Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Seeking cottontails in the late season

While hunting with hounds is generally done in the early fall, hunting in the late season – cottontail rabbit season is open until Feb. 27 – is just as much fun. (Photo by Ron Steffe)

There were times the dogs were not seen, but they sure could be heard.

The sound of beagles on the hot trail of a rabbit is the sweet sound every beagle owner loves to hear. It’s part of the hunt that builds anticipation and excitement regardless of the outcome.

While hunting with hounds is generally done in the early fall, hunting in the late season is just as much fun, and maybe it offers even more. Check your state regulations to determine how long into the winter your rabbit season goes.

Some hunters feel that small-game hunting isn’t what it once was. That may be true to an extent. Yet, those who actively participate in this style of hunting contend otherwise.

The late season provides some great hunting, but you’d best know what you’re doing during the winter months.

Rabbit hunting is far from being a lost art, or for that matter nonexistent. Fact is, the rabbits are out there, but what it takes is a dog and time spent in the field.

When there is snow on the ground, the habitat is compressed. Areas that were productive during the fall may have lost their luster during the winter months. That’s when a shift to more suitable habitat needs to be considered.

In the late season, key areas of rabbit habitat hunters find productive are within groves of pines where there is ground cover. Honeysuckle thickets, edges of clear cuts or patches of briar cane provide good starting points. Just look for an area that is the thickest, nastiest cover around.

Additional areas to locate rabbits are along the edges of recent clear cuts. Here the crowns of cut timber that have been left behind offers some great hunting, because many of the treetops that remain are placed in piles to protect regenerating seedlings from browsing by deer.

Some say small-game hunting just ain’t what it used to be … Don’t tell that to these guys. (Photo by Ron Steffe)

Those brush piles offer great cover for rabbits.

When hunting in the late season, ideal snow conditions should be 6 inches of snow cover or less. The type of snow on the ground is another consideration. Wet snow allows the scent of the rabbit to remain on the ground.

When there is a crust on the snow, the scent tends to dissipate and leaves little for the dog’s nose to pick up. But there are additional snow conditions to be considered.

When hunting rabbits in the late season, keep bankers’ hours. Traditionally, hunters like to be out at first light and hunt all day. And that’s okay during the early season, but the opposite is true during winter. Here’s why.

In the late season, daytime temperatures are generally cold. Under these conditions, dogs have a difficult time picking up the scent of a track left behind. Besides, the rabbits are not generally out during the coldest times of the day.

For the most part, the best time to hunt rabbits in the late season is from about 2 p.m. until dusk. It will generally warm up during this time and the rabbits are often on the move and feeding.

With warmer temperatures, the snow cover is often soft and moist and will hold the scent for dogs to pick up. However, in the morning when temperatures are lower, the dogs tend to cold trail more often.

Another consideration is overall weather conditions. If there are several days of consistent weather, the rabbits usually get into a pattern.

When temperatures are extremely cold one day then warm the next, gauging the best times to hunt can be difficult to predict when the rabbits will be out feeding.

If weather patterns are as hard to predict as they are in the winter season, hunt whenever you can.

After all, you never know when you’ll have an exceptional day, especially if you’re hunting with a good dog.

Across the north-central region timber is being removed on a consistent basis on state game lands and state forest lands. These areas will provide a good starting point for a late-season hunt.

One sure way to locate some great rabbit habitat can be obtained at any of the various state forest offices or by checking with the folks at the Allegheny National Forest offices.

The folks there will be glad to point out areas where recent timber harvests have been conducted and where regenerating habitat can be found.

In the the “late” rabbit season, there is a daily limit of four. And a possession limit of 12. Cottontails can be found across the entire Keystone State.

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