Winter is great for hunting cottontails
If you’re just getting into hunting — or you’re an experienced hunter who’s ready for a hunt that’s not too strenuous — hunting cottontail rabbits is the perfect choice. Cottontails are found across Utah. The terrain in which they live is fairly easy to hunt. And when you find a pocket of rabbits, you should be in for a good shoot.
“Cottontails are fun to hunt,” says Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources. “And you don’t need a lot of equipment to hunt them.”
Robinson says rabbits typically live in two places in Utah — areas that have brushy, dry washes with lots of tall sagebrush or rabbit brush in them, and areas that have lots of rocks and rocky outcroppings.
“Cottontails usually hide under rocks or brush,” Robinson says. “Sometimes, they’ll even hide in burrows. Draws that have tall sagebrush or rabbit brush in them also have loose, deep soil that the rabbits can often find burrows in. Rabbits will also hide under large rocks, or they’ll hide in the crevice of a rock.”
Unlike jackrabbits, which can elude predators by outrunning them, cottontails need the help of broken terrain to stay hidden. That’s why you’ll usually find cottontails in hilly areas rather than on flatlands.
Robinson says early morning and late afternoon are the best times to hunt cottontails. “That’s usually when the rabbits feed,” he says. “In order to feed, rabbits move away from their burrows and into areas where it’s easier for you to see and pursue them.”
Between their feeding times, you’ll usually find rabbits resting and sunning themselves near or under brush that isn’t far from a good hiding spot. If they’re using a rock to hide under, they’ll often sun themselves on a flat piece of rock.
One of the best ways to hunt cottontails is to space the hunters you’re with several yards apart and then walk in a straight line through the area you’re hunting.
Cottontail rabbits have excellent hearing, so make sure you move slowly and quietly. As you walk, pay close attention to areas where rabbits might be feeding or resting, such as near sagebrush plants or rocky outcroppings.
Robinson encourages you to wear hunter orange. “Orange won’t scare the rabbits away,” he says, “and wearing hunter orange makes it easier for other hunters to see you.”
Rifles or shotguns
Small-caliber rifles, such as the popular .22 and the newer .17, are excellent firearms to hunt rabbits with.
Shotguns are also a good choice. Use shot shells loaded with No. 6 lead shot.
“Rifles are best if you plan on stalking rabbits and then shooting them before they move,” Robinson says. “If most of the rabbits you see will be flushing and running away from you, shotguns are a better choice.”
In addition to a small-caliber rifle or a shotgun, you’ll need the following to hunt rabbits in the winter:
Warm clothes. Wear your clothes in layers so you can remove clothes as the day warms up.
A backpack that includes extra shells or cartridges, drinking water and high-energy snacks.
Cottontails in Utah
Biologists aren’t sure why it occurs, but cottontail rabbits across the country experience a 10-year population cycle. After bottoming out, the number of cottontails will climb slowly for about five years. Once the population peaks in number, it will usually stay close to the peak for about three years. Then, numbers will abruptly fall for a couple of years until the population bottoms out and numbers start to climb again.
Based on surveys DWR biologists conducted this past summer, it looks like Utah’s rabbit population is likely in the last year of its population peak. “It looks like rabbit numbers have dropped a bit from last year,” Robinson says, “but not much. Hunter success — in parts of Utah — should be well above average through the rest of the season.”
Duchesne and Uinta counties in northeastern Utah hold the highest numbers of rabbits. Counties in southeastern, south-central and southwestern Utah hold the next highest numbers. “This season,” he says, “counties in northern and central Utah have the lowest number of rabbits.”
As you’re deciding which area to hunt, you might want to choose an area you can visit frequently. “Rabbits aren’t everywhere,” Robinson says. “If you choose an area that you can visit often, you’ll learn which parts of the area hold rabbits.”