From the mountainous, dense forests in northern California to the desert flats in the southern parts of the state, you may not find a more fun game than rabbit hunting in California. Up north, you will find cottontails everywhere, from the backcountry National Forest to the city park. To the south, the much larger jackrabbit can be found in abundance.
California doesn’t come to most people’s minds when it comes to rabbit hunting. People generally think about swamp rabbits in the southeast or large cottontails in the Midwest. If you haven’t taken a chance to look into rabbit hunting in The Golden State, you definitely should. Along with the stunning scenery, the chances of coming away with a good haul of meat are in your favor.
Like other outdoor activities, rabbit hunting is a specific niche that hosts hunters that are very passionate about their practice. You will not find hundreds of thousands of rabbit hunters across the country like you will with big game hunters, but small game hunting, in general, is gaining traction among the younger generation.
Rabbits are not very hard to hunt, making them a great species for beginner hunters. The fun of rabbit hunting also makes it a go to for experienced hunters looking for a good time. Many upland bird hunting enthusiasts will take California rabbit and hare as a secondary game on hunts. Birds such as quail, dove, grouse, and pigeon often share the same habitats as California rabbits.
Rabbit Habitat in California
Contrary to their appearance, rabbits are very hardy animals that can thrive in many different habitats. Cottontail rabbits can be found anywhere from thick, dense forests to hay pastures and crop fields. Like other small game animals, rabbits must eat a good percentage of their body weight to survive.
Their extremely high metabolism and their continuous high alertness force them to stay closer to areas with a high abundance of food, even if that means giving up shelter and security. From berries and nuts to grass and leaves, a cottontail’s diet is considerably diverse compared to other small game animals. This is the reason for their wide distribution across the continent.
Jackrabbits, on the other hand, prefer flat, open prairies and desert grasslands. They are much faster than their cotton-tailed cousins but still live the same type of lifestyle. Their dependence on food at times puts them in vulnerable situations. Luckily, jackrabbits have evolved to be the fastest small game animal in the western hemisphere.
Their large ears are adapted to funnel in noise that could be miles away while also helping to cool them off. Their diet is limited due to the lack of resources in the desert climate. You can find jackrabbits eating almost any vegetation and even young cacti.
Jackrabbits specifically like cacti because of the lack of water in the desert. This can concentrate the rabbits and make them somewhat easier to locate when hunting them. You just have to bear the same climate, which can be much harder for us to do.
Rabbit Hunting Season/Regulations
Jackrabbit season in California is open all year long due to their high numbers. Both black-tailed and white-tailed jackrabbits fall into this category. There is no possession limit for these small game animals.
As for any other species of rabbit in the state. The general hunting season starts around the first of July and typically runs until the last Sunday of January. The falconry season usually opens for two months after the general season is closed. The shooting hours for all resident small game mammals shall be one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset.
The method of taking rabbits can vary depending on the location. Hunting rabbits in Southern California can be slightly complex, with a plethora of firearm restrictions in certain areas. No matter the location, all California hunters must abide by the nonlead projectile and ammunition laws. In addition, the following regulations apply and are taken directly from the Fish and Game Commissions regulations.
- a) Shotguns 10 gauge or smaller using shot shells only and incapable of holding more than three shells in the magazine and chamber combined. If a plug is used to reduce the capacity of a magazine to fulfill the requirements of this section, the plug must be of one-piece construction and incapable of removal without disassembling the gun.
- (b) Shotgun shells may not be used or possessed that contain shot size larger than No. BB, except that shot size larger than No. 2 may not be used or possessed when taking wild turkey. All shot shall be loose in the shell.
- (c) Muzzle-loading shotguns.
- (d) Falconry.
- (e) Bow and arrow (see Section 354 for archery equipment regulations).
- (1) It shall be unlawful to take wild turkey by use of hunting arrows and crossbow bolts unless fitted with a broad head type blade which will not pass through a hole seven-eighths inch in diameter. Mechanical/retractable broadheads shall be measured in the open position.
- (f) Air rifles powered by compressed air or gas and used with any caliber of pellet, except that wild turkey may only be taken with a pellet that is at least 0.177 caliber.
- (g) In addition to the methods listed in (a), (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f) above, firearm rifles and pistols may be used for taking rabbits and squirrels only; except in Los Angeles County where rifles and pistols may not be used.
- (h) In San Diego and Orange counties only, rabbits may be taken at any time during the open season by means of box traps. Such traps shall not exceed 24 inches in any dimension, shall be tended at least once every 24 hours, and shall show the name and address of the trap owner. All rabbits taken under this section shall be immediately killed and become a part of the daily bag limit.
- (i) Electronic or mechanically-operated calling or sound-reproducing devices are prohibited when attempting to take resident game birds.
- (j) Coursing dogs may be used to take rabbits.
- (k) Archers hunting during any archery season may not use or possess a firearm while in the field engaged in archery hunting during an archery season except as provided in subsection (k)(1).
- (1) Nothing in this section shall prohibit the lawful possession of a concealed firearm by an active peace officer listed in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3, of Part 2 of the Penal Code or a retired peace officer in lawful possession of an identification certificate issued pursuant to Penal Code Section 25445 authorizing the retired officer to carry a concealed firearm. Nor shall this section prohibit the lawful possession of a concealed firearm pursuant to a concealed carry permit issued pursuant to Penal Code sections 26150 or 26155.
