Rabbit hunters in West Virginia enjoy a long winter season with plenty of outdoor action.
This story was originally published in the January 2024 issue of Wonderful West Virginia. To subscribe, visit wonderfulwv.com.
Written by Laura Jackson
Photographed by Chris Ryan
As days grow short and temperatures drop, rabbit hunters are just getting warmed up. The season offers hunters and hounds alike a chance to get outside, enjoy the wild, and share in the chase with friends and family.
Some of these friends include biologists and game managers with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. While they spend their days in the office and the field, they’re as eager as anyone to follow their dogs out into nature and begin the hunt.
West Virginia is home to rabbits and a hare: the Eastern cottontail, the Appalachian cottontail, and the snowshoe hare.
According to Holly Morris, a certified wildlife biologist and WVDNR furbearer and small game project leader, the most common species is the Eastern cottontail, a rabbit found in farm country, on field edges, and in backyards. While they do overlap with Appalachian cottontails, the latter generally live at higher elevations—usually around 2,500 feet—and prefer a denser habitat. The thick cover provided by low vegetation, like mountain laurel and blackberry, offers desirable shelter in northern hardwood forests.
Snowshoe hare are found at the highest elevation and are known for their coat, which camouflages them according to the season. Brown fur hides them in the safety of the brush in the warmer months and changes to white in the winter.
Once considered rodents, rabbits and hares are now classified as lagomorphs from the taxonomic order Lagomorpha, a classification that they alone share with the pika. The differences between rabbits and hares are easy to spot: Rabbits are smaller than hares, which have longer ears and hind legs. Rabbits often live in groups in underground burrows called warrens, whereas hares are more solitary and nest above ground. In addition, rabbits are born blind and hairless, and hares are born with fur and open eyes.
Both rabbits and hares face threats from many predators and have adapted by having large litters of four to six kits multiple times per year. “Their goal is to reproduce,” Morris says. “A lot of predators do prey upon rabbits. Rabbits also get hit by cars, or house cats hunt them. We do get a lot of calls about folks with their pets—their dogs bring back a baby bunny, or maybe they found a nest in the yard. So that’s how those species survive: reproduce often, in large numbers.”
State forests across West Virginia are full of recreational opportunities for everyone, including hunting for both small and large game. Always check rules and regulations before heading out!
CABWAYLINGO STATE FOREST, Wayne County
CALVIN PRICE STATE FOREST, Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties
COOPERS ROCK STATE FOREST, Monongalia and Preston counties
GREENBRIER STATE FOREST, Greenbrier County
KANAWHA STATE FOREST, Kanawha County
KUMBRABOW STATE FOREST, Randolph County
SENECA STATE FOREST, Pocahontas County
Release the Hounds
The West Virginia rabbit season runs from the first weekend in November until the end of February. However, small game hunting is prohibited during the first three days of buck firearms season in all counties having a buck firearms season. Hunters can take five cottontails per day and two hares, Morris says. And while deer hunting is a silent vigil, those hoping for rabbits can take a more relaxed approach in the field—making them excellent species for novices to hunt.
“You don’t have to be super quiet,” she says. “You can move around, you don’t need camouflage. It’s a very relaxed setting. Folks get together, and most of them have dogs. This is when your beloved beagle gets to go out and do what he was bred to do—use his nose and find bunnies.”
Beagles were bred in the 1830s in Britain to hunt hare, an activity also known as beagling. “The hunters will go out and turn their dogs loose and, as soon as the dogs smell a rabbit, they’ll start to bark and follow that scent trail,” Morris explains. “Eastern cottontails, especially, will make a big loop. As the hunter, you’re supposed to get in front of them. The rabbit may run right by you. If the dogs are coming back toward you and you haven’t seen the rabbit, it means the rabbit’s already gone by and you’ve missed him.”
The experience is not necessarily about harvesting the rabbits, she adds. Some hunters simply enjoy
exercising their dogs. “The dogs are so happy to be out there, running around.”
For some hunters, the dogs are the best part of the hunt. Christopher Ryan, supervisor of Game Management Services with the WVDNR, is a rabbit hunter and beagle lover. He began hunting
with beagles as a teen. Now, he’s introducing the sport to his own kids with his three dogs in tow.
“It’s a very social activity,” he says, echoing Morris. “It’s really good to be able to take younger people
out. Obviously, they do have to have a little bit of responsibility.”
Ryan’s beagles all enjoy the hunt, and each one hunts differently. One barks when she’s close to the rabbit; another is a cold tracker that can find scents from hours prior. “You can hear the dogs’ different voices. I know exactly which one is barking.”
Hunters who are willing to hike into wilder places will be rewarded, he says, as rabbits that live in a high-pressure, frequently hunted area will learn how to evade dogs and hunters. The animal may run in a random pattern, jump through a pipe, or squeeze through a wall. Rabbits that live in more remote places, however, won’t have had these encounters and will likely run a more predictable circle, at which point the hunter can take a shot.
While some hunting dogs, like bird dogs, are trained how to do their jobs, Ryan says, beagles come by it naturally and learn simply through exposure to rabbits in the field. A bird dog needs to learn to hold point, but beagles are born knowing what to do and require little more than exposure to the process. “If a dog is going to be good, you just keep taking it out there and it will take off,” he says. “They’re great family pets, but also, they’re great hunters. Some people think that you can’t have both. Well I think you can, because my beagles sleep with my boys.”
Know the Limit
For cottontail rabbit:
For snowshoe or varying hare:
Which Way Did He Go?
When it comes to finding more unspoiled hunting grounds, Ryan recommends getting out into the brush. Any land where there have been timber cuts within the decade will likely have vegetation at the right height. Old farms and sites of former strip mining activity, much of which is in the southern part of the state, may yield good results, too.
“Just go anywhere where you can find brush,” he says. “I’ll still go and explore spots that haven’t really been hunted after all these years.” This season, Ryan hopes to visit areas that haven’t seen pressure from hunting. West Virginia’s expansive, rural terrain offers many options for those willing to do a little hiking, and hunters can take advantage of West Virginia’s many public lands, state forests, and wildlife management areas, including places that have good access for those with physical challenges. The state has added over 78,000 acres of public hunting land in recent years. Likewise, private hunting areas around the state also provide opportunities.
Morris adds that property owners interested in providing an appropriate environment for rabbits can cultivate their own home habitat with some relatively simple landscaping changes. “If you have open land or fields, try to let them grow up,” she says. “You want some briars and brambles. You definitely don’t want a manicured lawn—that’s not good rabbit habitat. They like brush piles, which are a good place for them to seek cover and raise their young. Basically, it’s a rough-looking landscape. But you want to prevent it from becoming all trees. It’s a balancing act.”
West Virginia’s 2023–2024 rabbit/hare season opened on November 4, 2023, and runs through February 29, 2024. Visit www.wvdnr.gov/hunting/hunting-regulations for regulation questions and www.wvhunt.com to purchase, renew, or reprint your hunting license and to check your game.
Which Way to the WMAs?
At the time of writing, WVDNR manages 96 Wildlife Management Areas across the state,
46 of which list rabbits as a hunting prospect.
Bear Rock Lakes
Castlemans Run Lake
Little Indian Creek
Pruntytown State Farm
Huttonsville State Farm
Stonewall Jackson Lake
Beech Fork Lake
Bright McCausland Homestead
East Lynn Lake
Upper Mud River
Conaway Run Lake
Little Kanawha River