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Cottontail season opens to a quiet welcome from hunters

By JIM MATTHEWS It’s not the collegial dove opener. It’s not like the long hikes on opening day for quail and chukar. It doesn’t require the preparation and planning of deer or waterfowl seasons. But the first hunting season of the year always opens quietly on July 1 when most people are thinking about fireworks, long weekends, and barbecues. Those of us who are cottontail hunters are also thinking about barbecues and the historic freedoms we’ll celebrate July 4, but from a whole different perspective as the rest of you who don’t own .22s with the primary purpose of hunting rabbits. For most of us who take to the field to try to get a couple of young bunnies for the grill, the opening of rabbit season marks the beginning of our fall hunting. Yes, I know that summer just began a little over a week ago, but the days are getting shorter. Can’t you can feel that? Rabbits are not the most popular of game animals here in California with the Department of Fish and Wildlife survey data suggesting that only about 10,000 of the 275,000 of us who buy hunting licenses pursue cottontail rabbits each year. For those of us who hunt, that seems incredibly low. For those of us who think rabbit is one of the best pieces of meat to grace a barbecue, it seems like there are a whole bunch of hunters who are missing out if it is true. Rabbit hunting is a solo ritual for me. I take a .22 rifle and skulk along desert washes adjacent to rocky hillsides or poke around in chaparral canyons where I have found rabbits and tracks in my pre-season scouting for birds and deer. It’s not rocket science. Men have been doing this since we first were able to stand upright. The goal is to see them before they see me, before they bolt away flashing their name at me while they escape. This requires slow and quiet stealth. There are far more places to hunt them with shotguns (because of city and county ordinances), and most shotgunners don’t find it too difficult to roll a running cottontail with a light load of 6s. But I prefer using the rifle and hunt the rabbits like big game. It’s not imperative that I shoot a limit of five. One is really enough for dinner, so it’s more about moving slowly through good country at dawn or dusk, absorbing myself into the landscape. But to get that one rabbit for dinner, you do need to do two things with your rifle. First, you need to shoot accurate ammunition that is precisely sighted in so you can make those requisite head or shoulder shots that kill the rabbit quickly and cleanly. Rabbits are small, so it’s not about killing power, it’s about shot placement. Over the years (and before .22 ammunition was impossible to find), I’ve shot 15 or 20 different types of ammunition in my favorite rimfire rifles. I use the one that shoots the smallest groups at 50 yards with my favorite rifle. The second thing, and the most important, is to shoot the gun a lot from field positions and at all different ranges. You need to know where the little bullet will hit at 40 feet as well as 40 yards, so you can use the correct hold-over or hold-under to make sure of precise hits. I shoot a lot offhand because usually you don’t have time or viewing conditions to drop into sitting or prone shooting positions. In our local mountains, you need to be able to hit something the size of a poker chip offhand at 20 yards or 30 yards to consistently bring home the hasenpfeffer. You need to be able to do it simply as though the rifle were an extension of your sight. While still-hunting is my favorite way to hunt rabbits, the older I get the more I like just sitting in a slightly elevated spot where I have seen cottontails at first or last light. I sit there with binoculars glassing for game like I’m hunting deer or wild hogs. I don’t usually wear camouflage, but that doesn’t mean that’s a bad idea. When I hunt this way, I usually carry a rimfire where I feel confident in shots out to 100 or 125 yards. This is where a .22 magnum or a .17 HMR is handy because it offers that extra range over a standard .22 long rifle. I feel very lucky to own an Anschutz .22 magnum rifle that shoots sub one-inch groups at 100 yards. The rifle is special to me because it was a gift from the fourth-generation owner of the company that made that fine German rifle. Dieter Anschutz himself gave me the gun many years ago. Afterward, I would see him occasionally at a gun show and give him progress reports on where that gun and I had been and the game we had taken. He would fend off more important visitors so we could talk. Fate finally gave us an opportunity to hunt wild hogs together, and as fate would have it, we were stuck in a hunting cabin during torrential rains with some boorish companions for most of it. We made the best of it by talking about Olympic shooting for hours by a roaring fire, and he delighted in the fact that I had covered the shooting sports for virtually all of the wire services during the 1984 games in Los Angeles. He could tell me all the shooters, not just the medalists, who used his world-famous target guns. As the evening wore down I went and retrieved the gun he’d given me so many years ago. As he handled it, his eyes lit up, admiring the dings and honest use. He was pleased his guns were being used as designed -- mine as an accurate hunting rifle. A nice gun with history is a fine thing to have in the field when you are waiting for cottontail rabbits to slip out of the brush. The gun can recite stories back to you. We all have such guns, and they wrap our hunting tradition across generations, across continents. They help time warp and fall away. I will be hunting cottontail rabbits a time or two this coming week. I go by myself, but I’m not alone. END

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