Great winter hunting opportunities lend themselves to a delicious dish at the dinner table
By Mike Yurk
With the conclusion of Thanksgiving weekend, deer hunting season ended and for most people hunting was over for the year as I was growing up. Duck hunting had closed some time around the middle of November. Yes, pheasant hunting still continued, stretching through December, but the chances of finding a pheasant so late in the season was fairly remote in those days. As everyone was cleaning guns for the last time and putting them away, I was getting ready for some of my favorite hunting.
Others were looking forward to ice fishing as soon as the ice was thick enough to walk out on the lake. I was looking forward to rabbit hunting.
Somewhere in the first season or two of my youthful hunting days I made the conscious decision to forgo shooting any rabbits until after the first snowfall, which generally came around or shortly after Thanksgiving.
Rabbit hunting was still open through the end of January so I had two more months of hunting season left.
Rabbits in the snow
I particularly loved to hunt rabbits right after a snow storm. A thick new layer of snow was on the ground, making everything pristine white. Usually the skies were bright blue with few clouds after a storm. When the sun shined, it seemed warm outside for a winter day, especially if there were light winds. It was just a joy to spend a few hours in the woods. Rabbits were active and moving about.
My family lived in the country outside Oshkosh and behind our house was a small woods. It probably was about 20 acres or so plus I had another three more small wooded areas I could hunt within walking distance. These woods were never posted and hunting on a winter afternoon was considered a fairly wholesome activity for a teenage boy. I normally hunted alone during the winter. I guess most of my other hunting buddies had given up on hunting by that time as well, but not me.
I ducked under the barbed wire fence at the back of my parents’ land and was in the woods. After a storm you could follow fresh rabbit tracks. When you found a set of tracks going into a brush pile or under a snow-covered log and there weren’t any tracks leaving the cover, you could bet on a rabbit being there. This way I occasionally tracked a rabbit, watching him race across the clean white snow as I got close to him.
I had a single-shot 20-gauge shotgun in those days or sometimes used my father’s single-shot 16-gauge. I brought the shotgun up, thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. The shot hit the rabbit as it was speeding across the snow, tumbling it over. Other times I would just walk around the woods and inevitably would flush out a rabbit. I had gotten fairly good at hitting rabbits on the run and for three or four years never missed a rabbit. I was proud of my record.
Braving the elements
Once on a cold winter afternoon I just needed to get out of the house and into the woods. The day was gray with wind blowing loose snow across the crusty tops of iced snow. I probably should have checked the weather forecast, but for most of my youth I never bothered to worry about the weather and to this day I still don’t take weather forecasts very seriously.
I was dressed for the worst. I had an old Navy-style stocking cap on my head, cotton gloves on my hands, long johns under my shirt and jeans, rubber snow boots on my feet, and an insulated jacket between my wool hunting shirt and my old hand-me-down hunting jacket. I stuck a handful of shot shells in the pockets of my hunting jacket. I was all set.
I should have known a snow storm was on its way, but I didn’t care. It wouldn’t have stopped me from going hunting anyway. It was mid-January and there were only a couple weeks left for rabbit hunting. With nothing to do on the weekends, it was starting to get boring being cooped up inside.
I ducked under the wire fence and was once again back in my woods. I hunted through the first corner of the woods closest to my parents’ house. I didn’t see any rabbits and most of the rabbit sign – tracks and droppings – were fairly old. I crossed a small drainage ditch and was now in the back part of the woods. At the very back it seemed to open up a bit. The rabbits must have felt the approaching storm, were holing up and would have to be flushed.
As I approached a downed tree, a rabbit burst out from under it, tearing across the snow. I brought my shotgun up which was a bit more difficult with the layers of clothing I had on, fired and the rabbit flipped once and was still. I raced over to it, sliding it in the game pocket of my hunting jacket. By about this time I noticed the wind was becoming a lot stiffer, and within a few minutes it was snowing. This was no gentle snow, it was being driven by the wind and I could feel it pelting me on the back of my jacket.
I wasn’t going to give up yet. I moved about the back of the woods where there were more downed trees and some brush piles which I was certain held more rabbits. I came up to a pile of brush covered in snow. I gave it a kick and a rabbit busted out of the other side. I brought the gun up, fired and the rabbit skid to a stop.
The wind and snow were howling by this time and it was starting to get dark. I had not anticipated darkness coming so soon but night came earlier than normal with the storm. Although it wasn’t a big woods, it seemed bigger in the darkness with the wind and snow sweeping through it. I turned for home with the two rabbits weighing heavily in my hunting jacket, slogging through the snow. I was very happy to eventually see the lights from my parents’ house as I emerged from the woods. It took me a few minutes to thaw a bit once I got home before I took the rabbits down the basement to clean.
Rabbits were fairly easy to clean – not nearly as difficult or time consuming as ducks or even pheasants. I stuck the knife through the back getting it under the skin and could skin a rabbit within a minute or two. I cut off the head and feet, cut down through the underbelly and pulled out the guts, and then just rinsed it in cold water from the faucet.
Neither of my parents grew up in a hunting family. My mother’s father deer hunted but it was the only hunting he did. Making small game such as pheasant and duck were new to her, but she cooked everything I brought home and my parents and us kids ate it. Food was never to be wasted.
