As a late-onset hunter at age 39, my hunting apprenticeship completely missed the heart-pumping action that comes from stalking rabbits. I completely missed the opportunity to acquire rabbit-hunting skills as a kid that would have sped up my big-game hunting education and success.
Hunting rabbits requires effective scouting, keen spotting, quick reflexes and square shooting – every skill required to hunt big game. Recently, I covered the ground I should have as a boy, by hunting rabbits. It has been as much fun as a big boy can possibly have.
Quite by accident, while chasing Hungarian partridge spotted on a big woodpile, I bumped a cottontail. I missed that rabbit and several others. The little buggers were so fast, nearly impossible to see until a moment before a streak of cottontail disappeared into the tangle of decomposing wood. Last year, I followed my son around the pile and watched him collect four rabbits. His ability to see them amazed me, and I was little-boy jealous of his speed with Mr. Benelli – and downright envious when he cooked those little rabbits and served them in a traditional French cassoulet with white beans, wild duck, and bear sausage. I returned to that woodpile last summer while camping, bumped six rabbits, missed four and got just one. I was starting to learn this game.
It is obvious where rabbits have been, they leave tracks in the snow. Moose and ruffed grouse woods are full of rabbit tracks. Too, there are often rabbit tracks littered around woodpiles where clear-cuts have been executed. This past hunting season, every hunt when there was snow on the ground, there were rabbit tracks. The toughest thing to learn about rabbit hunting is how to see them. Certainly, there are likely rabbits in any place that holds deer and bears, but seeing a rabbit is tough. First, a hunter rarely sees a whole rabbit – you might find a funny-looking mushroom that turns into an ear, or what looks to be a black glass marble surrounded by a bit of fur suspended underneath a branch of a spruce tree, or you might find a patch of weird snow only to have it morph into a rabbit.
While grouse hunting in the boreal forest last fall, I decided to walk just inside the heavy spruce forest instead of driving the trail edge. I bumped a rabbit and had to get down on my hands and knees with my binoculars to find a shiny black eye the size of a marble suspended between two tree trunks as big as my wrists. He didn’t move off very far, and a load of Bismuth number five closed that deal. My preference for killing rabbits is the shotgun, but 22 Long Rifle hollow-points work well too. Aim high on the ribs or make a headshot if you can pull it off. If you don’t knock a rabbit down for good at the first shot, they run off to someplace where they will be impossible to retrieve.
Rabbits field dress and clean up fast compared to big game. Cut a crosswise slit at the back of the rabbit where the head joins the body. Work disposable-gloved fingers in and underneath the fur. Pull off the fur, like removing a jacket and pants, pulling the fur clear of flesh all the way to the feet. Cut through the tendons and separate the paws carefully from the fore and hind legs. Make a slit from the anus to the ribs, being careful not to cut the intestine. Reach in and scoop out the innards. (Keep the heart and liver if you like. I call those the wobbly bits. These often find a special place on our appetizer menus while hunting.) Cut through the rib cage, where the ribs join. Split the pelvis to clear out any remaining innards, and remove the tail. Cut around the neck and twist off the head. This seems to work best when the rabbits are freshly killed. Steve Rinella of MeatEater fame has a great YouTube video on how to skin and part out a rabbit. He reminds hunters to check the liver for spots that indicate the rabbit may have tularemia. If the liver is spotted, discard the entire rabbit.
It is a well-known joke that rabbits “tastes like chicken.” Actually, they taste like rabbit. But the meat is more like a lean, skinless laying hen (tasty and tough.) It needs a bit of moisture, slow heat and extended cooking time to make it tender. When back at camp or home, I cut the rabbit into five or six pieces: two hind legs, two front shoulders, one loin (two if you split the loin along the spine.) My friend Peter (not the rabbit) swears by Jamie Oliver’s Essex fried rabbit (E.F.R.), which he claims is better than K.F.C. That recipe directs you to simmer five or six rabbit pieces in herbed chicken stock for an hour. Remove the rabbit pieces from the stock, drain, chill and dip in seasoned flour, egg and milk wash, then seasoned breadcrumbs. Deep fry in oil at 350 degrees Fahrenheit until crispy and golden. A Google search for Essex fried rabbit and Jamie Oliver will turn up this recipe. Addy, my granddaughter, calls this “meat on the bone.” It is a regular request of hers. And when we hunt, she regularly asks about our success on rabbits.
I cooked my wood-pile rabbit by braising. Michael Ruhlman wrote a book called Braise, well worth the read and finding a place on your cook’s bookshelves. (You can listen to a detailed interview with Ruhlman here on my Elevate Your Game podcast, https://apple.co/3zvbpwT, where he shares some hard-earned culinary tricks deployed when he braises.)
Here is the recipe:
Tools & Equipment
You will require a sturdy kitchen knife, cutting board, vegetable peeler, wooden spoon, large cast iron or carbon steel frying pan and a Dutch oven to finish the rabbit in the oven.
Collect, clean and part-out a cottontail or snowshoe hare into six pieces.
- 2 cloves of garlic, smashed
- 1/2 cup of diced celery
- 1 cup diced peeled carrot
- 2 sliced shallots
- 1/2 cup of onions, peeled and sliced
- 1 sliced leek
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1/2 cup of whipping cream (optional, add if you like that creamy finish)
- Salt and pepper to season rabbit
- Flour for dredging
- 2 tablespoons of butter for frying
- Vegetable oil to augment the butter as needed
- 1 tablespoon of sweet or smoked paprika
- 1/4 cup of tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon of French mustard
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 tablespoon of fish sauce
Collect a cottontail, varying hare or snowshoe hare, clean, cut into six pieces and season the rabbit with salt and pepper. (Let sit at least two hours in the fridge to absorb the salt.)
Peel, cut, chop the vegetables, gather the rest of the ingredients and equipment.
Dredge the rabbit pieces in flour and fry in butter and oil until golden and crispy. Remove to a Dutch oven.
Add a little more oil to the pan and fry the garlic and vegetables until just starting to soften.
Deglaze the pan with red wine, add mustard, tomato paste and paprika, stir well, bring to a boil, add cream and reduce to a simmer. Add honey and fish sauce, taste and adjust with salt and pepper to taste.
Pour all of this over the seared rabbit in the Dutch oven and roast covered at 325 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours.
When done, serve over mashed potatoes or polenta.
A rabbit hunt can be put together at a moment’s notice, packing out the game is easy and field dressing is a snap. If you have missed out on a childhood of hunting rabbits, may I suggest you consider pursuing the cottontail? Rabbit hunting uses every skill required to take on big game and is a wonderful exercise in hunting skill development. There are no tags to buy, and the season is 365 days a year. I feel like a happy boy when I hunt rabbits, and a king when I eat one.