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Steve Merlo

Growing up in the small farming community of Buttonwillow, I knew some people with an aversion to eating wild game of any type. I also knew a lot of folks who really enjoyed game, but, for some strange reason, some of those same game-loving individuals refused to eat wild cottontail unless it was taken during the winter.

My first recollection of collecting cottontails for the table came when I was just out of grammar school and shooting bunnies for my Dad's cotton farmer friends during the summer months. Back then, spare family money was always in short supply, and since I needed cash just to survive the needs of a young teenager, I began selling my take to locals who wanted them.

Actually, I didn't start off with the intention of making money, but a lot of my older acquaintances would stop me on the street and ask me to drop off a few rabbits next time I was out, so I did. Too proud to accept the meat for free, they'd always push a few pieces of coin on me for the favor, and it didn't take long for me to realize that this was easy pickings for something I would have done for free.

I did, however, think it odd, knowing the old wives' tale that no one ate bunnies in the summer, but one of my regulars, Elizabeth Moore, an elderly woman, told me that was the stupidest thing she'd ever heard of and invited me in to have rabbit dinner with her family.

While I watched, she expertly skinned and gutted each animal, then severed the poor beast into chicken-like parts for her frying pan. But, during the process, she came across a bunny with a marble-sized lump under the skin on its neck and showed me what caused it.

Horror of all horrors! The lump was a big old worm and an ugly one at that, and I thought I might be sick. (Later in life I would find out that the so-called worm was actually the larvae of a bot fly and the rabbit was simply the parasitic insect's host.)

Mrs. Moore saw I was uncomfortable with the revelation and simply explained that a lot of things enjoyed eating rabbits, and this worm was just one of them. She said that the worms weren't dangerous and that, if I was worried, cooking would kill off any dreaded disease the animal might possibly carry. Besides, the bots weren't located in the meat and all I had to do was simply skin the rabbit and the worm would be gone.

One bite of her fried rabbit, gravy and biscuits cured me of any aversion I might have had and I've been eating cottontails ever since, never mind what month it is. My favorite comparison of what cottontails taste like goes something like this: they taste a lot like a 3-pound quail would if only the bird grew that big.

By the way, I've never eaten a jackrabbit and don't intend to, even though several times Elizabeth tried to talk me into it.

Of course, I think Elizabeth probably fried her ice cream, but that didn't matter. What she cooked was great eating, cholesterol be damned, and she was almost 90 before she died.

Fifty years later, I hope the statute of limitations has long expired, because selling wild game was and still is absolutely contrary to the laws of the great state of California.

As a matter of fact, I believe that selling wild game is one of the only two felonies in the Fish and Wildlife Code, the other being assaulting a game warden. That fact never occurred to me, and with millions of cottontail and jackrabbit pests running around the nearby fields and deserts, I had a ready source for whoever wanted it.

Since those days I found that summer is actually the best time of the year to eat cottontail. The lush grasses, greenery and cover afford them lots of food and protection during that time and they're fat and sassy and in better shape than ever.

During the winter months, vegetation gets sparse and the animals are forced into condensed living areas where they aren't in nearly as good a shape.

Monday, July 1 is opening day for cottontails with a five-per-day limit.

The season runs until January 27, 2014.

Rabbit hunting is one of my favorite sports, and I use an accurate air rifle to dispatch my bunnies, refusing to kill them with rifles or shotguns that can destroy a lot of succulent meat.

Also, don't forget that new licenses are required effective July1st, so don't get caught without a current one.