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"Cottontail Hunting in the Dog Days,"
by Mark Zornes

This article was published in the July-August 2006 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

I could just make out the silhouette and glinting obsidian eye of a cottontail tucked under a bursage, 15 yards from my position. I slowly nocked an arrow, came to full draw, and released the string, all in one fluid motion — and promptly missed the rabbit.

This is a typical event during my frequent forays after one of the most common of Arizona’s small game animals (a group that includes cottontail rabbits, four species of squirrels, pheasants, three species of quail, blue grouse and chukars).

Three species of cottontail occur in Arizona: the Nuttall’s or mountain cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii), eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), and desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). The smallest of these is the short-eared mountain cottontail, which is largely restricted to elevations above 7,500 feet on the Kaibab Plateau and in the Chuska and White mountains. The larger eastern cottontail is found in the mountains of southeastern and central Arizona, where it occupies many of the same habitats as the Mearns’ quail and Coues white-tailed deer. The most common and widespread cottontail in Arizona is the long-eared desert cottontail, which is found in every county in the state up to about 7,000 feet.

Because of their abundance, cottontails are fairly popular small game animals in Arizona, particularly among young hunters. Most people still-hunt along desert washes or canyons, and harvest the animals with a shotgun or a small-caliber rifle or pistol. Hunting cottontails with dogs — a popular pastime in the Midwest — is not as popular here in Arizona, due to inhospitable vegetation and terrain and the tendency of western cottontails to seek a subterranean refuge in the blink of an eye instead of coursing before a yapping dog. It is also very hazardous to the yapping dog: Making high-pitched squealing noises in the desert can attract something bigger and nastier than yourself.

My favorite way to hunt this species is with archery tackle. Whether I’m hunting or not, there’s nothing finer than releasing a wooden shaft from my longbow or recurve into its natural environment (arrows are SUPPOSED to fly). I know most of you archers don’t shoot wooden shafts anymore, but nobody is perfect.

Regardless of your preference in archery tackle, cottontails are challenging prey for archers. Many more rabbits are left in the population than are reduced to the bag. Archery hunting for this species is increasingly popular with the hunting community, yet our harvest probably accounts for less than 1 percent of the annual statewide harvest of 50,000 to 150,000.

While the nimrod has unending choices of bows and arrows, quality arrows should be selected because they determine accuracy. Poor arrows shot from the fanciest super-duper wheeled contraption will result in poor accuracy, period. I’d recommend archers fling a few feathered shafts daily, and practice in the field as much as possible. Archers owe it to their quarry and to fellow archers to be as accurate as possible and know their limitations regarding shooting distance.

If you are like me, and inflicted with chronic and incurable “bowandarrowitis,” make sure you use a hunting point that is capable of inflicting a quick, clean kill. I tend to shoot broadheads for just about everything, including bunnies. That way, I know how my arrows fly with broadheads versus field tips. I use the old-fashioned resharpenable kinds, but any quality broadhead will do. Replaceable blade designs can be good, and certainly will take all species of game effectively, but may not hold up very well in the lava and granite.

When I miss, which is fairly often on rabbits, I can generally salvage my “ole-timey” hunting heads with some discretionary pounding and filing. Remember: Whether you are hunting bull elk or bunnies, your broadheads should be razor-sharp — they kill by hemorrhage. A bunny shot with a sharp broadhead expires within a few seconds, but expect a short blood-trailing job.

Blunts kill rabbits very quickly, as well. Blunts kill by shock, much like rifle bullets. Many blunt designs, “small game stoppers,” and judo-points are available to the archer for small game hunting. I sometimes glue .38-caliber pistol cases over the ends of my wooden arrows, which works well. Never shoot an animal of any species with a field tip; they are designed for target shooting, not for hunting.

The cottontail season in Arizona is year-round. However, few cottontails are taken during the summer months due to hunter concerns regarding disease and parasites. Many myths exist among hunters (especially hunters from back East) concerning the “edibility” of summer rabbits. Cottontails (and the larger jackrabbits) are host to internal and external parasites (all year long, by the way). Hunters who improperly handle sick rabbits can be exposed to tularemia and the plague. This causes many hunters to look to other species as potential prey, particularly during the warmer months.

Since cottontails are abundant and very tasty, I don’t let these concerns stop me from hunting summer rabbits. My strategy is this: Wear rubber gloves when dressing the beast; let the rabbit cool (to help reduce external parasites) before carrying it on your person; wash your hands following handling and cleaning; and cook the rabbit thoroughly. You can also skin and dress the cottontail immediately during the hunt, reducing the chance an external parasite will switch hosts.

If you hunt rabbits below 3,500 feet in elevation during any portion of the year, you’ll greatly reduce your potential exposure to both plague and tularemia. Never harvest or handle a cottontail that appears to be ill.

Cottontails can be found in most habitat types in Arizona. They are probably most abundant in thick vegetation along desert washes and canyons, and in the bajadas, or rocky foothills. Plan to become very familiar with our many species of clawing and biting vegetation, expect to lose a few arrows, carry plenty of water, and watch out for “buzz-tails” (they like rabbit, too).

The best time to hunt summer bunnies is the first hour or so after sunrise and the last hour before sundown. Hunting during the midday heat is generally a waste of time. However, if you decide to do this, you will quickly realize that rabbits have a higher IQ than you do (they’ll be underground).

If you do plan on taking advantage of the “off-season” to pursue cottontails, make sure you have a way to cool the carcass quickly to prevent spoilage. I like to skin my rabbits soon after harvest and put them on ice. Any cottontail that receives proper field care will be delicious; heck, even I can cook them so they’re edible. Since I grew up in the southeastern portion of our fine nation, I tend to bread them and fry them, but there are numerous recipes for preparing this delicate “light” meat.

So archers, grab your gear, sharpen those broadheads and head out for some challenging summer fun. There’ll be very little in the way of competition out there, I assure you. Better yet, take children along (if you’re without offspring, the neighbor’s children will do). Make sure you put a bow in their hands: Don’t hog all the fun.

This article was published in the July-August 2006 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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