“Shhhhhhh! I’m hunting wabbits!”- Elmer Fudd
For the past six years I have been looking for a rabbit hunting spot to parallel the one my buddy Kirby and I used to hunt on the north coast. When my girl and I moved inland to pursue our Ph.D.’s I couldn’t help but notice the local abundance of cottontails (Sylvilagus audubonii), brush rabbits (Sylvilagus bachmani), and the most underrated rabbit (actually a hare, not a rabbit at all), the black tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus). Yet, as is the case in most regions, the majority of land in the surrounding area is privately owned. As much as some agricultural operations might love an enthusiastic hunter to come and thin the populations of these hungry little herbivores as they contently stuff themselves on local crops, it takes time and a lot of schmoozing to find a willing farmer and establish the necessary trust…this year I intend to schmooze a whole lot, but in the meantime I have still found a new spot! After a year of research I can contently say I have a first rate area to hunt rabbits! Located on public land with sufficient low scrub and chaparral in the flats for rabbits to take refuge…put simply, the place is very “hoppy!”
When I first arrived at the spot, it was still a few minutes before legal hunting light (in California we are only permitted to take game from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset). I waited patiently and when the hour came I loaded my 12 gauge Remington 870 with lead free shot and headed out into the field as quite as possible. I first saw a cottontail, but he gave me the slip and ended up taking refuge in an underground burrow. Next I saw two Jacks…they also hi-tailed it on out of there before I could line up for a shot. Finally I stalked in on another cottontail, raised my scatter gun, flipped the safety, squeezed the trigger and…NOTHING! Try as I might, this normally trusty shotgun was jammed. I ejected the shells, and messed with it a bit, but was forced to return home to address the issue further. Empty handed I entered the door of our home with a sheepish grin and explained to my girl that I had yet again “lived up to my reputation as the worst rabbit hunter who ever lived!”
The next trip was successful, and I was happy to have some wild game. The sunrise over the oaks, coyote brush, and elderberry was spectacular. I had a jackrabbit in the first few minutes and spent the rest of the morning silently stalking through the brush learning the lay of the land. The rabbit was cleaned and butchered in no time flat and I decided that it would be fun to try to make sausage from the meat.
I processed the meat with a grinder my girl bought me for my birthday last year and I added bacon fat (as rabbit meat is quite lean) and foraged herbs including rosemary and sage.
For a bit of heat, I ground and added pink peppercorns from locally abundant trees (Schinus molle). (CAUTION- Individuals with tree nut allergies, especially allergies to cashews, may also be allergic to pink peppercorns which are commonly found in pre-packaged pepper grinders and mixes).
The mixture was then set aside to be later formed into patties and fried.
The next day my best buddy, and fellow forager, Alex showed up for a little hook and line action. We headed out to my go-to spot and had a great time fishing and losing lures for a few hours (when you find all of your fishing gear at the bottom of lakes and rivers, you don’t really mind losing it again—see our post “Fried Halibut, Loquat Salsa, and a Whole Lot of Freediving Fun”). Eventually we both landed nice bass and we were all smiles.
On our way back out we noticed a farmer’s field that had been harvested about a week earlier. There, on the periphery of the plot, we found a single tomato plant that had been missed by the picker. It was clear that no one was returning for this gem and the fruit was doomed to rot. It just so happened that we had been planning to make a marinara sauce for dinner that night, so we needed some tomatoes for the recipe. We approached and found that though the upper exposed fruit were clearly overripe and on the verge of rotting, the fruit that lay shaded by the remaining leaves were sound and ready to harvest. We quickly assembled just over a dozen tomatoes and headed home for some good country cooking.
Alex worked on the polenta while I fried the rabbit sausage and reduced the tomatoes with herbs from our garden and forays around town.
Through collaboration, tons of laughter, and only the freshest ingredients, we had an artistic and gourmet tribute to generations of Italian Countrymen and Country-ladies…manifest in an amazing rabbit marinara over polenta!
We all loved it, but when I piped up “It’s not bad!” and my girl replied “Not bad? It’s damn good!” Then, and only then, was I was completely satisfied!
There’s food out there if you know where to find it, and with a little fun with family and friends and some experimentation in the kitchen, the wilds of California are not just edible…they're incredible!
Keep the old ways alive!