By CHRISTINE PETERSON | The Casper Star-Tribune
KEMMERER, Wyo. (AP) — Crouched low and walking slowly, bow and arrow in hand, Mark Zornes whispered to his young hunting companion.
"Do you see him?" Zornes asked.
"Yeah, he's over there," said Garrett Short, 7, pointing to a cottontail rabbit.
"He is a nice big one, too."
Zornes stopped several yards from the rabbit, pulled back his bow and let an arrow fly. He missed. The rabbit darted away. Zornes and Garrett kept searching. There would be more.
Some people call the activity bowhunting for cottontail rabbits. Zornes calls it losing arrows in the sage brush.
"This is what bunny hunting is like," he said. "We rarely see people doing this, and this is the most fun kind of hunting. It's also a great kid activity."
Zornes, the Green River wildlife coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, spent several hours shooting arrows into the prairie recently with Kemmerer game warden Chris Baird and wildlife biologist Jeff Short and his son Garrett and daughter Anna Jo, 9.
Bowhunting for rabbits offers hunters something to chase in the winter when most other seasons have closed. And cottontail populations are growing in the state, which means the coming winters could give hunters even more chances to shoot rascally rabbits.
Cottontail, pigmy, jackrabbits and snowshoe hare populations all naturally cycle, something biologists know but don't quite understand. Predator numbers follow the same cycles, Zornes said.
"In Wyoming, for instance, when cottontail populations are high, the following year bobcat populations tend to be high," he said. "The same thing with snowshoe hairs and Canadian lynx, and the same thing for lemmings and snowy owls."
Scientists speculate the cause could be habitat or weather. Whatever the reason, numbers in Wyoming tend to peak every eight to 10 years, and right now, the Cowboy State is on an upswing.
Zornes and his friends didn't hunt with compound bows commonly used on deer, elk or antelope. They carried traditional long bows or recurve bows, ones that hunters carried and shot for thousands of years before the gun.
Traditional bows require more practice to shoot accurately than compound bows.
"I've been shooting this bow for eight years, and if I don't use it every day, I lose what I have," Baird said. "It is a perishable skill."
But they also don't shoot as fast, which means firing at close range into sage brush or rocks won't split an arrow, Zornes said.
Zornes makes his own arrows out of wood. He also uses brain to tan hides, sews his own moccasins and eats anything he kills, but those are stories for another time.
Bairns and Short use carbon fiber arrows.
"Mark would say they don't have any soul," Short said.
It took almost an hour before either arrow type hit a rabbit that morning. The hunters saw plenty of bunnies and even more tracks, but hitting one is harder than it seems.
"You can shoot a lot of arrows and not take a lot of meat home," Zornes said. "But that's hunting."
The best place to look for cottontails is in open sage brush and near hills with rocks. Rabbits like to sun themselves on the warm rocks during the day and eat bark off of the sage brush and other desert shrubs, he said.
Baird shot the first cottontail and tied it to the outside of his pack looking like a trapper from the 1800s. Even with slow speeds from a longbow, his arrowhead stuck in the frozen ground.
More rabbits were spotted. More misses followed.
Bobcat, mountain lion and rabbit tracks littered the snow on a frozen stretch of Little Muddy Creek. On one section, bobcat tracks plodded along with long swipes in between. It was a bobcat carrying a cottontail rabbit, likely to a den with kittens, Zornes said.
Rabbit tracks crisscrossed back and forth near the lion and bobcat ones.
"Us one. Bobcat one. Rabbits, 365," Baird said. "We should work on these odds a little bit."
Moments later, Short spotted a rabbit with his daughter. Anna Jo drew her bow back first, aimed and shot. She missed by less than an inch. Standing next to her, Short fired his bow and hit.
"I think that one's a Boone and Crocket," Zornes joked. "Look at the ears on it."
By noon, the hunters decided to give the cottontail rabbits a rest. Zornes would take the two rabbits home and make them into stew or gravy.
Cottontail rabbit, unlike jackrabbit, is a delicate, white meat, he said.
Regulations allow each hunter with a license to kill up to 10 cottontails. Zornes doesn't have the patience, or sometimes luck, to shoot that many. Plus, it only takes a couple to make a good meal.
What does it taste like?
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, www.trib.com