John and I crept through a narrow wash in the desert, .22 rifles in hand, eyes sweeping the landscape for any sign of rabbits. John whistled: He motioned me over to him. The last time he’d done this, John had spotted sunlight shining through the gigantic ears of an antelope jackrabbit, sitting stock still under a mesquite tree.
This time he’d seen no rabbit. “Did you just whistle?” he asked. Not me. I thought you’d whistled? John smiled, a bit ruefully. “Only two things out here whistle: lions, and people.” Mountain lionesses will sometimes whistle to their cubs, he explained. “But it’s probably illegals. Or drug runners.”
A sobering thought. Life in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert can be hard. For everything. John and I hung closer to each other after that, and we saw neither lions nor people for the rest of that day’s hunt. We were in the Sonora with out little rifles hunting the real jackalope — Lepus alleni, the antelope jackrabbit. It is a huge hare, weighing up to 13 pounds; only the Arctic hare approaches it in size.
I’d met John O’Dell during last year’s meeting of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. John’s day job is as a small game biologist with the Arizona Game & Fish Dept. But in his spare time, John is the Squirrel Master, possibly the first person to ever kill — and eat — all eight huntable species of tree squirrel in the United States. He’d invited me down to Arizona to chase the mighty jackalope (and no, the real one doesn’t have antlers) and I, um, hopped at the chance to do so.
Rabbits are why I started hunting. The closest I’ve ever come to buying a dog was a beagle for hunting rabbits. I love hunting and eating them, no matter whether they are the skinny cottontails we have here in California, fat snowshoe hares in Minnesota, or the wiry jackrabbits of our arid regions. Rabbits are the krill of the land: Fecund, but vulnerable. Everything eats rabbits. Hares, their larger cousins, are to rabbits what pigeons are to doves. Larger, faster, wiser, older. And in the kitchen, tougher.
All hares have dark red meat, and, for the most part, need long braising to become tender. Flavorwise they tend toward gamey, and I don’t use that term lightly. The black-tailed jackrabbits I’ve brought home smelled strongly of sagebrush. Here in the Sonora, these hares ate cactus and mesquite. Interesting.
I am no stranger to deserts. I’ve spent time in the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah, the Mojave of California and the arid, Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas. But I’ve never really explored the Sonoran Desert, the most magical of them all. The Sonoran is the only place the jaguar still lives in the United States, and it is the only place you can find the famous saguaro cactus, the symbol of Arizona.
Saguaro can grow up to 45 feet tall and live for 150 years. They are the trees of this part of the world, and they can grow into fantastic shapes. I call this one the tarantula.
But the saguaro is only the largest cactus in this place. Where the Chihuahuan Desert is a land of yucca and the Great Basin a land of sage, the Sonoran is all about the cactus. Most common is the cholla cactus, which looks like an old grape vine: Stout central stalk with only a few gnarled limbs reaching out in all directions from that central core. Their fruits are edible.
Indeed, cholla buds were on the menu when Chef Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot did our book dinner in Phoenix last June. They taste like a cross between okra and asparagus.
Another edible cactus we found everywhere is the prickly pear. Young paddles of these are the nopalitos you can get in Mexican markets, and the fruit makes a great syrup. Prickly pear is also a good plant to pay attention to when you are jackrabbit hunting. John told me that both javelina and jackrabbits will eat the paddles. Javelina bite and pull, jackrabbits chomp like this:
There was a lot of chomped-on prickly pear around. We also saw a lot of rabbit pellets and tracks, too. But it can be tough to determine which rabbit made them. This part of the Sonoran Desert is a rabbit-rich environment. It is home not only to the antelope jackrabbit, but also to the desert cottontail and the black-tailed jackrabbit. All are legal game.
My instinct would have been to hunt with my shotgun, and had I done so I would have killed several desert cottontails. But I did not come all this way for cottontails. John said .22 rifles were our best bet. The trick to hunting jackalopes is to cover a lot of ground, and that means driving dusty dirt roads staring out the window, sometimes for hours.
