Friday, July 22, 2011

Rabbit hunting: Hits and misses

Last week I embarrassed myself with some ridiculously bad shooting.

Normally, I love failure, because it's much more interesting to write about than success. But these misses were so pathetic that I couldn't bring myself to write about them until now, when I have a couple hits to assuage my self-pity.

Here's what happened: I finally hauled my butt out to my favorite cottontail rabbit spot last week for my first hunt since (my unsuccessful) turkey season. I'd shot some skeet the day before and done fairly poorly, so I thought I'd gotten my bad shooting out of the way.

Right as I approached the rabbitiest part of my path - lined by huge thickets of wild rose and poison oak on both sides - I heard something crashing in the brush behind me. Deer? No, dog, and he'd brought his human with him.

I turned back around to pretend they weren't there, and then the man yelled to me - yes, yelled: "Are you hunting?"

No, dude, I wear blaze orange and carry a shotgun everywhere I go.

To answer him, I held up my shotgun. He got the hint and took his dog the other direction.

Surprisingly, it was just a minute or two afterward that I spotted what I thought was a rabbit ahead of me on the path, maybe 40 yards away. The light was still dim and it was holding still, so I wasn't sure.

I could've just shot it, but I didn't want to announce my presence along the river with a shotgun blast if it wasn't really a rabbit. So, I tried a trick I learned from my duck-hunting buddy Charlie: I side-stepped toward it, rather than walk facing forward.

I took four steps, and got close enough to determine it was a rabbit without actually spooking him. I raised my shotgun, and remembered how I'd been so sloppy the day before, not bringing the stock all the way to my face. I put my cheek down on the stock firmly, looked down the barrel, and shot as the rabbit finally decided it was time to jump into his patch of wild rose.

Awesome! I stopped to pick up my spent shell, then walked over to claim my rabbit.

Only he was not dead at the edge of the roses. He was gone.


I was glad the dog-man had walked the other way so he couldn't see my shame.

I got one other shot that morning: I'd crept up a little hill, careful to bend lower as I neared the crest, and I spied a rabbit sitting outside of his patch of wild grape on the other side of the hill. Raised gun, settled cheek down, stared down the barrel, shot and missed. Again.


See why I couldn't write about it? Thank God a bear walked into a restaurant where Hank and I were hanging around the next day, or I'd've had nothing to write about.

I knew what I'd done wrong: I was staring at the end of the barrel to check my positioning, rather than looking at the target and forgetting everything else.

This week I decided I'd give it another go, so I set my alarm for 4 a.m. Thursday and headed out to the river. Target, target, target, I reminded myself as I crossed the levee.

I crept along quietly for a while. Nothing spooked near the wild grapes where I'd had my last miss. At the first patch of wild roses, I did hear a hop and catch sight of a white tail, but it was deep in the thicket, and the rabbit quickly became invisible.

Then came the part of the path with thickets on either side. This was the toughest part of this hunt: If you don't happen to be looking on the correct side of the path when a rabbit eventually breaks, you won't have the microsecond you need to shoot.

I scanned the edge of the thickets, looking for rabbit ears. When they hold still, it's so hard to see them, but they will hold and hold and hold, then suddenly break, and all you see is a flash of white tail disappearing into the brambles.

Suddenly, I caught movement on my right - it was a rabbit, bolting, 10 yards from me. If he'd been two feet from his thicket, he would've been fine, but he got caught four feet outside of it, which made for a long journey to safety.

I raised my gun, and it didn't make it all the way to my face. No time to reposition, no time no time no time. Just shoot, Holly!

Bang! The rabbit dropped, mid flight.

It was the fastest I'd ever shot at a bolting rabbit, and I'd done it right. Finally.

When I picked him up, I saw shot holes in his ears and his hind feet. Didn't see blood - he died so fast his heart hadn't had time to pump anymore - but I was pretty sure I'd center-patterned him. At 10 yards. Yep, gonna be some holes in this meat.

Silently, I thanked the rabbit and nature - the rabbit for his involuntary sacrifice, and nature for letting me win one this time.

