You don’t need dogs or an expensive lease to load up on rabbits this time of year.
What could put Tae Bo, Pilates and Jazzercise to shame when it comes to air-sucking cardiovascular activity? What would make someone want to suffer charlie horses to the point of screaming for those around them to put them out of their misery? There’s only one thing — mashing marsh grass for swamp rabbits.
The term “upland game” is a misnomer when it comes to hunting Louisiana’s coastal marshes for these critters. There is nothing upland about it, except for the occasional canal or spoil bank. Making matters worse, in some areas, the marsh floats.
If this doesn’t sound like a pretty picture of the Sportsman’s Paradise, and you’re thinking, “Why would anyone want to do it?” — hang in there. I can think of quite a few reasons.
First, let’s start with the fact that Louisiana’s coastal rabbits are plentiful. Notwithstanding two horrendous hurricanes during the fall of 2005, only to be followed by drought well into the early summer, they’re also resilient.
Second, they’re big — no, huge!
“Let me clear up some confusion,” said Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Upland Game Program Manager Fred Kimmel. “We have two species of rabbits in Louisiana the cottontail and the swamp rabbit.
“What most people refer to as the marsh rabbit is really the swamp rabbit. The average weight of a swamp rabbit is a little over 4 pounds. In contrast, cottontails average around 2 1/2 pounds.”
Coloration is another difference.
“Swamp rabbits tend to be darker and have more of a black coloration on the back,” he said. “Sides, legs and rump are generally browner than cottontails.
“I find a good indicator is the tops of the feet — they tend to be white on cottontails but brown on swamp rabbits.”
All rabbits exhibit nearly the same traits when it comes to hunting them, with one exception.
“Unlike cottontails, swamp rabbits readily take to water and are thus more adapted to coastal marsh habitats than cottontails,” Kimmel said.
On more than one occasion while marsh mashing along bayou and canal banks, I was amazed at how swamp rabbits will use the water as an escape tactic. I’ve watched them burst out of cover, dive into the water and swim on ahead of our party of mashers.
I have seen them hold tight in 6 inches of water in the middle of a cattail thicket of flag grass, and I’ve watched them swim pipeline ditches. Whenever I organize a hunt, there is always one guy who is assigned to cover the bayou bank.
Hence, the third reason for marsh mashing. This species of bunny is wily. Since the dawn of time, every predator that flies or walks on four legs has been chasing him. We two-legged predators were not created with the equipment to sufficiently match these succulent, tasty marsh morsels.
Avoca Island Hunting Club Land Manager Jim Bodin is renowned for his skills in handling a pack of well-trained beagles. Bodin indicated there are opportunities when it comes to hunting the marshes without dogs.
“Even without dogs, hunters can find rabbits,” Bodin said. “But it’s the hardest way of doing it. In the marsh, there are certain areas where you can get out of your boat along the bank to find them. Rabbits like to move in tunnels. They don’t like to expose themselves — even at night. They know the hawks and owls are a danger.”
According to Bodin, likely places to find swamp rabbits in the marsh are patches of needle grass and low briars.
“You should be able to get out on the bank and walk 20 yards and stomp four or five patches of grass or briars in isolated locations,” he said. “Thick cover like needle grass and low briars will have tunnels all through them. If you don’t jump a rabbit, move on. They’re not there.
“I love to hunt rabbits with dogs, but all of the good areas we ever did well, the guys jumped rabbits before I let my dogs loose. So you can shoot rabbits without dogs.”
When scouting for rabbits, droppings are what everyone looks for. However, when searching for sign, there are key places to look.
“I look for droppings on logs and driftwood along shorelines, especially when it’s cold and wet,” Bodin said. “Rabbits like to drop their pellets on wood. If you don’t find droppings on logs or driftwood, there aren’t enough rabbits to hunt.”
As a secondary sign that most people don’t look for, Bodin pointed out that rabbits like to chew on the bark of wax myrtles.
Thick, shin-high briars can be spectacular. Typically, you’ll find them located along canal banks. But I’ve also found them in the marsh where oilfield flow lines have been buried.
