At first glance, February appears to be a hunting dud in Idaho. Big game,
waterfowl, and upland bird seasons have long since closed. It's too early
for rockchucks and ground squirrels. Spring bear and turkey hunting are a
ways off yet. And even coyotes are losing their thick winter pelage. Only
rabbit season is open until month's end --- which is why I call February my
"cottontail closeout" month. Late-season shotgunning and rifle plinking for
Idaho's rabbits and hares is a great way to wrap up the fading gunsmoke
by Lewis Watson
Idaho has five kinds of rabbits with enough difference to interest hunters.
Of these, three are classed as game animals with seasons and bag limits -
cottontails; pygmy rabbits, and snowshoe hares. The other two, whitetailed
and blacktailed jackrabbits, are unprotected species and may be hunted
year-around without limits.
February is actually a rather poor month for rabbit hunting in that
populations are now at low ebb. Most rabbits are born in spring and summer,
and by late winter the staggering 80 percent of the annual crop have died
or been killed in various ways. For really fast action, try them in
September if you can find time between fishing, bird hunting, and big game
seasons. I can't, so February remains my bunny month. With rabbit numbers
(especially snowshoes) highly cyclic every 7 to 10 years, hunting any time
and anywhere can be a boom-or-bust proposition.
To locate good rabbit populations in your area, you first must identify
which of our five species are available in numbers near your home.
Medium-sized snowshoes are more plentiful at higher elevations and in the
forested northern two-thirds of the state, while lanky blacktailed jacks
are thick in the sprawling sage flats of southern and eastern Idaho.
Huge whitetailed jacks are scattered in open hills throughout the state.
Pygmy rabbits inhabit low-elevation sagebrush-and-rock country across
southern Idaho, while common cottontails are distributed in low-lying
brushy and rocky areas pretty much statewide.
Most hunters will have seen a good sampling of local rabbits during other
hunts. If you don't know where to begin, phone the
closest Fish and Game Department
office for information on close-at-hand rabbit populations.
Since jackrabbits are shot year-around as "varmints," let's stick mainly
with cottontails and pygmy rabbits for February, with a welcoming nod in a
moment to the showshoe hares. Once you've identified a promising cottontail
area, you still need to narrow it down for specific animals. Dense ground
cover is your first clue. Cottontails and pygmies are small, not-very-fast
animals and must rely on concealment and close-range dodging to escape
their countless predators. Good cottontail cover usually consists of
tangled brush with clear running lanes beneath. Equally good are complex
and extended jumbles of rocks and boulders - under, behind, and between
which a fleeing rabbit can twist and scamper.
In February concentrate your search on south-facing hillsides and brush
patches where rabbits spend most of the day sitting in sun-warmed "forms"
or semi-concealed cover pockets. Only at daybreak and dusk are you apt to
find many cottontails moving around in the open.
If you don't get shooting right away, look for rabbit sign. Round and
slightly flattened pea-sized droppings on top of recent snow is a good
reason to check that location again later. Nibbled vegetation and shredded
tree bark are good signs, though harder to spot and interpret. In
February's snow conditions, fresh tracks are sure-fire proof that highly
territorial cottontails are nearby.
Which way are rabbit tracks headed? Check the distance between each set. If
it's a foot or two, the rabbit is hopping and leading with his smaller
forefeet. If track sets are four feet or more apart, he's running and will
place larger hind feet ahead of forefeet.
Open-country jacks are easily seen and shot, but cottontails, pygmies, and
snowshoes must be hunted in their typically tangled habitat. Otherwise,
you'll spot lots of sign and almost no rabbits. Hearing is a cottontail's
major warning sense, so walk quietly and talk little. Rabbits will readily
pick up movement and slip into hiding at the unconcealed approach of
hunters, so move slowly with pauses and full use of concealing cover. If
possible, hunt into or across the wind.
For running shots in brush and rocks, a shotgun will bag far more rabbits
than a rifle. Any gauge with field loads of 5s, 6s, or 7 1/2s will do the
job. Choke isn't as critical as the ability to snap-shoot, since a
zigzagging cottontail can't be tracked with a gun bead for more than a few
feet. Make a point of stomping and kicking any heavy brush piles you come
across. Pause often to spook nervous rabbits into running. Ease into view
around each rock and bush, and keep your finger ready on the gun safety at
Shotgunning for rabbits behind trailing beagles or other dogs is a classic
sport back East, but is little practiced in game-rich Idaho. Nearly any dog
will track and run rabbits if scent is hot enough. I even take my
all-purpose Brittany pointer after rabbits, though many a wingshot purist
will groan at such an admission. So far rabbit "pointing" and chasing
hasn't dampened his birdhunting excellence one whit!
Never follow a hot-trailing dog on cottontails. Instead, take a quiet stand
near where he first hit scent and wait. Cottontails are confirmed "home
bodies" and will circle back every time if not pushed too hard. Otherwise,
they'll hole up in brush or any available crevice or burrow, from which you
may or may not be able to push them out for a shot.
For a quieter, more peaceful February rabbit hunt, try plinking them with a
scoped .22 rimfire. With rifles, most of us need sitting shots for clean
head or chest kills, so you'd best see rabbits before they see you - or at
least hunt slowly enough not to goose them into flight.
Meandering quietly about in brush and rocks will provide still shots, as
will sitting and waiting over a proven sweep of cover. In hill country,
careful scanning with good binoculars reveals surprising numbers of rabbits
at long range, which can then be stalked. Dogs can be employed for
rifle-plinking by turning a slow-working mutt loose I deep boulder-filled
ravines while you watch for nervous rabbits from a high vantage point.
Rabbits are afflicted with many diseases and parasites. Most dangerous of
these to humans is tularemia, but it's extremely rare in Idaho and
essentially non-existent in cold weather. A tularemic cottontail is
abnormally sluggish, and its liver is freckled with white spots. Since the
disease is contacted through open sores on hands during cleaning, cautious
warm-weather hunters use rubber gloves to field-dress rabbits. In any case,
cooking destroys tularemia bacteria entirely. Incidentally, don't feed
rabbit viscera to your dog, as he may pick up tapeworms and other
Especially if bagged with a shotgun, rabbits should be gutted, perhaps
skinned, and cooled out immediately. Like all meat animals, they'll be more
tender if aged a few days in cool (not freezing) temperatures before
cooking. Though younger rabbits are preferred, white-meated cottontails and
pygmy rabbits of any age are absolutely delicious if cleaned, cooled, aged,
and cooked properly.
Equally superb as table fare are Idaho's slightly larger snowshoe hare.
Snowshoes are sometimes called "varying hares" because each winter they
change color from brown to snowy white and then back again the next spring.
Snowshoes live in higher, more forested regions than do desert-oriented
cottontails. In February they can be readily located by their snow-top
droppings and well-packed "runways" in deep snow. Almost as territorial as
cottontails, snowshoes won't be far away once you've found such signs.
Sometimes jackrabbits change colors seasonally in much the same way as
snowshoes. If the all-white rabbit you shoot this month is really huge (up
to 13 pounds!) and has especially long ears, it's almost certainly a
whitetailed jack. If it has fairly short black-tipped ears and is only a
bit larger than a cottontail, you have a snowshoe.
As days grow warmer in late February, a rockfield-tramping rabbit hunter is
apt to spot another great rifle target - just emerging rockchucks. When
this happens, your "cottontail closeout" hunting is about over, and an
entirely new season has begun!