Tom Lounsbury: Rabbit hunting a great way to enjoy the wintertime

Rabbit hunting is, without question, a very popular hunting pastime in Michigan, which offers bountiful opportunities statewide during the winter months.

There is no question that I spend more time afield each year hunting rabbits, especially local cottontails (and also snowshoe hares elsewhere whenever the opportunity presents itself) than any other game animals, something I’ve been avidly doing since I was a farm kid.

The cottontail was the first game animal I ever harvested, and I will always remember when, after finishing my morning chores of gathering eggs in the hen coop, I flushed a rabbit near the corncrib. It immediately ran in great leaps to the nearby orchard and disappeared.

I quickly took the basket of gathered eggs to our farmhouse and got permission from my mother to go after the rabbit with my single-shot .410 shotgun. I was only allowed to take two shells, as according to her, that was more than enough ammunition to shoot one rabbit.

There was a fresh dusting of snow that morning, and I eagerly located the tracks starting near the corncrib, put a shell into the .410, and began following them. I was amazed at how far a fast-fleeing cottontail could leap with each bound, but they were easy tracks to follow into the orchard, ending at a pile of pruned apple branches, and there were no tracks leading out.

I would like to clarify at this point, folks, I had just begun carrying my grandfather’s single-shot .410 during the earlier annual pheasant season, and had learned how to fluidly shoulder and fire it, somewhat anyway, although it is highly unlikely I had ever hit anything because the small pattern of a .410 is very unforgiving on fast-flying and moving targets.

There were always plenty of visiting pheasant hunters to our farm who were truly good shots, and some of them were always shooting at the same roosters that I was. They naturally assumed that a little kid with a .410 hadn't come close to hitting the rooster which came tumbling down. They were probably right, and I didn’t argue matters because I was plenty happy to be carrying a shotgun and finally playing an active role.

Realizing the cottontail was definitely underneath the small brush pile, I held my .410 at “port arms” and gave the pile a brisk kick. The rabbit came immediately sailing out and the .410 seemed to speak all on its own accord. Well, folks, it most likely was a lucky shot when I head-shot that rabbit while it was still in mid-air at only about four yards, but from that moment on, I became an avid and devoted rabbit hunter!

One of my favorite rabbit hunting techniques is still tracking down an individual rabbit after a fresh snowfall. I typically do this solo, but it can also be done with an extra hunter or two flanking the tracker. For this, I prefer a rifle, or even a handgun, in .22 rimfire. I also often use my .17-caliber scoped GAMO air rifle, but a favorite is my traditional caplock muzzleloader, a .32-caliber CVA “squirrel rifle” that I put together from a kit way back when.

Spotting the rabbit and head-shooting it while it is still stationary is the primary goal, but running shots can be frequent, which is quite challenging with a rifle, but definitely entertaining.

Here on my farm, when I first began developing wildlife habitat, including in my yard, I took future rabbit hunting into consideration and created certain areas into what I call “rabbitat.” For this, I enjoy having a group of hunters involved and performing what I call an old-fashioned rabbit drive with standers placed at funnels (aka “pinch-points”) in the heavy cover, and having drivers moving the rabbits to the standers.

This can entail only hunters performing the driving part, or in my case, I turn out my entire kennel, including hounds, bird dogs and even a yappy little rat terrier! Dogs, no matter the breed, definitely increase the odds in rousting rabbits out of their hiding spots, and performing a well-planned rabbit drive remains the most productive rabbit hunting technique I have ever experienced.

Of course, the most popular rabbit hunting technique is using beagles, a dog breed which is synonymous with rabbit hunting. The versatile beagle breed was developed  primarily with rabbit hunting in mind, and listening to the eager and happy chorus of a pack of beagles singing away on a fresh scent during a cold and frosty winter’s day is a very unique and memorable moment like no other.

Cottontail rabbits have a set range which they are hesitant to leave, and typically circle around after being jumped by beagles (snowshoe hares do the same thing, but have a tad bigger range). I’ve seen hunters new to the game actually start chasing the beagles, which can be none too effective. The key, once a rabbit has been jumped by the eager and happy hounds, is for the hunter to pick a spot, hopefully offering some decent shooting angles, and wait for the rabbit to instinctively circle back. 

The baying of the beagles turning back will give a clue when this is happening, and sometimes the rabbit can be well ahead of the dogs. I have actually witnessed rabbits, that were being pursued, casually stop to take a breather, then stand up on their hind legs to assess the situation before continuing on. It also pays to keep an eye out for other rabbits, which are not being chased, to suddenly appear while they are in the process of relocating to get away from the chase scene.

Because of the usually moving targets in heavy cover, I prefer a shotgun for both rabbit drives and while using beagles. For me, this entails small-bores, and my favorites are .410 (using number 4 birdshot) and 28-gauge (using number 4, 5 or 6 birdshot). My favorite all-around “rabbit gun” is a 28-gauge Remington Express 870 pump with a fixed modified choke (it is also my favorite “pheasant gun”). Although rabbits are thin-skinned and fine-boned, they can be surprisingly tenacious, and I don’t like using birdshot finer than number 6.

A couple years ago, I discovered some very unique 28-gauge (made in the USA) Saga ammunition at Randy’s Hunting Center in Bad Axe, which features a light, half-ounce load of number 4 (lead) birdshot in a 2 ½ inch shell. After patterning it with my Remington 870, I went back and purchased several more boxes to have on hand.

Although I don’t use this load on pheasants, I believe it provides a very effective and short shotstring for head shots (my main focus point) on rabbits (and squirrels, too) without excessively “peppering” matters with birdshot. It works for me, anyway.

The cottontail rabbit offers excellent, fat-free table fare in a wide variety of delicious recipes (hasenpfeffer is a family favorite) and can be used in something as simple as “rabbit noodle soup.” I know rabbits offer a wintertime flavor my whole family enjoys.
No matter what technique is used, I look forward to, and thoroughly enjoy, my wintertime rabbit hunting adventures in Michigan.

Email freelance outdoors writer Tom Lounsbury at