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Taking my own advice last week, I headed for the woods for a relaxing look around and found just what I was looking for and quite a bit more. As I mentioned, hunters don’t mind a fresh fall of snow, and last week’s storms left a clean slate for woods wanderers to study.
There wasn’t much to see in the open woods, which is to be expected, because few wild critters want to be caught far from escape cover. I was struck by the constant reminder that wildlife needs thick brush to survive. Other than the occasional deer or fox track, there was nothing to be seen in the open woods, but as soon as I entered the smallest copse of softwood saplings I’d find a plethora of tracks, everything from mice to grouse, rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, bobcats and deer, plus the usual mouse, chipmunk and shrew trails. It was amazing to see just how busy those thickets were, too. I know that most of the tracks I saw were made after dark, but the level of activity was quite unexpected. In just two days, the silky, smooth surface of the snow would be pocked with tracks, trails and runs, especially where the snowshoe hares spent their time. Their trails were deep and pounded hard, meandering through the alders and cedars like mini highways.
This, of course, helped me decide what course of action I should take, and the decision was simple enough. I went home, grabbed my trusty .410 shotgun and a pocketful of shells and went off to spend the day chasing rabbits.
The first thing one learns about rabbits is that, tracks or not, actually finding a hare in winter is a tremendous challenge. Even when I picked spots that were full of tracks and trails, I’d still not see a single live rabbit. It’s only when I got in there and started kicking blow downs, brush piles and other cover that I started to see game, and even then they were most often far away and running hard before I got the first glimpse of them. Seeing a white hare in winter on a foot of fresh snow is a challenge at any time, but in thick cover under windy conditions with an overcast sky, it’s close to impossible.
I soon discovered that the hares like to spend the day in the thickest tangles they can find. I’d learned long ago how to hunt these areas, and the old tactics came back to me quite soon after seeing several rabbits’ long legs disappearing in the shadows.
A long-time sniper weaned on pellet rifles and .22 single-shots, I would spend long hours hunkering down in the thickets looking for the tell-tale rounded form of a sitting rabbit, its up-raised ears or sparkling black eye.
Wandering aimlessly through thick cover is a good way to move rabbits to someone else, but if you are alone in the cedars and must see a rabbit before you can shoot it, nothing takes the place of stealth, quiet and patience. I’d often sit right down in the snow and, using binoculars, scan the dense cover around me, sometimes taking 30 minutes or more to cover an especially thick patch of softwood saplings. When conditions were right (calm, warm and overcast) I would often spot my quarry sitting just a few yards away, trusting in its winter coat and hoping that, by remaining still, it might escape the threat.
If my eyes were sharp and my reflexes sufficiently slow, I could spot a rabbit, bring the rifle up and make a good shot before the hare tired of the standoff and vacated its form. I seemed to have the very best luck on rainy days, cloudy days or windy days. The standard cold, calm, bright winter day was not quite as productive, in which case I’d bring in the beagles and let them do the work!
Another alternative is to hunt with a partner, taking turns pushing through thick cover while the second shooter stayed put a few hundred yards away. When rabbits are being particularly fidgety, they often move off long before the driver ever sees them. In fact, it’s pretty much a given that the driver won’t see any rabbits even when the woods are full of tracks and trails, but the stander may see several (and even a few grouse) on his end of the drive.
Of course, you’ll want to take turns at both positions. I’d recommend that both hunters wear an orange hat for visibility and know enough not to shoot at anything that’s not clearly a rabbit trying to escape. Do not shoot at crackling branches or random moving forms: be sure it’s a rabbit and check again just to make sure!
Good places to look for winter hares is in lowland swamps where alders, cedars, and jack firs dominate. This is likely to be thick, clinging cover with lots of low branches and tangled growth, so be prepared to fight your way through some very dense, snow-covered vegetation in your quest for a rabbit stew. I actually dress quite lightly for this work (no heavy coats, hats or shirts) because it’s easy to work up a serious sweat, which could give you the chills later when it’s your turn to stand and wait.
I prefer to use a .22 rifle for most of my rabbit hunting, but a handgun, shotgun, muzzleloader or even a bow can be used if you are skilled with it. I know several archers who enjoy spending winter mornings or evenings creeping along railroad tracks, logging roads or frozen streams in search of a sitting hare. These small, lively critters are a challenge for anyone, but the game is elevated several notches when you try to thread an arrow through 10 or 20 yards of twigs and saplings. I enjoy using single-shot rifles or shotguns on my rabbit hunts just because they require me to make good, clean shots the first time. Few hares will sit around and wait for you to miss them a second time!
More snow is coming and the general hunting season on small game is open for a few more days. After Dec. 31, the only game in town is hares or a select few predators. Pick you quarry and get out there after them. The days are short this month so make the most of them!
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