Back to Home Page

Desert Cottontail Rabbit Hunting Tips
Hunting Cottontails Using a High Powered Pellet Rifle and Without Dogs

An experienced hunter once told me that "hunting rabbits is like fishing. You have to go when they're biting." He then signed to me in native language about the rabbit's big eyes and large pupils and then related the large pupils to the moon. I spent a winter figuring out what he was talking about and how to reliably hunt rabbits. It took a lot of learning before I was able to outsmart the buggers and I found out that there is a lot to know about rabbits if you want to hunt them successfully. So I decided to share what took me a full winter to learn as an apprentice hunter..

Desert Cottontail in typical camouflage hide. This rabbit need not worry, however, since it is protected within Arches National Park, Utah. Hunting within National Parks, State Parks, National Monuments, etc. is prohibited.

Desert Cottontail Bunny Rabbit
Desert Cottontail Rabbit near the bank of the Green River, Utah
Balanced Rock Full Moon

Watch the Moon Phases

Like fishing, there are only a few days of each month when the hunting of rabbits is really good. Oh sure, I know the argument that anytime you can get out and go hunting is a good day to hunt but if you want to put food in your belly every time you hunt then there's stuff you need to know. The phase of the moon is the most important factor in determining if rabbits will be out of their burrows or not. Rabbits will use the moonlight very carefully to their advantage.

Though technically classified as crepuscular meaning they come out for feeding at twilight and dusk, this doesn't adequately describe the rabbit from a hunter's perspective. During fuller moon nights, they will switch into more of a nocturnal pattern. The rabbit's eyes are superior to most of their predators, especially when it comes to nightvision. Using their large pupils, the brighter moonlight is enough for them to see well. Because of this ability to feed at night, it becomes safer for them to leave the burrow under the full moon than it is when the regular predators are out at twilight and dusk. They don't need to risk coming out in the twilight hours and therefore they rarely will, if ever. You won't likely find rabbits out of their burrows on or near a full moon night. When the moon is waning off from a full moon to a new moon, and the nighttime light is no longer enough for nighttime grazing, they will eat their pellets that they have been storing up in and around their living areas. Rabbits eat their food, save their droppings, and eat it again so that they can process all of the stuff properly. They need to do this in fact for better health. That's why you always find rabbit pellets right in their living space. A waning moon is again, not a good time to find a rabbit out of its burrow. Just a few days before the new moon, and especially a few days after a new moon, this is the time to be hunting rabbits. This is when the rabbits have no choice but to venture out into twilight hours. The weather also has something to do with it, but mostly it's the moon. Watch the rabbits in your hunting area on full moon days and you will see that they aren't out as much if at all. Check at night on a full moon and you'll find them out. Check their pellets near their burrows and watch them slowly disappear by the day. They'll eat them up and hide out until they are good and hungry. It will most likely coincide with the lunar phases, and they'll probably run out of pellets to eat about 5 days before the new moon. A good rule of thumb when you don't know exactly what phase the moon is in is that if the moon is less than half showing, it's rabbit time. They should be out. If the moon is more than half full, you might as well do something else because the rabbits won't be there. After the new moon by a few days seems to be the very best time to hunt rabbits, and a few days before a storm will make them all the more likely to be out of their hiding places. The Native Americans knew this and spoke of the moon's post-new crescent shape as catching the luck, meaning it was a good time to hunt.


Where Desert Cottontails Dwell

The Desert Cottontail likes to hide underneath big rocks and seems to be found at elevations above 4000' but below about 6500' in the deserts around southeastern Utah. They're most often found down in the washes and small drainages. Look for their tracks and their scat around big boulders and along the sides of washes. They like south facing slopes more often than north facing because they like to absorb the sun's heat. You'll find them around blackbrush, rabbit brush, and during twilight hours. They will come out very early in the morning and late in the evening. They rarely come out during midday.

Cottontail Bunny Burrow and Droppings

Cottontails hide in places where they are absolutely safe. They like to hide under boulders where they can get through places their larger predators cannot. Often they'll use other animals' burrows that have been abandoned. The surest sign there are rabbits around is their pellets. Look for their droppings under rocks and near their favorite eating places. They will eat their own droppings in times when it's too risky to go out, like during the daytime, during wet storms, etc. They need to eat their food twice to properly digest it but they'll time it just right so that they don't make themselves vulnerable. Over time you can develop the ability to recognize their paths throughout the desert sagebrush and to distinguish the small game paths from the big game paths. To do this, look for tunnels between two sagebrush that grow close together for example, or a well worn path near a burrow.

