Treetop cottontails

Early indications are that we’re in for a normal winter here in
the Midwest this year. That means plenty of snow and cold. While
there will be time for ice fishing and plenty of coyote calling,
one of my first missions will be getting a mess of cottontail
rabbits for our youngest daughter, Miss Kate.

Out of all the wild game on which we routinely dine at our
family table, Katie prefers cottontail over all the others. Old Dad
just happens to be particularly fond of pan-fried cottontail
himself, so one of these days, after we have a fresh snow, I’ll
take the little .22 or maybe the 20 gauge and slip out and see
about bagging three or four rabbits.

There was a time when you could, if you wished, find that many
rabbits just by road hunting, but those days are long gone. Most
road ditches now can barely support field mice. Farm groves used to
be a favorite of mine for rabbit hunting, but the groves of my
youth which were a rabbit heaven of fallen trees, briar patches and
discarded machinery have been grubbed out or at best manicured to
resemble a city park more than the farm groves I remember. Ditto
for those brushy fencelines running across the back 40.

But as always, if you want something bad enough, you will find a
way to make it happen and since Katie is persistent about me
bringing home some rabbits, I’ve discovered that the best places to
find them these days are in those woodlots that have been logged
any time in the past 20 years or so.

Loggers routinely go into the woods and take the mature hardwood
logs and skid them out to trucks to be hauled to the mills.

What they leave behind are the tops that are not suitable for
lumber. They’d make some great firewood, but no one bothers with
that chore, so the tops are left behind for some ideal habitat for
cottontail rabbits. As the years go by and the tops become infested
with briars and new shoots begin to poke through the fallen tops,
the tops become even better homes for cottontail rabbits. Since
nearly every patch of hardwoods in the state has been logged in the
past 20 years, these places are not hard to find and it’s rare that
I get turned down when requesting permission to hunt rabbits.

Like I said earlier, sometimes I use a .22 rifle and other times
I opt for my 20 gauge and No. 6 shot. Which I use depends on the
conditions and whether I’m hunting alone or with a friend or two.
If we have had a good snowfall and then get a nice, sun-drenched
day, rabbits will be sitting on snowbanks or huddled on the edge of
the fallen treetops they call home, sunning themselves. This is
when I like to hunt solo, slipping along quietly, the little .22
cradled in my arm, looking for the dark form of a cottontail
against the backdrop of white.

If you learn to look for the black eye, it’s amazing how many
times your eye will automatically key in on the rabbit’s eye. When
I spot a rabbit I take a good rest and shoot them in the head.
Death is quick and no meat is ruined. Katie likes that.

But if I figure the rabbits are probably holding in their
tangled treetops and I’m going to have to shake them loose, I go
with the shotgun.

There was a time when I did enough shooting with the .22 that I
was pretty good on running rabbits, but no more. I walk from top to
top, kicking and poking and sometimes jumping up and down on the
bigger branches. A cottontail can be tough to dislodge at times.
The shooting is usually quick as the rabbit scampers from one top
to another. A light shotgun with an improved or modified choke and
No. 6 shot is the ticket.

Rabbits are easy to clean. I use a game shears to cut off the
feet and then snip the hide in the middle of the back. Pull the
hide in both directions and it will peel right off while leaving
very little hair on the meat. Then I use the shears to cut through
the belly skin and remove the entrails. Again using the shears, I
cut the rabbit into six pieces, two hind legs, two front legs, the
back (my favorite piece) and the rib cage. Wash the pieces to
remove blood or hair and they’re ready to cook or freeze.

Speaking of cooking, many people prepare rabbit just as they do
chicken. I like it either fried or baked. Katie prefers it in the
crockpot. I brown the pieces in a frying pan after seasoning, put
two cans of cream of mushroom or one can each of cream of mushroom
and cream of chicken soup into the crockpot and add the rabbit and
drippings from the frying pan. Cook it slowly all day. Easy and
delicious.

Just writing that recipe has me eyeing the old .22 propped in
the corner of my office. I just happen to know of a woodlot
littered with the tops of logged-off oaks just a few miles away.
I’ll be a hero when Katie comes home from school!

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