“Here they come,” North American Hunter Editor Gordy Krahn said as he sat in a North Dakota snowdrift deeper than the national debt.
“More to the west. Just breaking the horizon.” Our Devil’s Lake fishing guide and new friend Brian Ringeisen had circled that way a half-hour earlier expressly to nudge the rampaging bunch of bunnies our way. I shifted in my layers of fleece and pushed back my hood, daring to brave the minus 8-degree temperature for a clear view. If we were about to be swarmed by jack rabbits, I might need all my peripheral vision.
“Comin’ from your left!” I hissed. “Almost behind you!” Gordy turned nearly 180 degrees before catching sight of a long-eared hare kicking up divots of snow as its long legs propelled it 18 feet per bound on a suicide run for the trees behind us. I heard my partner’s .243 Win. snap in the muted, snowy air, but didn’t see the result because my attention had been diverted by my own kamikaze rabbit. It loped past, mildly curious, as I raised the rifle, then went bug-eyed and broke into an all-out sprint when the first shot missed. After slamming in a fresh round, I swung the .22-250 Rem. like a shotgun and slapped the trigger, bowling the bunny in a cloud of snow. It was less than 15 steps away, not that I had time to measure just then, because at least a dozen more jacks were hopping in from the north, most stopping warily to eyeball the trouble. The wind alone prevented us from “running the table” on them.
“How far are you holding into the wind?” I demanded after Gordy nailed his second hare at an estimated 220 yards and I missed mine. It was tough judging distance in the near-white-out conditions, blowing snow merging drifts with cloudy sky.
“Just half a rabbit.”
“That’s explains it. I was giving them a full rabbit.” I shifted my crosshairs closer to my next jack and watched it tip over. Three more followed before the remaining members of the horde overwhelmed us, legs and ears flying past at jack rabbit speed, gaining the safety of the trees.
Yes, jack rabbit hunting can be that exciting. And not just in the frozen wastes of North Dakota. White-tailed jacks range in varying densities from Wisconsin west to northeast California and from central Alberta to southern Colorado. Its slightly smaller cousin, the black-tailed jack, hops from western Arkansas to the Pacific Coast and from central Washington state deep into Mexico. The long-legged antelope jack, which sports the longest ears of the group, is confined to a small part of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona, but becomes more common in Mexico. There’s even a rare, white-sided jack down there, and of course there are the snowshoe hares (varying hare) of the Northwoods and the Tundra hare of northern Canada and Alaska.
I rarely hear hunters talk about jack shooting. Even less often do I see them afield. This strikes me as odd, given our long history of jack rabbit hunting and the current popularity of varmint hunting. Back in the 1940s through the ’60s, when Jack O’Connor was writing about guns and hunting for Outdoor Life magazine, he addressed desert jack shooting regularly, claiming it was one of the best ways to tune up for big game hunting. It still is. During this same era, we South Dakota kids were pursuing jacks with a passion, roaming winter fields with .22 rimfires every weekend both for the shooting and the money.
Market hunting might have been too strong a term for what we did, but jacks were considered vermin by the state and their flesh and hides brought from 50 cents to a buck from mink farmers and fur buyers. Farmers and ranchers all contended jacks were too tough, stringy and foul tasting for human consumption, but by actually baking and eating some I discovered the protests were a bit overdone. Winter-killed jack rabbit loins and hams were neither tough nor stringy. The flesh was dark like goose or prairie chicken. Young summer and early fall hares are quite tender. Just because jacks sometimes reach pest status on grain fields and pastures, don’t assume they’re inedible.
Because these hares evolved on grasslands where they can spot danger from a long distance and run fast and far to evade it, their numbers increase during extended droughts. At such times they can reach plague numbers and descend on grain and hay fields, inciting farmers to act in self defense. Hundreds, even thousands of people have cooperated in mass drives, surrounding huge chunks of country to push jacks toward a center where they’re shotgunned or simply clubbed to death. One such mass drive in California near the beginning of the 20th century saw 8,000 people terminate some 20,000 jack rabbits.
A water shortage rarely bothers these critters because they metabolize moisture from vegetation. Too much rainfall fuels rampant vegetative growth, blocking their view as well as their escape. Dense CRP fields, which have benefited cottontails, whitetails, pheasants and prairie grouse, have depressed jack rabbit numbers. Like pronghorns and prairie dogs, long-legged hares love short grass and wide open spaces. One exception is sagebrush. This native shrub can be quite dense and still support jacks in high numbers, probably because its understory is wide open, leaving plenty of room to run.
Some fringe states might not allow jack rabbit hunting, but those in the heart of jack range have year-round open seasons and liberal to no bag limits. Check local regulations before hunting.
How do you hunt these hares? Anyway you want. Hike and jump. Glass and stalk. In deep snow, hunt any kind of cover. Jacks like to scratch out shallow forms against trees, clumps of weeds, cut banks, snow drifts, even patches of cattails—anything that breaks the wind or provides a bit of visual cover to their backside. Look for tracks and trails. In heavy snow, jacks beat regular highways from bedding cover to feeding areas. A dozen can leave tracks, trails and droppings suggesting hundreds. These big bunnies are mostly nocturnal, but you’ll catch them hopping about at dawn. After that they huddle in their forms until dusk again rouses them. The last half-hour of shooting light can be a day’s most productive.
Everything from bows to big game rifles will work. Shotguns are deadly in sage cover where shots are close and fleeting. Rimfires are also effective if the sage isn’t too tall or too dense. Getting a rifle up and on target will train proper gun handling quickly. Jacks that stop in range tutor all aspects of good, quick field shooting—from choosing a steady position (prone to standing) to trigger control. Centerfires extend shooting range to 500 yards in open plains grasslands, providing critical practice in long-range shooting. During our North Dakota hunt, Gordy and I missed plenty of 300-yard shots, but we also made some longer ones. My most educational was a jack at 469 yards. It fell on my third shot, the Federal 55-grain Sierra BlitzKing bullets kicking up snow under the animal on the first try, then over on the second. I split the difference with my 14X Leupold crosshairs on the third and Mr. Rabbit stuck all four feet toward the sky. It took considerable searching through the lush, white fur to find the entry hole. “No exit from a .22-250 Rem.?” Gordy questioned. “That seems odd.” I consulted a ballistic program later and discovered the bullet at that range was carrying the same energy a .22 Long Rifle rimfire slug would at 55 yards.
Long-range or close, winter or summer, jack rabbits provide the kind of simple, accessible hunting our forefathers enjoyed. No need to plan months in advance, apply for limited tags or squeeze a year’s worth of anticipation into a short season. Just grab a shootin’ iron when the spirit moves you, get out for a few hours and fetch home a hare for Hasenpfeffer stew.