By Chuck Nottingham
Traditionally, March and April are last months before summer to hunt cottontail rabbits.
Officially, Montana has no season on any of its four kinds of rabbits and three kinds of hares. All are edible, but my family's favorite "pot" bunny is the incredibly tasty, incredibly prolific cottontail rabbit. The "season" referred to is from a pioneer hunting poem passed on by my grandmother:
Wild bunnies for a cooking pot
Are better some months some months not.
Best skin 'em quick in months with Rs
To chill a-while in water jars.
Daughter of early territory settlers and a fair hunter and trapper herself, Emily Berta Neilsen Nottingham Duncan found cottontails easy to catch and simple, delicious meals. However, she and the unknown rhymer noted in warmer months May, June, July, and August with no "R" in their spellings rabbit fur's propensity to attract tiny critters like mites, fleas, ticks, and microbes.
Some folks claim the poem's admonishment to harvest rabbits in cooler weather is for more disease-prone hares snowshoe and jacks. Others say the month isn't as important as speedy flaying, eviscerating, and washing if bagged with shotguns. Otherwise tiny shot carrying fur and organ-matter can taint the tender meat.
Never one to fly in the face of folk wisdom, Grandma had me follow the verse to the letter. If it was bunnies I was sent to rustle up for campfire or kitchen stove with my single-shot .22 or snare, it was always September, October, November, December, January, February, March, or April, "months with Rs."
"Skin 'em quick" I did, field dressing bunnies much like processing frying chickens, then carrying them to camp or home in an old canvas waterbag slung over my shoulder, packed with snow or icy spring water.
Grandma soaked them all day or overnight before cooking the best rice 'n' rabbit this side of the pearly gates.
My new hunters find spring cottontails excellent practice to hone hunting skills, so the tradition continues, adding a modern twist or two.
Risks of field dressing and handling ANY wild bird or animal are substantially reduced by wearing inexpensive, disposable protective gloves.
Leaky canvas waterbags are now replaced with plastic zip-locks in folding, waterproof coolers to safely chill small game to the bone, ready for evening meal.
A favorite family field recipe requires one cottontail for every 2-3 people. Leave rabbits mostly intact, only removing heads, feet, and ribs. Add a handful of baking soda or salt to fresh soak-water for at least an hour.
Pat the rabbit(s) dry and rub all over with lemon juice. Spit or grill the rabbit whole over the fire or bake in a hot oven. While the bunny browns, rub on more lemon juice and cook up a cup of rice per rabbit. Coat the bottom and sides of a covered pot or deep skillet with butter or oil. When the rice is done, make a nest of rice in the pot for the rabbit. Pour on a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup and a soup-can of water. Add seasoning to taste Granny liked curry and coarse black pepper. Clamp on the lid and simmer in coals an hour-and-a-half or two. Add water as needed when stirring now and then.
A crock pot's good for home cooking. Backpackers with thinner cookware should bank coals well and stir more often to cook evenly. They can also substitute Realemon and rehydrate instant rice and packaged soup.
Rice 'n' rabbit is truly simple to prepare, and everyone's taste buds will thank you. Remember, the recipe is for cottontail. If hares or squirrels are the menu, cook slow another 5-6 hours.