Then I asked for one more. Not to be greedy. It's just that our cottontails are pretty small, and one more would make the 90-minute trip more worthwhile - I would have plenty of meat to work with. I was trying to devise a rabbit taco recipe so I can eat something besides roast duck, brown rice and peanut butter when Hank ditches me this fall for his book tour.

I walked the rest of my path without seeing anything, then headed back to complete the circuit. I had high hopes for the first place I'd seen a rabbit that morning: It was just over a little hill, and there was a good chance I could creep up the hill and spot that rabbit before he spotted me.

I took the hill quietly, careful to avoid snapping twigs because there was no wind to sweep away my noise. As I neared the crest, I bent lower and lower, then lifted my head just enough to survey the thicket.

There! On my left. The rabbit was sitting up, cleaning his ears. Distracted. He was in shade. The sun was on my right, so he'd be blinded if he looked my direction.

I raised my gun, pointed it at him, wobbled a bit. Don't aim, Holly, just SHOOT.


The rabbit bolted, but not well - I knew I'd hit him.

I marked the spot, then walked the long way around the thicket. As I neared the spot, he bolted again, deep into the thicket. I walked in as far as I could before rose thorns started tearing at me, then looked down. I could see him under a web of thorns. His head was starting to sag, like he was falling asleep. Fatal wound. He was dying.

I waited a moment, then pushed away the branches in front of me. Oooh, don't touch that one - poison oak! I found an opening in the thorns, reached down, grabbed him by the ears, pulled him out. Still alive, but just barely. I held him by his hind feet, pinned down his head, yanked hard to break his neck. Done.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," I said, stroking his now-still back. I hoped that the shock of his wound had made his last moments nothing but a confusing blur. I will not pretend that animals don't feel pain to make myself feel better about killing them, but I do believe that a fatal injury is so traumatic that there's no time to feel pain. I hope to be so lucky when my time comes.

So there it was: I'd asked for a second rabbit, and I'd gotten one. I felt lucky. I put him in my vest with the other rabbit and slid another shell in the magazine. I would not be going out of my way to find more rabbits, but if one presented himself, I would be happy to take advantage of the opportunity.

Of course, that didn't happen, but that was fine.

When I got back to my car, I cased my shotgun, removed my vest, put the rabbits in an ice chest to keep them cool for the 45-minute drive home, popped White Zombie into the CD player and hit the road.

I am so lucky to live this life. I know misses are part of it - as inevitable as death and taxes. That just makes the hits so much sweeter. And should the day come that I'm no longer grateful for them, that'll be time for me to bow out.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


SimplyOutdoors said...

Way to keep at it, Holly. Trust me, after years of rabbit hunting - with dogs, and without dogs - I've had more than my share of humbling shooting experiences with them.

Ultimately, though, you took home some food for the table, and ended up having a successful hunt, and that's all that matters.

You gotta love that!

Gary Thompson said...

Hmm.... how do I put this without sounding like a jerk? In the end, I'll have to count on the fact that you trust I'm putting this out there only out of great affection for you and your continued good health. I enjoy reading your blog and would like to continue doing so.

You should be careful harvesting and consuming rabbits before the first hard freeze of the year. Tularemia is common in North America, and in California, and is not a fun experience. Something like 70% of the recorded cases annually are contracted between May and August. Infection is relatively small in the general population, but 85% of the people who get it are infected as a result of hunting. The disease can be quite easily passed from rabbits to hunters, either through physical contact by dressing game or poor cooking practices. I'm sure you and Hank practice good cooking and dressing habbits. That said, for the common guy or gal, typically it's a really good idea to wait until the herd get culled well after the first or second freeze of the year before shooting and eating rabbits, especially when using a shotgun.

I hope you don't take my remarks poorly. That genuinely isn't my intent.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

"I love failure, because it's much more interesting to write about than success."

You should come hunting with me, I'd be like a lucky charm to you, the others call me Johna


Shewee woman said...

