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Sitting by the window on this last day of February it’s difficult to imagine that the open water fishing season is just 31 days away. Ice, snow and blustery winds still plague us, and the thought of tossing worms and flies into a babbling brook seems just a tad premature. Optimism for an early spring is high, of course, but reality will not be denied!
Just because winter chooses to drag its feet is no reason to stay indoors while waiting for balmier days. There is still plenty to do “out there,” with hunting and fishing seasons providing more than enough diversions until the spring peepers once again make their appearance.
Maine rabbit hunting season remains open till the end of March, still and always the longest hunting season (for a game species) in the U.S. The season opened Oct. 1 and won’t end until March 31 – six full months of opportunity. A rare critter from about the Massachusetts line south, our snowshoe hare is common, prolific and comparatively under-exploited. On my daily hikes, particularly just after a fresh fall of snow, the thickets and swamps are full of tracks made by hares on the move. I’ve been all over Maine this year from east to west and north to south, and everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen hares or their sign.
Because deer, moose and bear take up most of our biologists’ time, no one is out there these days studying snowshoe hares other than hunters and a few back yard naturalists. Most agree that there are plenty of hares about, more than enough to supply the small army of predators (including humans) that preys on them. Aside from the usual suspects (coyotes, foxes, bobcats and weasels) hares must contend with a variety of hawks, owls and other winged meat eaters that abound in our state largely because there are so many hares available.
There’s a sort of “population fluctuation” that occurs every 10 or 12 years (not a cycle, biologists assert, but a fluctuation) in which hares will be as plentiful as black flies in May. In the next year or two they will be comparatively scarce. At least twice in my lifetime I’ve noticed not only extreme numbers of hares in the woods during the deer season, but also increased numbers of predators. One year I sat on a log by a brook in LaGrange and watched rabbits hopping around practically non-stop, with hawks, owls, foxes and fishers running by like an overdone Marty Stouffer documentary! Only twice have I seen such a continuous show, and it sticks in my mind because hares were clearly the center of attention. There was so much predator-prey activity going on I could hardly concentrate on deer hunting! The following year the woods were somber and silent again. I hunted the same areas and found it hard to believe the level of activity that had gone on just one year before.
Even on the low end of the “fluctuation” there are enough rabbits to keep hunters busy and predators from starving. Hares don’t get many thanks for their role in the food chain and that’s a shame because I doubt any other critter (including humans) would like to trade places.
Because it’s been tough walking of late in the deep, crusty snow, most outdoorsmen have decided to head for the ice-bound lakes in our area for some ice-fishing action. I was out snowshoeing near a local pond the other day and had to get off the snowmobile trail as dozens of machines came streaming down the trail and onto the ice. Each machine had a trailer loaded with bait buckets, augers, traps and skimmers, so the local trout population was definitely under siege!
I stopped to chat with one of the fishermen who has this snowmobile fishing thing down to a science. He said he fishes as many as 10 different lakes and ponds each day. He has a rule – set up and fish for one hour. It doesn’t matter if he catches bass, trout, pickerel or perch. Whether he catches anything or not, he packs up and heads for the next lake. By the time I met him in mid-afternoon he’d already fished seven ponds and had a nice mixed bag of fish in his bucket.
In a way, that seems like a much more productive way to fish than to just head for the nearest pond and spend all day in the same place. After decades of this stuff I’m still a fan of walking so I can’t cover that much water in a day, but I do tend to fish as much water on a given lake as I can. I’ll fish for an hour or two, hike a mile or so across the lake to another spot and set up again for a couple of hours. Sometimes fishing “over there” beats fishing “over here,” and on the worst of days it’s good to get up and move just for the change of scenery.
Hmmm... taking the concept a “hare” farther, I can see cutting some holes and setting up some traps, and then hunting for rabbits in the brush along the edge of the lake or pond. I can imagine that if one were to hit five, six or 10 lakes in a day, and sneak along enough shoreline brush, one could easily take a limit of four hares and enough fish for a fine Saturday night chowder. Remember to keep ice-fishing lines “under immediate supervision” while you are poking around the shoreline looking for hares.
An easy way to enjoy both sports is to turn a couple of beagles loose in the woods while setting up for some ice-fishing. Fish near a thoroughfare or pinch point that the hares might use as a crossing and just keep a shotgun handy while you jig for trout, perch or pickerel.
Some years ago I was hare hunting with beagles (without much luck) and came out on a thoroughfare where an angler was fishing. He told me that several hares had crossed a brushy point about 40 yards from him, so I just stood there and, over the next couple of hours, killed my limit of hares. It worked then and I’m sure it would work now.
So, you see, there’s plenty to do outdoors between now and April 1. Don’t wait for spring – get out there now!ners for now, all of us looking forward to the arrival (and arrivals) of spring!
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