The hares will often show themselves by hopping a little as the truck drives past. Other times you will spot the luminous peachy glow of their ears when they’ve been backlit by the sun. Either way, that’s your signal to get out of the truck and walk.
We were hunting with open peep sights on our rifles — no magnification — with a little red dot in the sight to help us aim: Put the dot on the rabbit and, hopefully, it will go down. If you are close enough, aim for the jackrabbit’s head, but hares don’t die easily. A heart or lung shot is better. It didn’t take long for John to get the first antelope jack. Walking up to it, I was struck by how large it was. A jackrabbit is not a compact animal. It has huge, hairless ears that serve as air conditioners and hind legs like catapults. Hold one up by those hind legs and the hare will be close to 3 feet long.
Not long after I spotted another jack, but I knew when I pulled the trigger it was a black-tailed jackrabbit. Smaller, still good for the pot, but not what I’d traveled so far to find. I can hunt black-tailed jackrabbits near my house. We put the hares in the cooler and walked on.
As we walked, I could not get over how lush the landscape was. Using the term “lush” to describe a desert sounds wrong, but the Sonoran is special. The thing that struck me most was grass.
Grass. In a desert. John was amused at my surprise. I kept stopping to look at all the edible plants. Beside the cacti, there were velvet mesquite and palo verde trees, whose “beans” are edible both green and dried. A shrub called Mormon tea or ephedra grew in scraggly corners. If we walked up into the mountains, the “sky islands,” we’d find pine nuts and jojoba, the “goat nut.” If you were wise, could hunt and knew your plants, you could grow fat in the Sonora.
But life is not all roses here. The grinning mummy of a coyote served as a grim reminder, as did a single rabbit bone. So did a child’s backpack. A water bottle marked “hecho en Mexico.” The print of a tiny sneaker in the sand.
John said this area used to be a virtual highway for illegal immigration, but the border fence only a few miles to the south had slowed the flow of migrants to a trickle. Nevertheless, the question of immigration hung over the desert like mist. Evidence of migrants was everywhere, and the white-and-green Border Patrol trucks were by far the most common vehicle we saw in our trip.
The irony of it all is that our quarry is itself an immigrant. This area around Tucson is as far north as Lepus alleni travels. It is another example of the Sonora’s singularity.
I did my best to put this out of my mind as we searched the desert for hares. Hunting jackrabbits with a .22 rifle is no easy thing. You must be constantly alert, yet relaxed enough to let your focus soften. Every stick looks like a sitting rabbit. Every slight tinge of peach in the sun becomes a jackrabbit’s ear. The best way to bag an antelope jack is to see him before he sees you. But this does not happen very often.
More often, this is what happens: You’re walking along, and you catch a flash of white tail from something large off in the distance, maybe 100 yards away. Rabbit? Deer? Sometimes all you see is the jackrabbit high-tailing it over the horizon. More often he will just hop off a little ways, allowing you to get a fix on him. Carefully you stalk up a little closer; a .22’s effective range isn’t much better than 50 yards. He sees you, and that’s the end of the game.
But just once, in two days of hunting, he didn’t flee. I have no idea why. I’d missed a few shots at jackrabbits already, so I was nervous. In hunting and in life, you never know how many chances you’ll get. This one could be your last. Make it count. Remember, Hank, the bullet from a .22 falls a long way past 50 yards. Aim high, above the jack’s head. Crack! Miss. Damn. All the damn thing did was twitch his ear. Weird. Aim lower. Shoot for the ribs like a deer. Deep breath. Crack! The jackrabbit fell. I exhaled in relief.
It was the only antelope jackrabbit I’d shoot the entire trip. And at somewhere north of 10 pounds, it was enough. John gave me his, and I had the black-tailed jack, too, so there will be lots of jackrabbit cooking in the coming days.
On the long drive home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that whistle. Was it the whistle of a hunter, or the hunted?