Jason Flores with a swamp rabbit harvested along a canal bank in the coastal marsh.
(Submitted Photo/John K. Flores)
Rabbit season remains open until the end of the month
I can remember picking up a spent 20-gauge shotgun shell long ago that ejected from my little Harrington & Richardson crack barrel. I was 14 at the time and just made a lucky shot on a running cottontail rabbit. It was my first.
The shot shell still was smoking, and I can remember placing it up to my nose where the aroma, though pungent, was like no other.
Walking over to where the rabbit lay, I picked it up. Its lifeless body still felt warm, and it too, had a smell.
I lived in Michigan at the time, where sparkling frosts came early in the fall. By midmorning, the frosts would melt, leaving the leaf-strewn ground damp with moisture. The smell of the rabbit was musty, like the ground.
It was the smell of smokeless powder and musty rabbits that hooked me hunting small game and until I went in the service, how I spent most of my fall and winters back home.
My first duty assignment was in the Southwest. Specifically, the Chihuahuan desert of New Mexico. I thought I had died and went to heaven upon my arrival to this land far different from the one I grew up in.
Considered a varmint and non-game animal along with jackrabbits, cottontails could be hunted year around. The southwestern cottontail where I was stationed was also much smaller than the eastern species I was accustomed to.
We even hunted them differently than back home. In Michigan, cottontails were hunted either by using beagles to chase them out of thick cover or by walking them up, where two-legged humans did all the work.
In New Mexico, we’d hunt them with a .22 rifle by sight. I found out pretty quick in the desert you either became a good marksman or you didn’t eat rabbit.
When I killed my first desert cottontail, the feeling was much the same as those I had when I was a boy growing up in Michigan. Moreover, the desert had its own smells, its own particular vegetation, and even a dampness that came with light snows, frosts and periodic rain that came down from the nearby mountains.
For the past 36 years, I’ve done all of my rabbit hunting in marshes of coastal Louisiana. And, like the upper Midwest and the Southwest, there is a species of cottontail specific to our region, with its own challenges.
The first cottontail I ever killed in Louisiana wasn’t far from my father-in-law’s camp moored in a little location canal a few reaches up Leopard Bayou, just off the Calumet Spillway.
It was along a canal bank where the compressed spoil was easily two to three feet above the high tide water line. The vegetation along the canal contained thick patches of low briars, a few patches of Roseau cane and mixed grasses.
Rabbit sign in the form of pellets was everywhere. Cottontail rabbits often like to climb on something to relieve themselves. There were pellets on logs, washed up dunnage and in nutria trails leading to the water’s edge.
I didn’t make but a handful of steps before a big cottontail burst out of the briar patch that I was stomping, trying to kick one out of cover. I rolled it in one quick shot.
When I picked up the rabbit, it was easily one third larger than the eastern cottontails I hunted as boy in Michigan and perhaps two to three times larger than the little southwestern cottontails in New Mexico.
Come to find out, these weren’t even the same species as the eastern cottontails I hunted back home. These were called “swamp rabbits.” They also had a different scientific name — Sylvilagus aquaticus.
Though swamp rabbits differ in size from their eastern cousins, moreover, prefer marsh habitats and bottomland hardwood swamps, the contrast ends there. The way you hunt swampers is pretty much the same you’d hunt eastern cottontails.
Hunting swamp rabbits tends to be something that pretty much takes place after duck season along coastal Louisiana. The mild winters we experience here locally seldom see leaves fall from the trees until late November and December. What’s more, it’s not often a frost occurs in October or early November, which helps knock the vegetation down, making it easier to see your quarry on the run.
Therefore, February seems to be the month local hunters tend to hunt cottontails in St. Mary Parish. The flag grass, cut grass, cattails and bull tongue are brown, down and flattened out in the marsh. Canal bank briar patches have thinned out a bit, where any flushed rabbit has a hard time escaping well-placed shots.
Lastly, prevailing south winds tend to push water over the flattened marshes. When this occurs, it leaves only the high ground for rabbits to find refuge and makes it much easier for hunters to bag a few.
Rabbit season ends Feb. 29, providing just over a week to try and bag a few swampers this year. There’s nothing quite like hunting swamp rabbits, just like their eastern cousins in Michigan and miniature kin out in the Southwest desert.
Rabbit hunting is allowed on the Atchafalaya Delta and Attakapas Wildlife Management areas following the duck season. Both of these public wildlife management areas are known to produce rabbits.
As a precaution, be sure to hydrate while walking up rabbits in the marsh. This type of hunting can be physically challenging. Also, on warmer days, watch for snakes. Though it’s not often you hear of someone getting snake bit around these parts, it can and does happen. It’s just smart to be careful.
When it comes to rabbit hunting, there are some differences North, South, East and West. But, no matter how different the locations, the smells or the quarry size, just getting out is worth your while.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Writer.