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Father & Daughter show off their rabbit harvest

Frank and Amber Spuchesi show off their rabbit.

Effective Rabbit Hunting

Story and photos by Mark Fike

Rabbit hunting is a great way to introduce new hunters, young and old, to our outdoor tradition. It’s truly a treat to hear the baying of pack of hounds and experience the chase of the long-eared, brown blurs while hanging out with friends.

Cut the dogs loose

There are two approaches to putting cottontail rabbits in the game pouch. The most common method is to hunt with a small group of friends and use a pack of hounds.

Most avid rabbit hunters use beagles, and a number of them use the shorter-legged beagles because they can slip through thick brush and briars to roust the rabbits from cover.

Finding a good beagle is important to your success in the field. Frank Spuchesi is one of Virginia’s K-9 CPOs and an avid rabbit hunter.

“If you are buying an adult dog, buy it from someone you know is reputable. Maybe it is a fellow rabbit hunter or someone recommended to you by one of your buddies. You don’t want to end up with someone else’s problem dog,” Spuchesi said. “Ask to see the dog run by itself. If you already own dogs, it is important the new dog will work well with your pack.”

When choosing a pup, Spuchesi, who has bred and raised his own dogs, says pedigree is important. However, he has also owned several dogs that did not come from strong bloodlines. Look for dogs with a field champion background. If the parents are available, ask to watch them run. A good pup will cost anywhere from $50-$300, while a trained adult dog will range from $400-$1,000.

Don’t forget the cost of keeping the dogs. Hunters need to be ready for vet bills, particularly unexpected bills like when a dog gets cut open from running through barbed wire and briar patches. Consider preventatives such as worm and heartworm medications too. Kennels, dog boxes and food are other costs.

Training a rabbit dog is easier if you already have dogs to accompany the new pup. They pick up the lead of the other dogs and soon fall into the hunt. Young pups can be trained with a captive rabbit or by taking them into a rabbit-rich area. Most states allow off-season training or chasing as long as the dog owner does not have a gun. In fact, it is advisable to make sure your dogs run all year long to keep them in shape and at the top of their game.

Beagles sniff out rabbit

Pedigree is important when choosing a beagle.

Once hunting season comes around, get your friends together, put on plenty of blaze orange and cut the dogs loose. Again, for newer dogs, be sure to take them to rabbit-rich areas so they catch on quicker. It is no different than taking a friend new to hunting out in the field. Set them up for success.

Rabbit-rich areas

Cutovers, slightly overgrown fields, hedgerows and thickets are all great spots to rabbit hunt. Old home sites and farms are typically productive areas.

Once the dogs jump a rabbit, they will sound off and the chase is on. New rabbit hunters may look for the rabbit to be right in front of the dogs. However, most rabbits will be 100 hundred yards or more in front of the dogs.

Rabbits eventually will lead the pack in a circle back to the jumping point. Hunters can position themselves in front of where the dogs are running and find higher ground where there are several clear avenues for safe shooting. Ditch lines, hedgerows and borders between fields are all favored escape and travel routes of Mr. Cottontail. The rabbits often sit tight in small patches of cover and burst to the next cover in a streak, which makes for challenging, fun shooting. Sharp eyes, quick wits and good form bring home the meat.

No dog?

If you are dogless, rabbit hunting is still a fun endeavor. Wear briar-proof pants or chaps and hit the same areas the dog hunters hunt. Stalk along looking for rabbits. Having a partner on the other side of fencerows, hedges, briar patches will help kick up rabbits. Take turns tossing sticks or rocks or stomping on cover as you move through a property.

Other gear

Other than a hunting license, hunters need a shotgun, blaze orange, briar pants, gloves and a game vest. Shotgun choice is personal. However, a 20-gauge is plenty. Some hunters in heavy cover resort to a 12- or 16-gauge shotguns. Any shot size from No. 7½ to No. 5 is fine.

Safety first

Rabbit hunting with friends is great fun and will remain so as long as everyone practices good safety. Everyone should wear blaze orange. Don’t rely on just a cap. A blaze orange vest is a good idea. Visibility and knowing where everyone is located is extremely important when rabbit hunting. Never shoot unless you see the rabbit clearly and you know everyone’s location.

When hunting with dogs, don’t shoot if the rabbit is close to them. Remember, a shotgun has a pattern that spreads rapidly. Dogs are often outfitted with blaze orange collars, but still be sure of what you are shooting at. A dog rustling around in the brush can sound very much like a rabbit.

Use surgical gloves when cleaning rabbits to prevent exposure to rabbit fever, or tularemia. Wash your game thoroughly, then your hands, and cook the rabbit well to kill any disease.