|Lately I’ve been hearing laments about the heavy, wet snow, and dismal conditions that have some Mainers thinking about a trip to the Florida beaches or other Gulf Coast meccas. At first, a mid-winter vacation in some warm, tropical clime sounds inviting, but then I think, “What? And miss out on all this great rabbit hunting? No, thanks!”
Deep, wet snow in rainy weather probably sounds about as miserable as winter conditions can get, yet that is the perfect time to be in the woods in search of game. The rabbits will be hunched up under brush piles and overhanging evergreens, or backed up against a leaning tree stump, backs to the wind and eyes to the front, fending off the inclement weather while they scan the woods ahead of them for predators.
What better time for a .22-toting sportsman to come creeping in on snowshoes, pausing here and there to check out the myriad white lumps and bumps that may or may not be a sitting rabbit. It’s the rare drizzly winter day when you can’t come home with at least one long, lean hare for the pot.
Aside from the weather, which is a challenge in itself, the dismal, wet woods make it tough to spot sitting hares. The dark and wet conditions favor the rabbits,
who put full trust in their dingy, grey-under-white winter coats that, on days like these, look just like another patch of dirty snow. Even though they are fully exposed and above ground (hares rarely dive into a hole for protection), the rabbits will take their chances until that chilling moment when you lock eyes with them and pause. Humans have lost most of their basic animal instincts, but not so the rabbits! Feeling the surprised stare of an approaching hunter, the rabbits resort to their back-up evasive tactic: running! Until you get used to the conditions and the necessary tactics, be prepared to finally lay eyes on your quarry only to have him disappear in two jumps as your raise your rifle or bow for the shot.
One technique that works on occasion is to look immediately away from the rabbit the instant you see it. If it appears to the rabbit that you are looking elsewhere and are walking away from it, the animal will often sit tight and let you pass. I have done this many times with great success, sometimes walking directly away from the rabbit for a few yards and then suddenly spinning about and taking the shot before the astounded animal realizes he’s been duped at his own game. Most often the rabbits will trust their own instincts and hop away at first eye contact, but the occasional exception definitely makes the attempt worthwhile.
Because hares don’t go underground to avoid the weather, it’s often a good idea to hunt the alder swamps. First, they are bare and open in winter so it’s easy to see, and the rabbits like to be in there because they can find plenty of places to back in and sit against the weather. It’s fun to sneak in on an alder patch that’s full of rabbit trails and tracks, sit down and just scan the area with binoculars till you find that tell-tale black eye or rounded form that gives the animal away.
If you can find a couple of hunters willing to do the dog work, a good tactic is to have one hunter sit among the alders while the other two split up and work their way in from opposite ends of the patch. The hares will use their existing trails to avoid the drivers, offering an easy shot as they stop to look back over their shoulders.
If you’re in an area where clear-cuts are common, find a spot that was cut three to five years ago and is now waist deep in jack firs. Hares love this low, evergreen cover and will spend the entire winter there, feeding on old hardwood shoots and hiding in the dense patches of firs that are thick enough to hide a bull moose.
When I hunt these places, I take a .410 shotgun and plan on spending the day kicking brush not an easy job for sure, but a productive one. It doesn’t take long to develop an eye for “thick,” and when I encounter a nasty conglomeration of fallen trees, tangled tops and jack firs, I’ll plow into it and do my best to push the rabbits out of it. The trick here is to keep your feet moving as well as your eyes, because the rabbits will sit tight till you’re almost on top of them, and then they’ll make a run for the back door. I’ve shot as many rabbits going out behind me as I have running in front of me, and if I hadn’t had the presence of mind to watch the rear exit I may never have even seen them.
I use a shotgun while brush busting because once the hares get moving they tend to step lively for at least 50 yards or so. It’s tough to get on them with a .22 rifle, but a shotgun pattern will give you the edge if they are running hard in thick cover. And, at this end of winter, as the rabbits begin to mate, it’s no surprise to find two or more hares in the same patch of cover. A quick shot can put both rabbits in the game pouch, but if you don’t get a shot at the second hare (or miss it), you can follow its tracks in the snow to the next patch of cover and start all over.
Next time we get period of snow followed by a warm, wet spell, don your rain gear and get out there. It’s quite an accomplishment to bring home a limit of four rabbits on such days, but even if, you’ll be the talk of the town for a week!