Saturday, 16 January 2010

Jack Rabbit Hunting

Jean Baptiste Oudry,A Hare and a Leg of Lamb, 1742

Here in Wyoming the White-tailed Jack rabbit (Lepus Townsendii), is common; until you want to find one to cook up for dinner.  Further south, the typically smaller Blacked-tailed Jack rabbit (Lepus Californicus) is the more common species. The much larger Antelope Jack (Lepus alleni) lives in the Sonora along our border with Mexico.   The White-tail Jack rabbit has (as you might suspect) a white tail and black tipped ears. Jack rabbits are hares and not rabbits.  They are distinguished from rabbits by, among other things: birthing young that are able to see and are fully furred; having black fur markings; and living above ground in  shallow "forms" and not underground in "warrens" as rabbits do.  White-tailed jacks weigh in between six and nine pounds.   They can move very fast, reportedly up to 45 mph.

Theoretically, Jack rabbit populations go up and down in a predator prey dynamic with the coyote. Other predators include foxes, bobcats, cougars, badgers, snakes, owls, eagles and other species of hawks and man.  Jack rabbits  are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) and nocturnal. They spend their days in the thick cover of sage coverts, hiding from the ubiquitous eagles and hawks overhead. Stillness is their defense.  At dusk the Jack rabbits start to emerge; to sit and watch and  to browse at the edges of their cover. When the threat is not from above, speed in open country is their defense, they can run a half a mile in less than a minute and I have seen them do it. When they set their minds to it, they go astoundingly far.

The name lepus is derived from levipes meaning "light foot".  Hares do not so much run or hop but appear to skip across the surface of the flat country they run in best; they seem to float, dropping their feet every 15 or 20 yards or so to push themselves off again.  The other evening, well after sunset but before real dark had set in, I jumped one and then another. I had jumped these same two a couple of days previous and when they saw me they knew the routine.  I watched them through the binoculars, light gray apparitions streaking across the grayer landscape from which had all color had faded as the night descended.  The first of the two Jacks started off and ran 400 yards before stopping to look back at me. A moment later the second one took off and passed the first. Startled by his fellow the first took off again and they bumped one another, running until their grayness merged with the quickly darkening landscape.

Some years ago, hoping to jump shoot a duck along a winding riverbed that flows through the sage country, I killed a Jack rabbit on the run at dusk with my shotgun. I'd seen the Jacks there a few times before but they are impossible to get close to. Jack rabbits tend to perceive any impingement on their space closer than than 75 or 100 yards a threat and they run off to a stand to watch you. A long shot with a shotgun loaded with #5 or #6 shot is 40 yards. Crossing the river that evening and wading chest high through the thick sage that stood between between me and my truck I jumped him and as he darted out to the open grass I instinctively shot and I had him. I did not get a duck but had a hare.

Partially because of his size but also because of their reputation as inedible I was dubious of his suitability for the pot.  This is emphasized in Elantu Veovode's rather odd book The Contented Poacher.  This woman will cook and eat mouse, armadillo, road runner and rattlesnake but says she'd rather eat a boot than a Jack rabbit. Forewarned by Veovode but having studied a recipe for Jack rabbit tamales I pushed on.  I decided to take only the saddle and haunch.  The meat was exquisite in appearance, like a miniature deer backstrap and roast.  I cooked the hare together with a few grouse breasts in a mustard sauce, a recipe in Patricia Wells' book Bistro Cooking.  I was surprised to discover that the Jack rabbit was far better than the grouse.

I have wanted another Jack rabbit for the pot since I killed and cooked that first one. I have had the opportunity more than once, jumping them while hunting birds over the dog.  I forgo the occasional shot at one that offers itself when hunting over the dog. This is to avoid instilling bad habits in him, habits  like chasing rabbits and not hunting birds.  This may be a mistake on my part because Vizsla's are a versatile breed. Here, versatile is a technical term describing dogs that can be used to point and retrieve game and ducks as well as birds.

I made an effort to kill another Jack rabbit a few years ago with Gary, dragging him out in midwinter to the sage country west of the Sierra Madres near Baggs WY.  Gary is a carpenter and furniture maker, an archer and traditional bow maker. He  rides a Mustang and lives off the grid.  He has been everywhere in WY but had never been to Baggs and so he agreed to go.  All we found were cottontails and lots of coyote tracks in a stretch of dried up river bottom.  We each killed a cottontail just about dusk. It started snowing and the 170 mile drive home through a blizzard in the dark was not exactly enjoyable.  As it turned out, a prickly pear thorn had punctured Gary's mukluks and lodged in his foot; he was partially laid up for months. When I dropped him off he gave me his rabbit and, with aching foot, told me he'd rather not hunt rabbits with me again. Oh well.  Two cottontails don't hardly have enough meat for a meal for one but they cooked up just fine.

