Cottontails in the Winter


A snowy day in January limits the possibilities for West Virginia sportsmen, but for many it’s an opportunity to get back to their roots and take in a little rabbit hunting.

There are a couple of different approaches to hunting the cottontail rabbit.   Those who aren’t blessed with dogs are limited in their opportunities.   However, kicking brush piles and standing alert for a blur of bunny to race out the other side can provide a quick burst of adrenalin and a challenge to be quick on the trigger.

Hunters can also go with a more conservative approach.  Carrying the .22 rifle into the field on the morning of a fresh snow can provide ample opportunities to catch a rabbit sitting still.    Move slowly through overgrown woods and thickets.  Carefully scan the edges of brush piles or overhangs.  Rabbits typically will sit in a sheltered spot at ground level to wait out the snow.   Tracks in the snow will also give you a high percentage spot to scan where rabbits are plentiful.

Those who hunt over beagles have a distinct advantage.   The breed is born ready to run and good dogs will provide hours of enjoyment in the field.

"When it’s not so good is when it’s real cold and that frozen, powdery snow is on the top," said longtime beagle expert Dale Prunty during a visit on West Virginia Outdoors. "Dogs get that in their nose and it makes for hard running conditions."

A snow-free day is probably more beneficial when hunting with dogs.  Beagles will literally crawl back into the thickest cover to root out a rabbit–and then give chase.    Dog will vary in their degree of hunting prowess, which will be learned overtime in the proper setting.

"What you look for is the pup that’s the most ambitious, most bold, and the one that’s into everything," said Prunty. "When you let them out of the kennel, pat of the litter will be together and that pup will be out by himself, nosing into everything."

Beagles will jump on a rabbit trail and follow it, nose to the ground, for as long as they can catch the hot scent.  Generally a rabbit will eventually work its way in a circle and come back to almost the exact spot where it was originally jumped.  The fact can save a lot of boot leather for hunters.  Hunters should be careful not to jump shoot the rabbit in those conditions.   When a beagle jumps the rabbit, he’s earned the right to chase it and a jump shoot brings an abrupt end and a disappointment to the dog that did what he was supposed to do.

Prunty recommends running no more than four dogs together at ones.  He also advises not to start a puppy in the field until it’s at least eight months old.   He suggests at a young age, the dog should be paired with an older dog with which it can keep up and not be left behind. 

Some hunters in West Virginia may also enjoy the challenge of a snowshoe hare.  The snowshoe is found only in the highest reaches of West Virginia.   Beagles will trail them just like cottontail rabbits, but Prunty cautions be ready.

"You have to have tracking collars on your dogs and you have to have dogs that won’t run off game," he said.  "Snowshoe hare always run out of hearing and they make larger circles and they’ll be out of hearing for long periods of time."

Whether it’s the snowshoe hare or the cottontail rabbit, hunting with or without dogs can be a great way to get through the long winter months and stay out of the house in West Virginia.



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