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All this week I had been staring at my pet .22 rifle and it stared back at me, daring me to venture into the cold in search of rabbits. I’ve had this rifle, a Remington Model 541S, since 1971, and it has been with me on many an outing for ground hogs, squirrels, rabbits and dump rats. I’m sure I’ve put several thousand Long Rifle Hollow Points through it over the years, and it still can put five shots in one ragged hole at 50 yards. Good thing, because winter rabbit hunting demands that kind of accuracy, as I’ll explain shortly.
Most folks hunt Maine’s winter snowshoe hares with beagles, and if you want to get a lot of rabbits in a short time, that’s the way to go. I hunt with beagles often, too, but once in a while I like to get into the alders and cedars and see if I can sneak up close enough to pot one with my .22.
The challenge, of course, is being able to spot a sitting rabbit through all the brush, limbs, evergreens and tangled branches that dominate the scenery in the places rabbits call home. I don’t have the best vision, so the trick for me is to move slowly, sitting down often to scan the woods around me with binoculars, and hope that I can pick up the black eye or rounded form of a sitting rabbit before he sees me!
I love the ambience of the evergreen jungle where snowshoe hares live in winter. It’s quiet and cozy in there among the jack firs and snow-laden birches, and it’s no wonder the rabbits like to spend the winter months there. You can’t see more than 50 feet around you, often much less, and the tangle of alders and saplings of all species makes it tough to get close to them. I see a lot of predator sign (fox, coyote, bobcat and fisher) sign in these places, but not much evidence of a successful kill. Come to think of it, they don’t find much evidence of my successful hunts, either!
The game is a simple one: stop often and look hard. Winter hares are about as white as the snow and are not apt to jump and run every time danger approaches. In fact, they trust their snowy coats so much that they will often sit tight and let you walk past within mere feet – as long as you keep walking! If you stop or turn toward them, they will launch themselves into high gear on those big, furry hind feet and all you’ll see is snow sifting down off the trees behind them. Score one for the rabbit!
Knowing this, I walk very slowly through the best rabbit cover and literally sit down in the snow to scan the woods ahead. In good years with high numbers of rabbits (about every 10 years or so, for they are cyclic in nature), I might see one rabbit every 50 yards or so. In lean years, I may see one or two rabbits in an afternoon! In either case, the process is the same. I look carefully, dismantling the brushy woods ahead of me, always searching for that shiny black eye or grayish coat of fur that says, “rabbit!”
It helps if it’s snowing or drizzling slightly, because the rabbits seem to prefer to hold tight in such weather, giving me more time to pick them out. On cold, clear, windy days, they may not hold still at all, and the only thing I’ll see is their big feet waving good-bye!
If I spot a rabbit, I’ve only done half the job. Now, I have to slowly ease the binoculars down, raise the rifle and try to find the rabbit using a low-powered scope after looking through 8x binoculars for several minutes. The “optical shock” is quite pronounced sometimes, and I’ll have to look over the scope and re-orient myself to the rabbit’s position. All this takes time, and one thing a rabbit is not is patient! If I take too long, he scampers off and the hunt is ruined.
When things work out right, I find my quarry in the scope, pick a path for the bullet through the endless maze of twigs and branches, and squeeze the trigger. On my better days I’m able to bring home a limit of four rabbits, but in most cases I’ll stop at one or two and save some for next time.
Once I’m in the hunting mode, I can spend a whole morning or afternoon sneaking through the alders and not even realize that several hours have gone by. I love the peace and quiet of the winter woods, and I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of sneaking up on bedded hares in hopes of making a shot. It’s hands-and-knees hunting a lot of the time, and you will get snow down your neck once in a while – talk about fun!
There are days when I have crept up on bedded deer and moose without being seen, and one time I managed to shoot a coyote that happened to be working the other side of the alders with similar intent. We spotted each other at the same time but I happened to be aimed in on a sitting rabbit (perhaps he was after the same hare) so it was easy to point and shoot. His hide brought $30, more than enough to pay for my .22 ammunition for the year!
Maine’s rabbit season runs through the end of March, one of the longest small game seasons in the U.S. If you want to enjoy a first-class sporting challenge, get acquainted with the nearest alder stand or cedar swamp.
Winter rabbit hunting is one of the most demanding of winter sports, physically and mentally exhausting, but when you come out of the woods with a couple of long-legged hares dangling from your belt, you can say you’ve accomplished something that day. Do it with a bow or handgun and there’s just cause for celebration – and a cup of hot tea by the wood stove does it for me!
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