety of prey. Humans, on the other hand, continually hunting only rabbits with trained beagles during a season can reduce populations. Knowledgeable rabbit hunters, wishing to keep their hunting spots good year after year, work to maintain good rabbit habitat and limit harvest in order to leave plenty of rabbits to breed and replenish populations.
Cleaning and Cooking
Rabbits are easy to clean. With poultry shears or a hatchet, cut off the head and feet. Make a cut through the skin at the center of the back, and with both hands, peel the skin off the carcass. Rabbit skin peels off easily, and loose fur that clings to the meat rinses off easily in cold water.
With the skin removed, take the tip of a sharp knife, insert it just below the rib cage, and make a cut all the way to the end of the abdomen, taking care not to puncture the internal organs. Split the pelvis with the knife, taking care not to puncture the urinary bladder if it is full. While wearing rubber gloves, remove all internal organs, then cut the rabbit into five pieces: two hind legs, two front legs, and the back. Discard the ribs and area of the backbone where the ribs attach.
Cut out any areas on edible meat that are bloodshot from pellets. This may seem wasteful, but if these areas are left and cooked, they turn dark, may contain hair, fragments of bone and lead, and make rabbit less than fine eating.
Properly cleaned and rinsed, rabbits make excellent table fare. If you like Italian cuisine, couple this recipe with garlic bread and a salad for a fine meal.
Know the Regs
Learn more about getting started rabbit hunting at on.mo.gov/1I5irJj. There you’ll find more information about hunting, habitat management, and population dynamics. Browse featured rabbit hunting areas, and study the latest regulations before you go afield.
- 2 rabbits, cleaned and cut up
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 1 10.5-ounce can condensed cream of chicken soup
- 1½ cup milk
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 medium green bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 2 medium onions, cut into thin strips
- 1 24-oz. jar tomato pasta sauce
- 1 cup fresh sliced mushrooms
- 1 teaspoon each dried oregano, basil, and parsley
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- Coat rabbit with flour.
- Heat oil in skillet. Over medium-high heat, cook rabbit 10 to 15 minutes until browned.
- Remove rabbit from skillet and drain on paper towels.
- In slow cooker, mix can of cream of chicken soup and milk.
- Add rabbit and cook on low for five hours.
- Remove rabbit from slow cooker. Let cool, then debone, and set aside.
- In a 12-inch skillet, place rabbit meat and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve with Parmesan cheese.