First hunting season of fall kicks off July 1 with cottontail opener
By JIM MATTHEWS
Out on the Matthews Ranch I’ve been seeing a familiar pair of red-tailed hawks on a big nest in the top of one of the last cottonwood trees in the main wash. They have managed to fledge a young from the nest this season. I haven’t seen many young over the last decade because of the drought, so it is good to see that young bird this year. It is an indicator, a gauge about how good the small game and upland bird hunting seasons will be this year.
And those seasons are approaching fast.
I’ve already been scouting for the rabbit season opener that always falls on July 1, and it has been no real surprise to find a good number of cottontails. There were a lot of rabbits after the wet winter last year, and there was enough rain this winter and spring to keep the upward cycle in numbers going the right direction.
So, I’m hoping I’ll be sharing in the hawk's bounty this year, and the plan is to have cottontail rabbit on the barbecue on the Fourth of July at my house. I have written about how rabbit season opener has become a ritual for me centered on independence, a celebration of the right to own firearms, and our unique legacy of public lands for hunting. It’s probably not a coincidence that I muse about these things because the rabbit opener is right before Independence Day.
I mostly hunt on National Forest land, usually right on the lower elevation boundary, in the foothills where canyons open up as they carve their way out of the higher elevations through chaparral hillsides. (It is all part of what is known as The Matthews Ranch.)
Where it's legal, I use a scoped .22 rimfire rifle and either sit in one spot glassing the openings in the brush right at dusk or still-hunt very slowly along at dawn hoping to spot the sitting rabbits before they become nothing but a bobbing white tail scampering to safety in thick brush.
While I prefer to use the .22, I can assure a full barbecue grill much easier with the shotgun. Since the plan is for rabbit dinner the Fourth of July, I will have three days of dawn and dusk hunts before I have to resort to the scattergun Wednesday morning to get the four rabbits I'll need for the afternoon's dinner.
Rabbits are the last game animal you can hunt on your basic $48.34 hunting license without purchasing extra stamps or tags. The license is a prerequisite for all the other things, but it's only rabbits that still are sort of tossed in for free with the basic license. But then again, rabbits are probably about the only game animal in the state that doesn't need (or suffer from) the management of the Department of Fish and Game.
Give a cottontail a vacant field with some old grape vines and he'll make it home. I have a friend who bowhunts cottontails along a railroad track in the middle of town. A chum who's moved to Montana used to shoot them with a pellet rifle out his kitchen window when they crawled through the chain link fence into his backyard. Liking variety and preferring rabbits fresh, there were always far more than he could eat. I even have two in my backyard this year that torment the Labrador when he spots them feeding on the grass. Bouncing up and down at the sliding glass doors, I let him run them to their burrows, one under a nectarine stump and the other in an enlarged squirrel hole that connects to the vacant field behind the house.
My wife Becky and I have been picking blackberries by the pails-full the last few days, and she made a cobbler for Father’s Day this past weekend. We had been watching the progress of the berries for over a month, but the harvest is in full swing now. I'm looking forward to my dawn hunts coming in a couple of weeks in the same sense. Like we've been keeping an eye on the fruit and watching it grow, I've been keeping tabs on the rabbit crop. The harvest is something we've mostly lost in today's supermarket society. For some of us, rabbits and freshly-picked fruit give it back to us a little, and they bring us a little closer to the earth.
I like to think of it as my way of breaking bread with the red-tailed hawks out on the Matthews Ranch.
Cottontail hunting tidbits
-- You will need the new 2018-19 season hunting license if you plan to hunt cottontails. The season opens July 1 and runs until the last Sunday in January, 2019. The limit is five rabbits per day.
-- Cottontails really do taste like chicken, only milder. Domestic rabbits are much stronger tasting. When cleaning cottontail, always keep an eye out for parasites. I have heard for years cottontails are wormy before the first frost, but I have hunted and eaten them for 45 years, most taken during the hottest months of the year, and have never found a worm. But I still look.
-- I like to hunt rabbits with a .22 and try to shoot them in the head for three reasons. It is an instant, humane kill. It doesn’t waste any meat. And, it doesn’t puncture the stomach or gut. Shotguns generally send pellets through the whole critter and the intestines are usually punctured. I would rather clean a deer than a rabbit with its intestines broken open. It never ceases to amaze me how something that tastes so good has something that smells so bad inside its body. I have never thrown up cleaning gut-punctured rabbits, but I’ve come close.
-- There are a lot of really young rabbits this time of year that make for wonderful meals, but they are small. Usually, I cut my rabbits into five pieces – piecing out all four quarters and the back. But with tiny rabbits, I will keep the two front quarters with a section of the backbone and neck as a single piece. I also have split them lengthwise along the spine, which also works very well.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 909-887-3444.