Rabbits over reindeer on Christmas Eve
Here's the story of my first ever wild game harvest.
By Channing Howard
Wildlife Recreation Program Specialist
I do not consider myself to be a traditional hunter. I'm still the only one in my family to ever hunt, and I learned to shoot a gun in my first job out of undergrad as a wildlife technician.
Since then, I have used firearms to euthanize a variety of species including deer, wild pig, elk, waterfowl, badger and ground squirrels — all part of my job duties over the course of my career as a wildlife biologist, and not in the least like actual hunting. I have tried my hand at hunting big game, but refer to those times as "walking in the woods with a gun" as I had yet to harvest a single animal on a hunt. But this year was going to be different.
I felt relief and accomplishment at the same time. I was thrilled that I could be a successful hunter and bring home game meat to my family.
I've been interested in the idea of rabbit hunting for a few years. They (and their signs) are visible on hikes along rivers and in recent years, rabbit populations reached a high as their 10-year cycle peaked and have just started to decline. While they can run extremely fast, the terrain they live in is accessible and easy to navigate. So I decided this would be the year. Over the Christmas holiday, I packed my .22 rifle and set out to try my hand at hunting cottontails.
My partner, John, our friend Travis, and I piled into the truck and drove out to the cottonwood and willow-lined river bottoms early in the morning. It had snowed the day before and we could see rabbit, fox and coyote tracks crisscrossing among the willows. We spread out in a line and walked parallel to the river, looking under every bush along the way. After what seemed like an hour, John spotted the first rabbit, took aim and added the first cottontail to his bag. We spent a few more hours that morning hiking around, following rabbit highways that zigged and zagged through the sagebrush. Travis and I came up empty handed while John totaled two.
Although I felt a little discouraged not having even seen a rabbit, I was thrilled to learn how to field dress them. I had learned to field dress white-tailed deer in undergrad, years before I ever hunted, and field dressing game is one of my not-so-secret favorite things about a hunt. The hide was easily removed, revealing the light pink meat. I was able to inspect the internal organs to evaluate the overall health of the rabbits. While Travis and I were bummed-out that we didn't get a chance to harvest our own rabbit, we still had a great day out with friends.
The next morning was Christmas Eve, and John and I packed up to try another spot along the river. It had snowed again, and didn't completely stop until we had pulled into our hunting area so we knew any tracks were going to be fresh. Right away we spotted the first rabbit. I pulled out my .22 and took aim, hoping it wouldn't scare off.
Success! I finally harvested my first game animal! It was thrilling and I felt a sigh of both relief and accomplishment that I could be a successful hunter and bring home game meat to my family.
We continued to hike around the area first in one direction, but without much sign of rabbits, turned around and headed the opposite direction along the river. Using my knowledge of rabbit biology, we looked for fresh tracks which would indicate they were nearby. I came across a fresh set of tracks and followed them for 100 yards or so until they entered the hollowed out bottom of a dead cottonwood tree. The hollow smelled like rabbits and upon peaking inside, I could see droppings and hair. Somehow the rabbit had slipped inside and disappeared. Picking up a new set of tracks, I quickly jumped another rabbit. It ran a short distance, stopped, and hunkered down in a small depression. I took my shot and it dove into the entrance of the hole in which it was sitting. I ran over, and not to be outsmarted, thrust my arm down the hole until I felt something furry. It was a clean shot and in saving my catch, I added a second cottontail to my bag.
We finished up the second day by chasing a few rabbits in circles (their predator escape strategy) and lost another one to the hollowed out cottonwood tree. The hiking and biking app on my phone recorded our hike as a distance of three miles! We ended up with a total of six rabbits and enough meat to make a few dishes I've been wanting test out; French rabbit stew sounds decadent.
For me, rabbit hunting was a breath of fresh air (literally — I'd been sick that week but forgot all about my sniffles while outside) compared with deer or elk hunting. I felt less pressure, both from a harvest and time standpoint. And I am comfortable with my .22 and really enjoy using that type of firearm. Even though the rabbit population has been on the down cycle and they are less abundant than a few years ago, we were still able to find and harvest a few, which boosted my confidence. It was the type of hunt I wish for any beginner adult who has dabbled with the idea of harvesting their first wild game. No need for expensive equipment, clothing (I wore a bright blue jacket), or specially trained dog, and the season is six months long. I'm already planning my next rabbit hunt and may even try to find snowshoe hares up in the mountains.