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Sonoran Rabbits

By Bill Bartscherer

Everyone starts out harvesting small game and usually they will have a fond memory of taking a squirrel or a rabbit that is a nice story one that doesn’t intimidate you, well this is not that type of story and it takes place in a hard and unforgiving land.

This hunt takes place in the heart of the Bradshaw Mountains in the high Sonoran desert of Yavapai County Arizona. It is a hunt for the jack rabbits and cottontails that call this place of endless miles of rock, sand and cactus home. It is a hard hunt in a place that will teach you hat mistakes can be costly. It is home also for the Sonoran Gopher Snake that is non-venomous and harmless to humans. It can be aggressive when threatened, it will sometimes hiss, inflate his body, and flatten his head then shake his tail rapidly which may sound like a rattle if done in dry leaves. This will turn your sweat to ice because it will remind you of the other snake here the Crotalus cerastes a venomous pit viper species found in the Sonoran.

 You may know it as the sidewinder, horned rattlesnake or Devil. As its body progresses over loose sand, it forms a letter J-shaped impression, with the tip of the hook pointing in the direction of travel.  Its venom is toxic saliva and among the most complex substances known: a mixture of enzymes unique to pit vipers that destroys blood and paralyzes nerves. And the delivery system is equally amazing because the snakes’ fangs are movable hypodermic syringes.

Rattlesnakes are also among the few animal groups with dual visual systems. In addition to their eyes, they have sensory organs in their upper jaws which can actually see “infrared” images. They can detect the heat from a candle flame 30 feet away. These animals merit fear. They are active even during the winter. You are most likely to see them when the air temperature is between 70° and 90°F (21° to 32°C), regardless of the time of day be it June or January. Rattlesnakes do not always rattle before they strike, and don’t have to coil before they strike. I have enjoyed both of them as a main course and will tell you they are good eating but to convince you would need to try it.

The hunt takes place miles back from any occupied gold mining site. A Ghost town known as Cleator where the bar walls are decorated with the skins of snakes that have made it into the bar from time to time. They serve whatever was on sale that week and it comes in a can. Not the kind of place to offend anyone, dried blood and human teeth embedded in the bar make it real clear this place is Arizona friendly and you better be too.

If you still have the heart to try it some of the best and most challenging rabbit hunting awaits you. At first you may notice a slight movement or it may be the sun shining through the biggest set of rabbit ears you have ever seen. If you whistle they will pause for a split second and raise those ears to locate the sound and if you can stay calm and place your shot well you will take him.

They don’t go easy it takes #6 shot from a twelve Gauge to get their attention, even their cousin the cottontail is a tough trophy. It takes allot of leg work over steep hills and through washes. You will have to stop and scan the surrounding area including your back tracks, because they will freeze and wait for you to pass, they use the sand and gray color of their thick pelts to become invisible and they know movement can betray them. They are the regular diet of the numerous mountain lions that are in this area and are not strangers to being hunted.

The birds of prey that hunt them are too swift and undetectable to avoid but anything else will be challenged almost to wits end. You will have to endure temperature extremes that vary from 120 in the shade to freezing; you may get caught in a monsoon that can turn a dried wash into a river of death in a moment with little warning other than the sound of the roar of fast moving water. Lighting here always hits the ground.

But when you lift that rabbit from the ground and feel the weight of it you will be amazed then you will have to field dress it on your tailgate. Why? Because having your face or upper torso near the ground is a high risk behavior you don’t engage in here. Your knife will be dull when you’re done, but when it’s on the dinner plate mesquite smoked you will be proud, and it will be earned hard.