Rabbit Hunting in Tennessee

Tuesday, January 29, 2008 | 12:00 am

It’s prime time for small game hunting and what could be better than rabbit hunting on a cool winter morning? Chasing cottontails is an old-time tradition and one which thousands of Volunteer State hunters still pursue.

Hunters typically enjoy very good rabbit seasons here in Tennessee. Referring to the quality of rabbit hunting in the state, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Small Game Coordinator Roger Applegate said, “I would say that maybe it’s not outstanding, but I would call it good for the most part.”

Tennessee hunters must agree. The number of rabbit hunters in the state has increased significantly over the last 13 years. The amount of money these hunters are spending to pursue their quarry has also increased exponentially.

The TWRA doesn’t track the population trend of rabbits. TWRA has no mechanism in place to do so. Most of its information regarding the status of rabbits in the state comes from hunter harvest information.

According to data collected from hunters, the harvest in Tennessee remains consistent at about 2 1/2 to 3 rabbits per hunter per trip. The number of rabbits jumped per trip also remains virtually unchanged at about six rabbits per trip.

Regulations for hunting rabbits haven’t changed for a long time mainly because hunter harvest data really hasn’t changed much. This leaves TWRA to believe that rabbit populations are remaining stable. However, Applegate says TWRA would like to begin using better methods for tracking rabbit populations across the state.

The reasons for other methods of tracking rabbit populations is because of the diversity of rabbit species across the state and also variances in local populations within given areas of the state.

There are three distinct rabbit sub-species within the Volunteer State. Obviously, the bulk of the rabbits in Tennessee are the common eastern cottontail. However, in extreme eastern Tennessee in the higher elevations, there are good many Appalachian cottontails. Hunters in the western end of the state and parts of midstate have good opportunity to stumble across swamp rabbits.

One of the problems with making a categorical assumption about rabbit populations based on harvest data is that it doesn’t single out individual populations of rabbits which potentially could be in need of closer scrutiny. Just because rabbits collectively across the state appear to be in good shape does not mean there aren’t localized populations that are dealing with habitat issues or threats.

“Ideally, we need distribution and densities of both swamp rabbits and Appalachian cottontails,” said Applegate. “The habitats are changing for both of these species and currently we have no way to monitor if it is having an affect on population numbers or the range of these species.”

The common cottontail is not unaffected either. There is much change ongoing throughout the range of the cottontail. While numbers are still strong, there are certain areas of the state where development and habitat changes have certainly affected rabbit populations
One such habitat change is the popularization of suburbanized living. In many areas, what was once rich rabbit habitat is now comprised of homes on sprawling lawns of 5 to 10 acres.

Rabbits are adaptable, so if these areas still hold good habitat quality, the rabbit populations will still remain strong in those areas. However, in areas where the land is covered by large home lots with neatly manicured lawns and every patch of cover is mowed or burned, there is little protection for rabbits from predation and the elements.

Although the TWRA can’t pinpoint localized population trends right now, it doesn’t point to there being a problem with our rabbit population. It merely means we can’t learn all we would like to know about them. If there were any suspected problems, Applegate and TWRA would be looking at ways to correct them.

The fact is we have a very strong rabbit population and overall hunting is good. Hunter numbers continue to climb, but the jump rate and harvest success remains stable. That’s a pretty strong indication that there are plenty of rabbits out there to be found.

While many people are die-hard rabbit hunting enthusiasts and pursue them from opening day on, others turn to rabbit hunting when other hunting seasons begin to subside. Right now is still a great time to enjoy some excellent rabbit hunting, but conditions have changed since opening day. Hunters must change too if they are to find success.

In mid-November when the season opened, hunters may have thought they had reached rabbit hunting nirvana. Rabbit numbers were high, there were plenty of locations holding rabbits, and hunting success was high. That euphoria tends to wane a bit as the season continues.

By this time of the year, rabbits have seen a lot of hunting pressure and their surroundings have undergone drastic changes as well. Finding them is not as easy as it was a month or so ago. Hunters must work a little harder now to be successful.

Changes to habitat and food sources are the most significant factors to consider. Much of the food sources which were abundant earlier are now limited or non-existent. Grasses begin to die and dry up. Other food sources such as farm crops and other vegetative matter also disappears. Rabbits often must move to find adequate nutrition.

Although rabbits can survive the winter living on browse such as tree bark and other meager offerings, they can’t survive without cover. Their surroundings are vitally important to withstand the elements and escape predation.

By late winter, much of the vertical cover has fallen or been blown down by the wind. Not only do hunters thrive, but many other predators have easy pickings of rabbits subjected to open habitat. Therefore, rabbits will seek out the heaviest cover they can find during the late season.

These areas may include briar-laden thickets, ditch banks, fence rows, blown-down trees, or along railroad tracks. It may even include small woodlots or the edges of big timber. With the vast proliferation of coyotes and the loss of old-time traditional rabbit habitat, rabbits are being found in the edges of wooded areas more than ever.

Good dogs are almost a necessity in the late season. Sure it’s still possible to get out and walk the habitat and jump a few rabbits, but the greatest success will come to those with good canine companions.

As mentioned, rabbits will get in the heaviest, thickest cover they can find and will hold tight. Some of this habitat is virtually impossible to penetrate by humans. A dog that is willing to get in there in the thick stuff and “dig around” is indispensable. Sometimes in the late season, rabbits will hold so tight the dog literally has to almost walk on top of a rabbit before it will move.

The season continues for rabbits until the end of February with a bag limit of five per day. There is a lot of good rabbit hunting left to enjoy this season. Just remember to be safe, have a good time, and not over-pressure any one area to ensure there are plenty of rabbits there for next year.

Rabbit season provides a great opportunity to introduce a youth or other “newbie” to the world of hunting. If possible, take someone along and let them enjoy the great fun and camaraderie of a traditional Tennessee rabbit hunt.