By Chuck Nottingham
Spring's here! And spring cottontails abound on sunny south slopes of the Bear Paws running down to the Missouri Breaks. Young hunters will have good times getting good practice and good food for cook-pots April though May.
What do they look like?
Mountain cotton-tails are a variation of Sylvilagus floridanus, famous for their fluffy white cotton-ball trailer hitch.
With shorter ears and smaller hind legs than jacks and snowshoe hares that go from winter white to summer dark, cotton-tails are true rabbits. Winter and summer, the tail is all that shows white. The rest stays gray or brownish-gray year around.
Where to look?
Despite Bugs Bunny's cartoon digs, American hares and rabbits don't live underground in boroughs like European lop-ears. Instead, they take advantage of natural surroundings and cover.
Cottontails lay back their ears and hunch to resemble round stones in snow fields. Their gray to gray-brown fur blends well with gray sage and brown earth. They like to hide from hawks and other hunters like you deep inside dark juniper bushes.
But in snow, mud, and soft soil dirt, they leave tiny tell-tale dog-like paw prints, complete with claw-marks. The clincher is their unmistakable back-paw prints four or more inches long.
They like roadside brush along fences, but remember shooting from public roadways and barrow pits is against the law. Other favorite hangouts are abandoned granaries and farm machinery. Also it's a recent Montana law to ask land-owner permission first on private land to hunt ANY game, big or small.
What's a good rabbit gun?
Speaking of Montana law, firearm hunters and shooters under 14 MUST be directly supervised by an adult. No exceptions.
The .22 rimfire has been the most popular bunny-bagger for a century and a half. It's available in rifles from single-shots to repeaters of all types. Sights can be scopes to simple open sights.
Cotton-tail hunters also like shotguns with smaller 7*, 8 or 9 shot. Even though the .410 is considered an experts-only gun for flying game, the littlest shotgun is perfect for beginners on slower-moving bunnies. Bigger 28-gauge bores up to 20-gauge are okay with open chokes.
Muzzle-loading rifles of .30 to .40 calibers are specially made for squirrels and rabbits. Unlike modern high-power big-game guns of the same bore-size, the round lead ball of cap n' ball guns pass through small game intact for a clean kill with no ruined meat.
How to care for game?
When field-dressing ALL game these days, hunters are safer wearing latex or rubber gloves to avoid tiny critters that may lurk in fur or hair.
Pull all skin off first. A small jack-knife nick is enough to get started. Then grip the fur at the cut with gloved hands and pull both ways. Trim off the head and feet where fur remains.
Throw skin and extremities away. They're biodegradable. When all the fur's safely away, disease-bearing mites, ticks, and fleas are no longer dangerous to hunters. But many keep gloves on for cleaner hands.
Make a shallow slit along the rabbit's stomach from crotch to sternum and scoop out lungs and viscera. If clean snow or ice is handy, it helps cool the body cavity. It's always a good idea to carry field-dressed rabbits in cool game bags.
Cotton-tail hunters don't require hunting licenses, and there's no bag-limits on bunnies in Montana, but ethical hunters take no more than they can eat.
What do they taste like?
The heavenly cuisine goes beyond the clique "tastes like chicken." Rabbit recipes are as prolific as bunnies themselves in old cookbooks and on-line. After chilling overnight in lightly-salted water, many simply slow-cook bunnies in crock-pots with a favorite soup, like mushroom or tomato.
The whole spring experience is a treat for the senses.