I recently acquired a copy of Stéphane Reynaud's rather beautiful book Terrine; there are a number of recipes for Hare terrines of one sort or another.  A terrine is a kind of baking dish (terracotta or cast iron) and the dishes made in it are called terrines.  Pate is a kind of terrine though other chopped and ground meats, especially game, are common.  Practically, Reynaud's book is flawed in a number of ways, but the photos and recipes inspire. The main flaw is that the book includes no section discussing basic techniques and theory of terrines, it is simply a catalog of recipes and beautifully photographed terrines. My copies of Escoffier and Julia Child which include the missing discussion are packed away in the attic. The other flaw, remarked on by a number of internet reviewers is that, even if the recipes are followed carefully, many of the terrines crumble.

Freshly inspired by Reynaud, by the memory of the mustard sauce and based on what Jim Harrison (or was it Russell Chatham) has called aggressive menu planning, I decided I needed a Jack for the pot.

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Over the years I have constructed a theory of a particular style of Jack Rabbit hunting.  The idea is to stalk them, glassing with binoculars hoping for a close shot but if you jump one, to let it run and be ready to pick it off with a rifle when they stop to look back.   These shots would typically be rather long, 150 to 300 yards, meaning you would need a centerfire .22.

Studying maps to find access to public land is a required skill for a hunter in WY. There is a block of BLM land accessible from the road near my house that would seem to be perfect habitat. There is some good sage cover not far froma a lake. On a hunch, I headed there late in the afternoon three days ago. Hunting new habitat is always an adventure. I carefully glassed the country ahead of me as  I walked in. I'd scan the landscape with the binoculars, then walk a few steps and glass again. I passed through a closed gate and when, closing the gate behind me, the latch slammed, a Jack Rabbit took off at high speed overland from the big sage copse and disappeared into a small island of sage further out in otherwise open country. I headed for him and as I neared he took off and ran again. I guessed he was more than 200 yards off when he stopped and I was already in a prone shooting position and ready. I squeezed the trigger and cleanly missed. I worked the bolt and I shot again and missed again and then he took off. I turned to my left and saw another Jack maybe 150 yards out.  Just sitting,  perfectly still, a mottled white form blending almost perfectly against the snow and gray sky. I turned and aimed sure that he was mine.  I fired, missed again and he ran off into the cover of the sage. I could not believe it!  I have very rarely pulled a trigger intending to kill an animal and missed. I was nonplussed; I simply could not understand how this could have happened. I did not have a hare to show for my efforts. I had a similar hunt the following evening; fewer shots taken but misses all.

I started to wonder if my scope had been bumped out of alignment (unlikely) or if the knobs has been turned since sighting in (also unlikely). The Kimber regularly shoots three shots into less than an inch at 100 yards. I could only imagine that I was misjudging distances and not properly compensating for drop. Judging distances in wide open country is difficult, there are few clues to scale, and the sagebrush here is very large. I took the laser rangefinder on my next outing.  I do not really like the technology and it's one more thing to keep track of but I needed to figure out what I was doing wrong so I took it anyway.

When I crossed the fence (quietly) I saw a sitting Jack down the fence line. I'm not sure if she didn't see me or if he felt safe sitting among the sage. With the rangefinder I measured the distance at 159 yards.  Had anyone asked before I ranged it I would have guessed the hare was sitting was a bit less than 100 yards.  I set up my shooting sticks, took aim and fired. As I have never heard it before, I heard the bullet thwack when it hit her, and she was down immediately.

At home, the hare was hung, undrawn, overnight for a terrine made the following day.

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It is difficult to relay the intensity and authenticity of this style of hunt; even to other hunters. It coalesces all aspects of big game hunting: the stalk, careful glassing, the potential for long shots and the prospects of a meal of wild meat.


  1. Nicely written. Interesting commentary on the edible jack.

  2. I hunt cottontails the same way. About like deer hunting but faster action in good years. Smaller targets at closer range are about proportional.

    For eating, I find cottontails wonderful. White tail jacks and varying hares are about as good and lots more servings. I tried black tail jack once and will not do it again. Dark, strong, tough, nothing good about it.

  3. Thanks for the comment Edward. It's about that time of year again to start hunting rabbits and hares.