Rabbit hunting, more popular than you think
Rabbit hunting is the third most popular type of hunting activity in the U.S., behind wild turkey and deer hunting. Few people take advantage of it in Oregon, but they should because rabbits and hares are abundant and there is no closed season or bag limit.
You need a valid hunting license to hunt rabbit on public or private land. No other tag or validation is needed. If you are hunting on your own property or as the agent of a landowner, no hunting license, tag or validation is required either.
There is no specific statewide season for hunting rabbit, so they can legally be hunted at any time of year in many places.
Check your hunting area for any date restrictions or season closures. If hunting with dogs, keep in mind that dogs may not be trained or permitted to run at large in game bird nesting habitat from April to July 31, every year.
Early spring is one of the best times to hunt rabbits, as grasses and forbs are growing and rabbits are on the move. Hunting anytime after the first frost (or late fall) is also ideal because unhealthy rabbits won't have survived the colder temperatures. Hunters with dogs find early morning is an ideal time to hunt; rabbits move around at night and dogs can easily find scent in the morning.
Beagles are a popular rabbit hunting dog because they are small and can get through brambles and brush. A dog will force a rabbit out of the brush and then follow it by scent. Rabbits generally travel in circles, usually counter-clockwise, and will attempt to return to the same spot. Position yourself to cut the circle off.
If you do not have a dog, try hunting with one or more partners. One or two hunters can beat the brush while the other watches from a good vantage point for the rabbit to run and for the opportunity to take a shot. Also, try hunting in snow, so you can look for tracks to identify high-use areas or follow fresh tracks. Quietly still-hunt and look for rabbits before they bolt. That method is challenging, but a rabbit holding still can offer the opportunity for a clean shot with a .22, thus preserving the meat for the table.
Rabbits can harm crops, so you may find a landowner willing to grant you access; remember you must ask permission to hunt on private land.
In Eastern Oregon, hunt around alfalfa circles on private land and sagebrush covered BLM lands. Find cottontails in rimrock and boulder areas in sagebrush country. Jackrabbits are more often found in sagebrush and greasewood flats.
In Western Oregon, rabbits like thick cover (Himalayan blackberry, snowberry, wild rose bushes) and forage (mowed grass, legumes). Look for areas that have these two in close proximity. The edges of working farmland are often good spots to work in the spring; mowed crops and grasses will provide the fresh green-up rabbits like. Sometimes rabbits and hares can also be found on national forest and BLM lands in Western Oregon.
Hunters can pursue three species of rabbit and two species of hare in Oregon. The brush rabbit (westside Oregon), Nuttal's cottontail (eastside), eastern cottontail (Willamette Valley), snowshoe hare (found at high elevations), and black-tailed jackrabbit (found everywhere, especially Central and Southeastern Oregon).
Due to their low abundance, the white-tailed jackrabbit (Eastern Oregon) and the pygmy rabbit (Southeast Oregon) cannot be hunted. The white-tailed jackrabbit can be identified by its entirely white tail; it tends to live in grassland habitat. The pygmy rabbit is small (it usually weighs less than a pound), appears to lack a tail or has a uniform colored tail (usually buffy brown) and lacks the white undertail of most other rabbits.
Shotguns are often used for rabbit and hare hunting because one rarely sees the animal before it is off and running. Rabbits are generally considered to be "thin skinned" so the smaller shot sizes of No. 6 to No. 8 can be effective.
Open chokes, such as improved cylinder, are good choices in the brushy areas where rabbits and hares are often found. Any shotgun can be used; the most popular choices are 12 and 20 gauge with open chokes, and No. 6 or No. 8 shot in lead, or the No. 4 and No. 6 in steel.
The shooting distance will depend on your choice of weapon and shot, but generally do not take a shot beyond 35 yards. Marksmen can use a .22 rimfire long rifle. When using a rifle, aim for the head so as not to spoil the meat.
Rabbit is truly great table fare if handled properly in the field. Field dress immediately after killing it. This will help keep the meat safe and is easier to do before the animal gets cold. Also, remember to keep the rabbit clean. Don't use dirty water and keep the carcass away from mud, dirt and leaves. Use a clean knife and wear latex or rubber gloves.
Rabbit fever, or tularemia, is not commonly seen in Oregon, but it does occur in rabbits and rodents. It can be spread from infected animals to people through tick bites, handling of infected animals, eating or drinking infected material, and even through inhalation.
Tularemia is identified through inspection of an infected animal's internal organs, so when field dressing your animal look for any light spotting on the liver. If you even suspect you see white, yellow or any other liver spotting, place the animal in a plastic bag, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer, and contact an ODFW office.
State veterinarians will run tests on the liver to determine if the animal was infected. Do not eat the meat.