Winter Rabbit Hunting
By Douglas Claycomb, Outdoor Ethics Chair
Winter makes Minnesota special. If you don’t get out and take advantage of the bright white cold, you might as well live in Texas. They have lakes too. But, for those of us who don’t ski, it’s sometimes hard to find a way to get some vigorous exercise in February. Ice fishing is peaceful and fun but sedentary. As for recreational snowmobiling: smoke, noise? Forget it! That is why I am thankful rabbit season lasts until the end of February. Most years, during the months of January and February, I venture out a half dozen times or so into the bright white cold: in pursuit of a rabbit dinner. I usually come home with nothing but numb feet, wind-chapped cheeks, and tired legs. But, you see, while getting a rabbit is the goal, it’s not really the point of it. If you have a moment, I’ll tell you about it.
The dead of winter is like no other time of year. The woods are stark and twigs snap with a brittle frozen “crack.” The snow squeaks under your boot and, at first, the air stings your nostrils. But after a few minutes, it’s fine: a runny nose is an auto-defensive strategy. The nose knows. This is the only time of year when you can be simultaneously cold and hot. Although fingers and toes are cold, exercise warms your middle. Through trial and error, each hunter learns just the right way to dress, sort of, most of the time.
There is no “right way” to hunt rabbits, but here are a few tips. First is finding a place to hunt. If you want to hunt private land, get permission. But why kowtow to a landowner when there is plenty of public land? Several units of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and numerous nearby Wildlife Management Areas (e.g. Bradshaw Lake WMA in Scott County and Esker WMA in Rice County) are loaded with rabbits—and almost nobody hunts them in winter’s cold. Stepping out with your shotgun, clad in hunter orange, do not expect to see rabbits “hopping about,” frolicking in the snow. They are a prey species and they seem to know that their brown coat offers no camouflage against a white, snowy background. Cleverly, in winter rabbits are nocturnal: feeding at night on buds, twigs, and bark; hiding during daylight (hunting) hours. So, look for their sign: tracks and scat in the snow and saplings with bark stripped near ground level. If you see sign, there are rabbits near.
Scaring them out of hiding, or “jumping” them, is exercise. Rabbits like to hide in thick tangles if vegetation (especially briars) and under debris. In winter, they especially like tall grasses bent over under the weight of snow, forming snow-cave-like hiding spots. Sometimes you find rabbits completely buried under a new-fallen snow. Unless you have a dog, the only way to jump them is to stomp, kick, and thrash about. Then, when a rabbit jumps, you need to be ready.
Rabbits go like greased lightning, zig zagging among trees and other obstacles, making it quite a challenge for the shotgunner. You need to be ready. Lead them a little bit—shoot where they will be, not where they are—have luck on your side, and never shoot in your companion’s direction (a way to end a friendship). Unlike tougher critters (e.g. squirrels), it does not take much to kill these soft targets. Hold off if the rabbit is too close (< 20 yds.) or too far (>50 yds.). Too close and the animal is inedible; too far, crippled and lost. Try to hit them in their front half, not the rear. The front is mostly vital organs (the target) and the back is meat and guts: neither of which you want to damage. Use a shotgun with #6-8 lead or, a greener alternative is #4-6 steel (in some places steel is the law- the Bush Lake Chapter Izaak Walton League recommends using lead free shot whenever possible). Steel shot needs to be larger because it is less dense than lead. Although steel is a lot easier on the environment, it is also more dangerous to your teeth. Be extra certain to pluck all the steel out of a rabbit before serving.
Once you have the rabbit in-hand, remove the guts right away—very carefully. Using a knife to open the abdomen, it is easy to accidently slit the gut. You know what is in guts—and you do not want it associated with food. Cut through the sternum to the neck and remove lungs and heart. To keep the meat clean, leave the skin on until after the hunt. At the end of the day, pull the skin off, wash in cold water, removing any hairs or debris. Rabbit meat spoils quickly, like poultry, so keep it cold. Some people soak rabbit overnight in salt water before cooking; others cook it right away. Some people cut up their rabbit into pieces; others cook it whole. As for recipes—there are hundreds on the internet. I like mine breaded and fried in a skillet, like chicken. Simple.
For me, rabbit hunting is a much better way to waste a day than sitting on a couch watching playoffs, eating chips, getting fat. The exercise, winter air, and white woods refreshes the soul. I always seem to see something unexpected—a coyote, grouse, otter, etc.—and I usually have exciting tales to tell. If not, I make one up, I lie—nobody knows the difference. Every now and then, I feed my family a rabbit dinner. In truth, I could not say if any of them like rabbit. They say they do. Would they tell me otherwise?
If you decide to give it a try, buy a license, read the rules, and be safe. Let me know if you have a good recipe.