Brainerd, minn. – Cottontail rabbit hunting in Minnesota seems somewhat overlooked, and yet they are among the more popular game animals in the nation.
Why is a bit of a mystery. Maybe because we have so many winter options, including ice fishing. (Or do we? Not yet, at least in most of the state.) Nevertheless, cottontails inhabit all but the state’s northernmost counties.
I first hunted cottontails along the Mississippi River just a short walk from my childhood home in Brainerd. Back then, my friends and I used cheap fiberglass bows and wooden arrows. I remember my dad would be amazed on the rare occasion we actually brought home supper.
Cottontail rabbits are highly prolific, often producing several litters per summer of up to six young at a time. Females dig shallow depressions in the ground for their litters. They line the nest with fur from their bellies and with grass. Cottontails are born naked, and do not turn white during winter, unlike hares (snowshoe hares and jack rabbits). The young rabbits grow quickly and are on their own in about three weeks.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conducts roadside wildlife counts each August. This year more than seven rabbits were counted per 100 miles. That is 34 percent above the 10-year average and 18 percent above the long-term average.
Cottontail rabbits best thrive in farm country, so it’s not surprising the counts were the highest in east-central, south-central and southeast regions of the state. An extremely mild 2015-2016 winter likely contributed to counts that, on average, were higher than the long-term counts.
Still, biologists say about 80 percent of cottontail rabbits die each year due mainly to predation and inclement weather. The predator list is long: fox, bobcat, fishers, mink, weasel, coyote, hawk, owl and wolves. There are us hunters, too.
So, how does a hunter find a winter cottontail?
Cottontail rabbits are usually found living close to humans. They frequently thrive in our backyards. Hunters in farm country should check out brushy draws, wooded creek or river bottoms, rock piles, old farmsteads and shelter belts, especially if these areas are next to farm crops such as standing corn or crop residue. Cottontails get hungry. When deep snow covers the ground, cottontails tend to gather near whatever cover is available.
Look for rabbits to sit in the sun near a brush pile or underground den, particularly late in the day on a relatively warm and sunny winter day.
A hunter in search of cottontails sunning themselves is smart to bear a rifle because the rabbits spook easily and simply dash out of sight. A small caliber rimfire rifle is all that is needed. I like to hunt with a .17 caliber rimfire bolt-action rifle outfitted with a scope. A scope allows me to pick out openings in the brush. I shoot only for the head to preserve their tasty meat.
A hunter carrying a shotgun can jump them and bag them as they scurry to safety. Kick every brush pile or clump of grass and watch for telltale rabbit sign including tracks, trails, droppings and brush or small saplings stripped of their lower bark by hungry rabbits.
How does one prepare cottontails for the table?
I’ve tried a variety of recipes. I’ve even made jerky from rabbit meat. The tried-and-true Crock-Pot method using barbecue sauce is easy and tasty. Consult a wild game cookbook or the internet for a recipe that sounds like a flavorful dish.
The Minnesota cottontail rabbit season is open now and runs through Feb. 28. The limit is 10 daily and 20 in possession. Hunting hours are from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.