All of the animals have an interconnected highway system throughout the desert. Staying on this networked trail system not only helps you hunt better, but helps you stay safe. Yes, safe. I recommend always walking in washes or on exisiting animal trails because the animals know where to go better than you or I do. They won't step where rattlesnakes or black widows for example, are likely to be. They will take the best and sometimes only route to a place, and they all use the same trail system to some extent. You should too. You'll protect the cryptobiotic soil this way and encourage the desert to maintain its natural habitat in all respects. By walking in washes, on slickrock, and on the animal highway system you are hunting in tune with the world.

Desert Cottontail Bunny Rabbit Hunting Grounds
Cottontail Rabbit Tracks
Rabbit tracks in fresh morning snow.
Cottontail Bunny Tracks

Stalking Your Prey

The American Indian medicine of the rabbit is fear and caution. They assign these traits to the rabbit because it describes the rabbit's character. I figured out real fast that the rabbit is an elusive, cautious, and clever creature. They venture out only when absolutely necessary and at only the safest of times. They're incredibly adept at and their lives depend upon them being smarter than their predators. You have to outsmart them if you want to have success. They have a lot of predators. They're always scanning for coyotes, foxes, and bobcats on the ground but at the same time they have to watch the skies for the birds of prey such as ravens, hawks, and eagles. Their big ears can hear you from a long ways away.

Wearing clothing which doesn't make a lot of noise is a good idea.
Camouflage too. You need to walk very quietly and steadily and you should stay downwind from where you intend to hunt. Walking into the wind is a good idea if it suits your terrain. Rabbits have all five senses heightened and are very clever.

Some people say that sitting and waiting works for them. For me it has proven a sunset watching experience only. I have, by far, the best luck when stalking them. I like to walk along the animal paths but while walking I am constantly scanning the brush for movement. I barely even glance down to see where I am walking. Rabbits know that predators have to see where they are going so they will usually always wait for you to start moving to bounce. They like, in particular, to let you stop, then just as you start your walking again, they know your natural focus is on the path in front of you. It's right when you start walking and look down that they bounce, and why most people never see them. You have to train yourself to scan for movement as you start walking. If you're lucky, you'll see them bounce off one time. Then they will stop. This is your best chance right here to get the little bugger. Scare him up, then stop and load while he bounces. He will stop not too far away and be ready for the chase if need be. They'll usually only pause for a few seconds after the first bounce but they're not too far away at this point. He's waiting to see if you are something to fear or not and he assumes you didn't see him or where he bounced to. Blast him right here. Nice and cleanly, right through the brain.

If you're not in practice, probably you won't get your rabbit after the first bounce. In cases like this you will need to stalk the little bugger. Wait for the rabbit to calm down then act like you don't care about the rabbit at all. Slowly walk casually, not directly toward the rabbit. If you can find a rock or something to hide behind as you approach, use it and make your approach after the rabbit has decided that you're not too interested. Sneak and walk quietly and steadily so that you don't frighten the little bugger. Use a hillside, a rock, a wash, or whatever you can to sneak in. You might have to sneak and stalk several times before you get a clean shot but these are the most satisfying kills in my opinion. If you lose sight of a rabbit you're stalking, note that they will very often circle back to the place where you first saw it. So you can go track and stalk another spot, then come back and you're likely to find your rabbit right back where you saw it the first time.

Hunting Tools

I like using an air rifle best because they're quiet and do the job well. I've tried using both the .22 caliber Crosman Quest 800x and the .177 caliber Crosman Quest 1000x. The (x) means it comes with a matching scope and I do think the scope is extremely useful because it allows you to take shots you otherwise could not. Either caliber will do the job but I definitely prefer the .177 caliber model. My reasons are that the .22 caliber rifle is less accurate. With the .22 caliber air rifle, it's harder to get close enough for an accurate shot whereas the .177 caliber high powered air rifle has just enough velocity for the distance you can typically get from a rabbit. It's a difference of 200 feet per second, but I find myself always using that extra 200 fps because it seems that in the distance between the two is just enough distance that a rabbit will flee. So by the time you get close enough with a 800 fps .22 caliber rifle for a clean accurate shot, your rabbit has hopped out of your sites and into safety. With the .177 caliber, 1000 fps air rifle, you can have accuracy at a distance at which the rabbit will not flee and you also have a long, accurate barrel for a nice clean shot. The Crosman Quest 1000x with the Scope is the perfect rabbit rifle in my opinion. The more expensive ones are probably great and maybe better but I am making the recommendation for people who want quality and low cost. It's the perfect everyman's high powered air rifle in my opinion and does everything you need it to.