- (l) The use of live decoys is prohibited when attempting to take resident game birds.
- (m) Pistols and revolvers may be used to take sooty and ruffed grouse in those counties only and for the season described in Section 300(a)(1)(E).
- (n) Crossbows, except for provisions of Section 354(d) and (g).
- (o) Dogs may be used to take and retrieve resident small game.
Change without regulatory effect 8/9/2019.
Be sure to read the regulations on the wildlife website. These rules can change year over year, and it’s important to stay up to date on the information whenever rabbit hunting in California.
Hunting tactics For Rabbit
The beauty of rabbit hunting is the different hunting tactics used to take the animal. There are three main methods of hunting rabbits in California that are each effective in their own right. Many outdoorsmen will target multiple species while rabbit hunting in California. Remember that while rabbit hunting, as long as you have an upland bird tag and within the season, you may simultaneously hunt quail in California.
Rabbit hunting with Dogs
By far, the most popular way to hunt rabbits is with dogs. Hunters will let hounds loose, and they will sniff out the rabbits’ scent and pursue them. The tricky part for the hunter is to determine where the dogs ‘struck a trail’.
Striking a trail means they have located a fresh rabbit scent that is likely to have just come from a rabbit. The hunters must get into the gun range and wait for the dogs to run the rabbit around to its original location. Rabbits will most always return back to their initial hiding spot once they are being pursued. They will try to lose their pursuer while also leading them away from their home.
Once the dogs have circled the rabbit back to its original location, hunters will take the animal with a shotgun. A shotgun must be used due to the fact that the rabbit will be at full speed when it approaches a hunter. Any gauge shotgun from a 12-gauge to a .410 equipped with 5 or 6 shot will suffice for dispatching the rabbit.
Slow Stalking Rabbit
Another effective tacting for hunting rabbits is the stalking method. This is the best option for those who do not have any rabbit hunting dogs. This is also the preferred method for solo hunters or those accompanying new and learning hunters.
The most effective tactic to spot and stalk is to first find great rabbit habitat. Next, you simply walk slowly, hoping to flush a rabbit out of its hiding spot. If you are stealthy and patient enough, you will not stress the animal out enough for him to completely run away.
Oftentimes, they will stop and expose themselves, trying to figure out what has intruded on them. This is when a shot opportunity arises. Like dog hunting, you can use a shotgun to kill the rabbit. You can also use a small rimfire carriage such as a .22 or a .17 to make the kill.
Using a small rifle will require you to shoot them in the head so you won’t have any meat damage. A small rimfire rifle is a great choice because the chances of spooking the surrounding rabbits are much lower because of how much quieter a .22 or .17 is than a shotgun.
The most interesting but uncommon way to hunt them is with a falcon. Rabbits are falconers’ favorite animal to pursue because of their wide availability and the fact that they can’t climb. Falconers will let a falcon or hawk free once they have entered rabbit habitat and let them do the work. Once the falcon has caught the rabbit, the falconer will get to the rabbit as quickly as possible and let the bird eat a portion of the rabbit as a reward before taking it away from the falcon. This is a very uncommon practice but is still used in many states such as California today.
Cooking & Table fare
Rabbits are known globally for their mild, tender meat. Cottontail is wonderful for stews, frying, and slow cooking. The meat is comparable to squirrels. Wild rabbits have a much different taste than farm raised rabbits. Farm raised rabbits are fed a steady diet of grain which make their meat mild and fatty. A wild cottontail, on the other hand, that has been eating nuts, berries, and grass has a mild yet savory flavor.
Jackrabbits have a much less desirable flavor than cottontails. The majority of jackrabbits are stewed with flavorful herbs and spices to knock out the gamey flavor they produce. The meat is often compared to a very bold liver flavor. Younger Jackrabbits are less prone to diseases, thus making them more desirable than larger jackrabbits.
When hunting rabbits early in the season, there will undoubtedly be mites that will be on any rabbit you kill. Before skinning them, be sure to soak them in cold saltwater. This will get the majority of the mites off of them and keep the hair from sticking to the meat during the skinning process. After getting the hide off the rabbit, age the meat in a cooler or fridge for a few days. This will help tenderize the meat and make it easier to cook.
Cottontail rabbits in the state of California have done well considering massive fires, droughts, and increased predation from coyotes and mountain lions. Jackrabbits are holding a steady population despite ranchers and hunters killing them off in mass numbers. As long as the habitat is available, rabbits will flourish in California.
Rabbit Hunting in California
If you’re looking for an exciting new critter to hunt this year in California, consider rabbit hunting. Find some folks with some dogs and ask them if you can tag along or simply walk some public grasslands by yourself. Learning to hunt them will take time and effort, but once you get the hang of it, you will be tempted to put your big game rifle up and head out in search of rabbits. Remember, treat the animal with respect and perform your due diligence to use all of the resources it provides.
Experiment with new recipes and use different methods. After you have some experience, teach others to rabbit hunts and the safety thereof. The more people that are pursuing this animal, the more important they will be to legislation and the more funding the animal will receive for future generations.