Rabbit hunting in the Carolinas

Any great rabbit hunt is going to take place in the briars. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Hunting rabbits is a Carolina tradition

Without question, rabbit hunting is one of the most tradition-laden hunting activities in the Carolinas. 

Many an experienced hunter can trace their beginnings to time spent in the woods and fields with friends and family, listening to the baying of the dogs, smelling the crispness of the cold morning air, feeling the weight and majesty of that first real gun, and learning under the watchful eyes of their elders. Those who have grown up with these experiences have memories they cherish often and forever.

Brian Tatham is one of those fortunate hunters who grew up in the full tradition of an outdoor family, hunting and fishing under the tutelage of his father. A native of Concord, N.C., Tatham’s dad and grandfather were instrumental in raising him on hunting dogs and shotguns. Tatham said that rabbit hunting for him is a way to stay connected to his past and still enjoy the sport in the present. 

 “We rabbit hunted all over the Piedmont area of both states,” said Tatham. “And we still rabbit hunt pretty much the same way. Any great rabbit hunt is going to take place in the briars. The two keys to locating great rabbit habitat are cover and food.”

 In most situations, the Carolinas’ Piedmont and Midlands regions will hold plenty of both. The bottomland areas and multitude of thick-growth briar patches offer plenty of new growth. This offers a combination of ready cover and available food. 

“The best combination of rabbit hunting land is thick briar patches surrounded by young growth pines,” said Tatham. “The pines offer some open areas to the hunters, both to set up standers and offering natural shooting lanes — pine rows, firebreaks and especially lots of edges.” 

Rabbit hunting has changed very little from the way our grandfathers hunted, and those old ways still produce.

Be prepared for close shots

Edges near thick cover are feeding grounds for rabbits. They will often hang up in the thicker grass before darting across an open area to escape the dogs. Savvy hunters have even been able to pick off stray rabbits walking into their stands or spotting rabbits that aren’t being pressured by dogs and are just browsing in the edges.

The preferred tactic by Tatham and his regular group of rabbit hunters is traditional stand hunting. Once an area is designated for a hunt, standers set up in strategic locations around the perimeter of the area. Meanwhile, dog drivers work behind the dogs and push the rabbits toward the perimeter of the area and the standers. The size of the area is determined by the number of standers in the group.

When stand hunting for rabbits, the standers need to be far enough apart for safe shooting but still close enough that rabbits can’t slip between two hunters undetected. 

Shoot what’s comfortable to you

“Distance is pretty similar to hunting a dove field,” he said. “Some rabbit hunters may use larger calibers and ammo. But here in North Carolina, the best calibers are smaller, the shot size smaller, and open bores work better. With this much cover, hunters will likely get shots as close as 5 yards as rabbits tend to try to sneak by rather than bound way ahead of the dogs as is typical with rabbit hunting in other areas.”

As far as guns go, Tatham said most modern hunters gravitate toward a 12-gauge. But his preference is an over-and-under 20-gauge that he has been hunting with since he was a young man.

“I guess the best advice is to shoot what you’re the most comfortable with,” he said.

A six pack of dogs should be capable of going 100% for a half day of hunting, so long as the temperature isn’t hot. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

It’s all about the dogs

Speaking of preferences, short-legged beagles are preferred by Tatham and his hunting companions for their rabbit outings.

“For me, rabbit hunting is all about the dogs,” said Tatham. “We use the old-style beagles. The smaller dogs have the ability to put it down in low gear. And when you see them coming full speed, they are really going no faster than walking speed.”

A good pack of dogs will hunt together and work through the brush shoulder to shoulder. A well-balanced pack will work two or three dogs wide and will pull each other toward the scent. The owner of a pack can tell by the report of each individual dog what is going on and how the dogs are working a particular rabbit.

One mistake made by rabbit hunters is to overwork dogs, especially on warm days. The best conditions for beagles to work are cold, moist conditions where a dog’s nose can pick up fresh scent and easily distinguish hot rabbit scent from old scent. 

The ideal temperatures will be in the high 30s or low 40s — the cooler the weather stays, the longer a single pack of dogs can be effective. Cooler weather helps the dogs’ endurance so they can last longer. On the other hand, rainy conditions remove scent and warm conditions wear the dogs down quicker and they won’t hunt as well. 

Traditional stand hunting still produces plenty of rabbits for Carolina hunters. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Dress the part

A good pack of dogs should be able to work at 100% for ½ day, say 4 – 5 hours. If the hunt is scheduled to last all day, it’s best to have two separate packs of dogs so that the pack can be changed out after lunch without overtaxing any of the dogs. 

“A lot of hunters will run every dog they have,” said Tatham. “In my experience, I like to run a six-pack at a time. Six dogs create a very competitive environment and each dog in the pack will push the others. That’s another part of rabbit hunting that makes it special — the dogs love to hunt as much as the hunters do. They really enjoy it.”

A heavy-duty pair of brush pants makes pushing through briar patches much easier work as well as a briar resistant jacket that won’t get you bogged down. Tatham completes his rabbit hunting attire with a pair of rugged, lightweight boots. 

“If you’re running a pack of dogs, you’re gonna cover as much ground as they do. And if there’s any water around, you’re going to be in it. So a pair of boots that’s waterproof doesn’t hurt either,” he said.

Rabbit populations are reported to be stable, but loss of habitat is taking its toll on rabbit hunter participation. (Photo by Phillip Gentry)

Rabbit forecast

Michael Hook is the small game coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Part of his annual wildlife surveys and studies includes keeping up with rabbit populations.

Hook said that SCDNR has been collecting rabbit hunter surveys since the early 1990’s and compares each year’s data with the previously collected information in order to gain an understanding of hunter participation and success.

“Over the past few years we have seen stable if not improving rabbit hunter success across the state. The latest data show a slight decline from previous years. But there are a lot of factors to consider when looking at this one statistic,” said Hook. “The two biggest complaints we hear are a lack of rabbits on public lands and restricted access to private lands because most of those areas are leased for deer hunting.”

State surveys measure the number of rabbits jumped per hour and the number of rabbits harvested per hour. From recent surveys, around 75% of the rabbits jumped are harvested.

As for species, the majority of rabbits harvested in South Carolina based on the most recent survey were cottontail rabbits at 93%, distantly followed by swamp rabbits at 4% and marsh rabbits at 3%.

Hook reminded landowners that proper management of land, particularly when clearing and cutting crops is to leave some areas unharvested for wildlife as well as creating edges.

“It seems the most common practice is to bush hog corner to corner. But that is not the best practice for small game like rabbits and quail,” he said. “Ideally, we’d like to see the edges left and some areas remaining so that these small game animals have some food and cover throughout the entire season.

About Phillip Gentry 817 Articles
Phillip Gentry of Waterloo, S.C., is an avid outdoorsman and said if it swims, flies, hops or crawls, he's usually not too far behind.

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