My mother baked rabbits just like she baked chicken. It probably was all the same recipe. There was always mashed potatoes to go with it as we ate a lot of mashed potatoes in my childhood and still today I love mashed potatoes. There would be some vegetable to go with it. My father had a huge garden as I was growing up and my mother spent much of the last weeks of summer canning all the stuff from the garden as it became ripe. I remember lots of green beans throughout my childhood, so that was a likely possibility to go with rabbit. My mother was a great cook and I remember those rabbits always tasting good.
One of my other rabbit memories as a boy was eating grilled rabbit. We had a neighbor who was a great hunter. Our two families were friends and during the summer we would occasionally have campfires together in our back yard. Once he brought over rabbits and cooked it over the campfire. I never tasted anything like it before – wild game cooked over a wood fire. It probably has been almost 60 years since then, but I remember it as one of the best meats I ever tasted at that point in my life.
Even after I left home, married and was going to college, I still enjoyed rabbit hunting. Now I had a 12-gauge pump shotgun replacing the single shot of my youth. We hunted the railroad tracks north of Oshkosh not far from my boyhood home. I understand hunting the railroad tracks is now frowned upon, but back in the early to mid-1970s, no one seemed to mind. Once again, the only time I hunted rabbits was after snow was on the ground. A married couple who my wife and I had gone to high school with had an apartment on the same block we lived on, and once it snowed the husband and I were going rabbit hunting.
We picked a gray, chilly winter day. We worked our way through the area between the two sets of tracks. It didn’t take long for the rabbits to start running and by the time more snow began to spit out of the sky, we killed a limit of rabbits. We cleaned the rabbits in our basement and our wives baked them. Those were some lean years for both couples, so rabbits were a nice, cheap meal for two couples without a lot of money.
A while later I joined the Army and was gone to Germany for two years, then a last year in Missouri. I returned to Oshkosh to finish college with the GI Bill and get my commission as a second lieutenant through ROTC. One of my ROTC buddies was married and a hunter and fisherman, so it didn’t take long for us to start planning hunting and fishing trips. One of our first hunting adventures was rabbit hunting right after we finished our final exams for the fall semester.
We returned back to the railroad tracks and there was about six inches of fresh, powdery snow on the ground, the type skiers love. It had just snowed the day before. The snow was almost to the top of our hunting boots. I remember it being a gray day with perhaps the promise of more snow to come. I still had my old pump 12-gauge and we again worked the brush between the two sets of tracks.
A rabbit burst out of the soft snow, an explosion of gray fur amid the clean white powder. When I shot the rabbit it tumbled end over end, sending up a wave of light snow. We shot a couple of rabbits that afternoon and again cleaned them in the basement, each taking one home for a dinner. It was a cheap dinner for a couple of struggling, married college students.
Another winter later when spring finally came, I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the Military Police Corps, first going to Alabama and then back to Germany. I wouldn’t get a chance to hunt rabbit again, but I would eat rabbit.
Hasenpfeffer is actually a method of cooking rabbit. It originated in Germany and is essentially a rabbit stew. I have had hasenpfeffer at a German guesthouse, which is a combination bar, restaurant and community meeting place. If they serve beer in Germany, they must also serve food. The hasenpfeffer was tasty as I found all German food.
Some years later after I retired from the Army, I found an European restaurant in St. Paul, Minn. which also served hasenpfeffer. Usually the classical German method is to de-bone the meat and cut it into chunks, but the St. Paul restaurant cut its rabbit into quarters. Both ways tasted wonderful. Along with the stew, which of course is meat and vegetables swimming in gravy, the hasenpfeffer comes with noodles or dumplings.
I did a Google search and found a number of recipes for hasenpfeffer. This is just one from allrecipes.com.
Three pounds rabbit, cleaned and cut into pieces ½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
½ pound of bacon, diced
½ cup finely chopped shallots
1 glove garlic, finely chopped
1 cup dry red wine
1 cup water
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon granules
1 tablespoon currant jelly
10 black peppercorns, crushed
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
2 teaspoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
Place bacon in a large, deep skilled. Cook over medium-high heat until evenly brown. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Sprinkle rabbit meat with salt and coat with 1/3 cup flour. Brown rabbit in remaining bacon fat. Remove from skillet, along with all but 2 tablespoons of the fat and set aside with the bacon.
Sauté shallots and garlic in skillet for about four minutes and then stir in wine and cup of water and bouillon. Heat to boiling, then stir in jelly, peppercorns, bay leaf and rosemary. Return rabbit and bacon to skillet. Heat to boiling, then reduce heat to low, cover and let simmer about one and a half hours or until rabbit is tender.
Take out and discard bay leaf and place rabbit on a platter, keeping it warm while preparing gravy. Stir lemon juice into skillet with cooking liquid, combining 3 tablespoons water with 2 tablespoons flour and mix together, stirring mixture over low heat. Stir in thyme. Pour gravy over stew and serve.
Hasenpfeffer tastes great. I am thinking I might have to try this recipe myself, but if I am going to hunt rabbits again, I will have to wait until after the first snow.
Mike Yurk has been writing about the outdoors for over 40 years and has been published in numerous local and regional outdoor publications since then. He has also published seven books dealing with the world of hunting and fishing. He lives in northwestern Wisconsin where he has found some of the best bass fishing in the country.