Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
I’m pretty sure that most hunters don’t regard cottontail rabbits as trophy game. But by the time the end of the season rolls around, it’s hard for me to think of them as anything less.
The dumb, lame, and lazy are long gone. Any cottontails still on the landscape are street smart survivors; strictly cream of the crop. Once their hiding spots have been detected, dislodged cottontails know exactly where they need to go and will generally make all the right moves while getting there.
Although it’s no guarantee, hunting with a partner can give you a bit of an edge — especially if your partner happens to be a northern goshawk. I’ve been chasing cottontails with the same goshawk for several consecutive seasons and our team efforts are definitely more exciting than when I go it alone.
Like I said, late season cottontails are street smart survivors. Locating them requires busting into the most impenetrable tracts of brush, low ground willow, and cattail slough the countryside has to offer. But just finding rabbits doesn‘t necessarily mean you’ll be putting any in the skillet. Brushy thickets are the cottontail’s home court and they are masters at utilizing every scrap of escape cover and overhead canopy to their advantage.
Human hunters do well to see a quarter of the rabbits they move. With superior vision and heightened natural instincts, raptors fare much better. But speeding rabbits in heavy cover present difficult targets. Even for veteran rabbit hawks, end of the winter cottontails seldom come easy. Rabbits and rabbit chasing hawks have been coexisting for countless generations. It’s an uneasy relationship where predator and prey are evenly matched; a time tested formula where each encounter becomes a high speed, high stakes game of survival.
Many of the rabbits we chase get away. Those that are brought to bag are cherished for the late season trophies they are. The end of a successful chase is a moment to savor. The hawk lays first claim to the effort, and I sit on the snow as he enjoys his portion of the kill – raw, of course. Once he’s finished, I take my share of the prize back civilization to be pan fried — golden brown. It’s impossible to tell which of us enjoys eating rabbit the most.