To make a painless and ethical kill using a pellet rifle requires that you are able to shoot the rabbit right through its brain. So before you try to shoot anything, make certain that your scope or ironsites are sighted in. Use a target the distance you think you can get from a rabbit, and when you can hit a rabbit head sized target pretty much every time, you're ready. I met a guy once who was a marksman, saw a rabbit and shot it not realizing that the rifle he was using was sighted in special for someone's shooting style. He hit the rabbit in the back and the poor thing whimpered and hopped around in pain. Just putting it out of its misery was difficult to do and the guy never hunted again after seeing this. So make sure you are able to make a clean kill.

Gloves and Knife for Field Dressing Cottontail Rabbits
Gloves protect from possible tularemia. You never know what's inside until you look.

Dead Cottontail Rabbit

Headshot to Cottontail Rabbit

Making a Clean Kill

Make the rabbit a promise. Promise it that you won't take it's life in vain. Tell it with your eyes through the scope that you're going to eat him and use his skin to keep yourself warm and breathe calmly as you get his eyeball in your scope. Your steadiest shots will be while exhaling. Don't hold your breath and don't close your eye when you shoot. If you don't have a clean shot, wait until you do. Make sure you have a second shot ready if you need it, as in, in case you wound the poor little thing and have to take another shot. Then blast it right through the brain. Aiming for the eyeball is a good idea as the eyeball is directly connected to the brain.

Collect your kill using rubber gloves and being very careful not to touch the meat and skin until you know it's not got parasites to worry about. If it does, bury it as fast as you can or make sure ravens get to it before any other animal does, as tularemia spreads to other critters.

Harvesting Rabbit Meat and Fur

To field dress your rabbit, I like to start by cutting the head off and getting it out of sight. Then cut from each of the back legs just through the skin. Split the skin up the belly to where you cut the head off. I like to peel and cut the skin off at this point in case of parasites. So peel and cut where needed. You won't be able to get the skin off the back feet, so cut them off. bones and all. Then cut through the layer that protects the internal organs. Carefully. Pull the guts out like you would a fish, being careful not to puncture the stuff, especially around the digestive tract. Now you've got a rabbit you can put into a bag and a skin you can put into another.

Tularemia a. k. a. Rabbit Fever

Tularemia can be deadly to humans. Find out about it before you do any rabbit hunting. Months with the letter r in them are the only months you should consider hunting rabbits in. The idea is to wait until a good solid freeze so that it kills all the fleas and parasites off the rabbits. Hunting too early or too late is a little dangerous. In southern Utah, for example, It's sketchy after February's new moon hunt. Look for parasites and if you find any infestations you're better off not chancing it. The same goes for the skins. Wearing rubber gloves is very, very important because you never know until you're gutting it if it could be infected. Rabbits might rub themselves on the ground if they have it in efforts to try and soothe the infested area. They might be seen flopping like they're just not right and if you see obvious signs, avoid them. Skin the rabbit first before gutting it because you might find an infestation under it's butt. It seems that ticks or fleas commonly enter here because they're usually sitting on their butts. So skin it first and you might save yourself some trouble. Look for white parasitical infections inside and if you find any, bury it and the skin both. Other critters can become infected so don't let them get to it. Ravens, Vultures, and Crows are about the only thing you should let eat infected rabbits because they can handle it. Cooking meat very thoroughly will also help you avoid tularemia. Treat it like chicken and cook it thoroughly. Wearing gloves while you prepare the meat is not a bad idea either since tularemia can spread through small cuts in your skin from fresh meat. So take care and use your knowledge to avoid problems.

Assuming your rabbit is free from tularemic infection, you'll want to first wash and soak your rabbit in salty water. Then hang your rabbit upside down in cool temperatures for about 8 hours to let it bleed out. After this it's ready to cook thoroughly. I like to roast them in a roaster with some onion, red pepper, and basted in butter or ham fat. It's best to add some fat to the meat. This is because rabbit meat is so lean that humans cannot fully process it without additional fat. In fact, if you ate nothing but rabbit meat you would starve because you simply need more fat to break down the meat. So keep this in mind when deciding how best to cook rabbit. What does it taste like? Do you have to ask? It's white meat. It tastes like chicken, of course.

Parasites had infested the innards of this one. The ravens enjoyed a quick meal before it got cold.

Drying Rabbit Skins the Native American Way

For drying the skin the Indian way, you need some (preferably oak) bark or a bark rich in tannin. Make a tea out of the bark. I like to add juniper berries to the mix and let the skin soak in the tea for 5-10 days in cold temperatures. Then take it out and smoke it over a smoky fire. Keep your fire smoky by smothering it with bark and the like. I like to add a good lid for holding the smoke in better and use smoky, fragrant woods like juniper and pine sap. Use bark and things high in tannin and slower is better. You can rub a little fat into the skin as it dries if you want to help it collect more smoke and make it softer.
Indian Tanning Rabbit Skins
Rabbit skins drying over a smoky fire. Tripod and looped willow make for a fine drying rack.

Back to Home Page