Great story, always fun to read about your adventures. So glad you were able to correct yourself, whenever I shoot sporting clays and I start missing, I always know that I am looking at the barrel. When there is a slow bird coming in, or an easy rabbit, I have trained myself to get in the box and don't think about it, AND don't raise the gun until I am ready to shoot.
Have you ever read Lucky McDaniel's book on shooting? (Instict Shooting). It's and oldie but a goodie and it teaches you to react and shoot. And best of all you can train with a Red Ryder BB gun in the backyard. Check it out if you can find a copy.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Simply: Yep, and now I get to experiment with rabbit!

Gary: I'm not at all offended by your words of caution, but I'm well aware of Tularemia, which is why I always wear gloves when dressing rabbits and look for striations on the liver, which indicates the presence of Tularemia.

And waiting until winter would be pointless here - we could easily go ten winters without a hard enough freeze to kill sick rabbits. It freezes a couple times a year here, and even dips into the 20s once in a while. But only once in a while.

Oh, SBW, the stories we could tell together!

Shewee woman: I haven't read that, but I read a terrific article in American Hunter (the NRA mag) last year that explained instinctive shooting and why it's so important to just look at the damn target. (Short version: Your brain makes a note of what works and will do the geometry for you if you just get out of its way.)

Michael Greenberg said...

Interesting post!

Sorry if you've answered this elsewhere on your site, but what do you use as a rabbit gun? I'm shopping for my first shotgun (general purpose---waterfowl, small game, possibly slug hunting deer) and vacillating between 12 and 20...

NorCal Cazadora said...

I use a 12 gauge (Beretta 3901) and I highly recommend it. Unless you plan to do a lot of hunting that involves extensive walking, it's worth carrying the extra weight. Yes, you can still kill with a 20 gauge, but a 12 gauge puts out more shot, which increases your chances (or compensates for slightly imperfect shooting). It's also much easier to find a wide variety of ammo for a 12 - I used to have to do mail order to get what I needed for my 20.

And while I shoot an autoloader, I feel comfortable recommending a pump. You still get three shots, as you do with an autoloader, but they're MUCH easier to clean, and have far fewer moving parts that can fail you. (I got water in the spring casing in my stock last duck season and the rust cost me some shots - this one most painfully.)

I haven't shot a pump, but my buddy Charlie does, and he points out one other advantage: Because you have to cycle manually after each shot (to eject the spent shell and load a fresh one from the magazine), it keeps you from rushing your shots. I've done a lot of bad shooting rushing, so I can see the value of that.

Final benefit: You can get an excellent pump, like the Benelli Super Nova, for $500-600, where as entry level quality autoloaders start at $1,000+ and quality doubles start at $2,000+.

Hope that helps!

Mike at The Big Stick said...

I've shot the same Mossberg 500 for almost 20 years. I agree a pump keeps you a bit more 'honest' when you're wingshooting.

For rabbit specifically, here in KY many of us prefer older models like a Winchester Model 12 or an Ithaca Model 37 featherlight. We do a LOT of walking behind our dogs and those old guns are a lot lighter. Plus with fixed modified chokes they are great all-around guns.

Michael Greenberg said...

Holly and Mike---super helpful, thanks! 12ga it is---I've had recommendation for a 12 on waterfowl already, so that seems the right choice. I've just got to find one that fits, now...

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I think the feeling you describe -- coming home with the satisfaction of knowing there's dinner in the cooler -- is at the very heart, not just of hunting, but of fishing and gardening and, too. Your rabbit story evokes it better than almost anything I've read - the disappointment when you fail, the toughness to keep at it, the satisfaction when you succeed.

And now I think I need a 12-gauge. There are too many things for which my 20 just won't get the job done.

Phillip said...

Silly wabbits...

Sounds like fun, Holly. Most of my rabbit hunting is incidental (I always carry a judo point when I'm bowhunting), but I've sworn that I'm going to get after the bunnies with this new air rifle.

It's a different kind of challenge to catch them sitting for a rifle or bow shot, but it happens enough that I kill some rabbits. Of course, if I set out specifically for the damned things, I'll probably see nothing but furry butts disappearing into the brambles.