These buried pipelines provide some welcome contour and cover that swamp rabbits can climb up on. Additionally, clover, blood-weed and alligator weed — all swamp rabbit favorites — grow well on these mini-ridges.
When I work these low briars, I like to work them slowly. So slowly in fact, my antsy compadres start to yawn as they wait on me. But the bottom line is, the rabbit knows I’m there, and I know he’s there. He has won this game of cat-and-mouse for centuries using the combination of cover, stealth and escape to his advantage. I want to literally unnerve him.
I will also zigzag cover, start and stop frequently, and even start all over again covering the same patch twice. I utilize this tactic in needle grass, cattails and any other cover where sign indicates rabbits are present.
Show me a patch of grass that has rabbit sign nearby, and I’ll mash it. Show me a fallen willow tree a storm knocked over in the marsh, and I’ll mash the grass that grew up around it.
There are three Ps when it comes to hunting the marsh for swamp rabbits: pre-scouting, preparation and planning.
Pre-scouting entails looking for several areas that contain enough rabbit sign to make a hunt. Preparation requires you do a little conditioning.
Depending on the size of the area, it takes only a few minutes for hunters to cut a few shooting lanes. Where allowed, a controlled burn also works well.
By conditioning your hunting locations, you increase your odds for a split-second clear shot. Besides being experts in stealth tactics, swamp rabbits can and do turn on the after-burners when trying to escape.
Finally, planning is imperative for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is safety. Hunting rabbits in close proximity to other hunters can be dangerous if done haphazardly.
Blaze orange is an absolute must for everyone who participates. Moreover, skirmish lines for jumping rabbits must be maintained with hunters in visual contact of each other.
Second, planning reduces the number of shots taken at rabbits running away, thus reducing meat damage.
“I just can’t shoot a rabbit running away in the butt,” Bodin said. “The back legs are the best part to eat. That’s the problem with jumping rabbits. The best way to do it is take two or three different parties and walk toward each other. It can be dangerous, so you have to be careful, but you keep the rabbits in one area, and the shots are better.
“A marsh hunt has to be organized or it will fall apart quickly. If you got 10 guys out there walking in 10 different directions, it won’t work.”
The easiest swamp rabbit hunting in the marsh occurs during high-tidal conditions when a hard south wind pushes water over the marsh. Rabbits immediately head to canal banks in order to stay dry.
I like to drop off two hunters and take one other hunter down the canal approximately 50 yards, where we’ll act as blockers as they walk toward us. We’ll shoot the rabbits that run toward us that they jump. We in turn, will reciprocate, as they become blockers for the next push.
On numerous occasions, we have taken limits using this technique.
The best time to hunt swamp rabbits in the marsh is late winter after several hard frosts have knocked the grass down. Along bayou banks and between canals, hunters will need to plan their hunt to determine the best strategy to maximize the terrain to their advantage. Look for promising locations along bayou banks, where your party of hunters can pinch fleeing rabbits into the curvature of the bend in a bayou. Between canals, push toward one end, and utilize blockers or standers where you have conditioned the marsh with shooting lanes.
As for weapons, many hunters choose .410, 16-, 20- and 12-gauge shotguns in everything from dog-leg single shots to semi-automatics to stacked barrel over and unders or side by sides.
However, in thick briars and needle grass, penetration is important. I prefer to use a 12-gauge loaded with 2 3/4-inch low-brass six-shot. It is light enough so as not to damage meat, but heavy enough to penetrate the thickest brush.
I also carry a .22-caliber single-action revolver. There is nothing like catching a swamp rabbit sitting tight in the low briars where you can squeeze off a round.
Marsh mashing for swamp rabbits is not for the faint of heart. However, I wouldn’t say it’s only a young man’s game either. Walking the marsh is like doing a mini-aerobics session. Since most hunters go to the field in somewhat less than top physical condition, taking regular breaks is important.
Weather can also be something to contend with. Late winter in Louisiana usually sees temperatures somewhere bouncing around the mid-60s. Hunters should wear layered clothing for crisp mornings that they can peel off as mid-day approaches.