Back when I used to do a lot more small game hunting, in NC, I carried my 20ga pump gun everywhere. It killed rabbits and squirrels just fine, and accounted for several whitetails too. The biggest weakness that 20 had was waterfowl, particularly the big birds. Sometimes, the extra shot in a 12ga is definitely worth it.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Mike at The Big Stick: Yeah, I can see where that style of hunting would make you wish for a lighter gun. With this particular hunt I do, I'm pretty sure I walk less than a mile, very slowly, so the big honkin' gun is not a burden.

Michael Greenberg: Get a gun with a wood stock and Dale Tate can easily make it fit for you! (Of course, I don't know where you live, do Dale may not be convenient...)

Tamar: LOL, you're well on your way to discovering you have too many guns :-)

Phillip: I've followed Josh's advice and gotten lucky - just sitting down where there are rabbits, holding still and waiting for them to start moving again. But by far my most successful strategy has been sneaking over a little hill.

Michael Greenberg said...

Ah, if only---I live in Philadelphia. I just found a gunsmith not too far from me, where I'll be taking a 22 for some work. If that works out, I'll see what they can do for fit.

Though the real trick around here is finding places that are less than an hour away to hunt. And the time!

NorCal Cazadora said...

I have the same issue - lots of wildlife in close proximity, but I have to drive a fair distance to hunt. Wah!

Shotgun Kat said...

re: first "all purpose" shotguns. My first was an autoloader - the Browning Silver Hunter. I think I bought it brand new for $899 at Bass Pro. I harvest the heck outa duck and rabbit with it and it has NEVER jammed on me - not once - not in 105 degree heat nor in frozen tundra and wet with falling rain. It is excellent and light-weight only about 7.5 lbs. Perfect for hunting chicks.

re: rabbit - Holly, simple rabbit recipe (and great for camping) skin your rabbit, gut it, and put it on a spit (either over an open flame) or a electric rotisserie. Use a mexican lime & chilli dry rub. So yum! The Pampered Chef makes one, or you can try making your own.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ha! Steven Rinella just did a piece on cooking rabbit over a fire!

I'm determined to use at least one of these rabbits, though, on my taco recipe idea - I'm gonna fuse an Asian cooking technique with my favorite Mexican flavors. Can't wait! But I'm not sure when I'll find the time...

John Johnston said...

>I'm sorry, sweetie," I said, stroking his now-still back.

I've been hunting since I was 9 years old and I would never think of saying something like that. It was alive. I killed it. It is food.

Heck, I still don't use a scope nor a bipod that are so popular now. And I still hunt wild boar with bow and arrow - it's the only way to hunt them. It makes you get close to them and you better have brought your A game.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I don't always apologize, but I often do. It may not matter to the animal - in fact, I'm sure it doesn't - but it's important to me to show my respect.

I'd love to hunt boar the way you do. I love the idea of the skill required. But I'm a long way from having the necessary skills.

QB Doctor said...

Get that air gun out and go rabbit hunting - siinlge pellet to the head & no "spoiled" meat. Maybe put a scope on it but you can take a head shot on a rabbit at 30 yards with iron sights without too much difficulty...if you put in a bit of practice. If you get yourself something with a little more power (which I beieve you are aloowed in the US) you can take some 50 to 70 yards shots with a scope... wont work for ducks but any kind of stalking hunt on small game where you have to get in range to use a 12 guage is also air rifle territory - you should see if Mike Mellick at would send you a tuned-for-hunting 78 or 79 to review. Or better yet, get one set up to run on HPA


Rabbit shooter said...

Whats the point of going out knowing your always going to get that sweet kill? Then you would have to call it killing, not hunting!

But better luck next time anyways

Ronald I. Bremer said...

Best pellet gun ever may help you to hunting. Hunting is a art. And gun is the main part of this art.

Thomas Venney said...


Thomas Venney said...

So you have got a hankering for some rabbit hunting, but the seasons almost over and you are just not sure what to do. Well, fear not. In some areas of the Northeast, the season still has a couple of weeks remaining and there are plenty of strategies for late season rabbits.

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