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Here we are at the end of January and still the jury is out on where there is enough safe ice for ice-fishing and snowmobiling on the major lakes in our area. Some of the smaller waters are covered with enough ice to make a fishing expedition worthwhile, but there are still doubts about the safety of traveling over great expanses of ice in vehicles of any sort. “Leery” is a good way to approach ice-covered lakes at this point in the winter. If you know the ice is thick enough to trust with whatever your plans are, go for it, but test (or ask) first before risking life and limb.
For me, it’s a simple matter of changing plans. There is little risk in spending the day in pursuit of our native snowshoe hare, other than perhaps the thrill of having a handful of snow down your neck when ducking under saplings or evergreen boughs. One could, I suppose, fall face first into a drift while trying to negotiate a snowbound thicket while wearing snowshoes but as far as I can tell the mortality rate for rabbit hunters is relatively low. Snowmobilers, ATVers and others die annually in Maine but rabbit hunters? Not so much.
Aside from the exercise and scenic attraction of a day spent walking in the woods, hunting the Maine hare is one of the last, few truly traditional sports that is done today with the same tactics and equipment the first Hudson Bay-era trappers used long before there was a New England, at least officially. You walk, you look, and you try to get a clear shot. Nothing to it!
The trick in hare hunting is in possessing the visual acuity to separate a white hare from its white background; easy once you know how to do it but otherwise confounding. Many times I have taken novice rabbit hunters into the woods and pointed out a sitting hare to them that, to me, looked big as a bus in a vacant parking lot but, for some reason, the newbie couldn’t see it, not until the hare decided it was time to go. I suppose it is a matter of contrasts and focus, but eventually spotting a hare on snow becomes second nature, and this is where the game gets interesting.
Lest one get the impression that rabbit hunting is easy, consider that the hare knows to the instant when enough is enough, leaving the bewildered hunter behind in 20-foot leaps. Call it personal space, instinct or simple good luck, hares spend a lot of time dodging predators of every sort year-round. Human hunters are probably the least of their worries, but once a rabbit learns how close is too close, it’s nearly impossible to gain the extra step needed to put a hare in the stew pot come Saturday night.
Lacking fang, claws or talons, hunters have the advantage when using a light gauge shotgun or .22 to close the gap. When hares are flighty and prone to run a shotgun may be the better choice (and especially when beagles are used to get the rabbits moving), but a sharp-eyed hunter who is patient and observant can do just as well using a .22 rifle or handgun. Rabbits (or hares, call them what you will) are frail and fragile animals and it doesn’t take a ton of firepower to subdue them. It’s seeing them in the first place that is the greater challenge.
Having hunted lagomorphs for the better part of 50 years I have developed a knack for spotting a sitting hare no matter how well-camouflaged and tucked in he may be. There’s just something different about the animal’s eye, ears and rounded back that catches my attention. Believe it or not there is a discernible pattern to the mosaic of the woods, even in winter, and a rabbit stands out quite dramatically among all the hills and bumps, blow downs and boughs that make up the bigger picture. Look for something different, the one thing that shouldn’t be there, and have the presence of mind to know when you are looking at a rabbit and not a birch stub, stone or hummock.
A lot of things look like rabbits and even old hands like me are not always sure that what I’m seeing is what I’m seeing, so I always carry a binocular for verification. More often than not my “rabbit” turns out to be merely something that looks like one, but often enough I’ll turn the focus knob and zero in on a very patient, steel-willed hare that is sure I can’t see him. Moving slowly, I switch binos for my .22 and just like that my supper is assured.
Because hares live in the evergreens and prefer to take their chances above ground regardless of the weather, any stroll through suitable cover should produce a rabbit or two for the pot. Rain or shine, snow or bare ground, the hares are out there doing what hares do best, and with a hunting season that lasts through the end of March there are ample opportunities to hunt them. Unlike most game species hares seem to be oblivious to the harshest of conditions: They will be out there, sitting pretty, no matter what the meteorologists predict. Truth be told, I seem to have the best luck hunting hares during those occasional winter thaws when rain or heavy fog is in the forecast. Maybe it’s quieter at such times, or maybe visibility is poor (from the hare’s perspective), but they seem to sit tighter longer when humidity levels are off the charts. Wear rain gear on such days to make a hunt more bearable, but don’t stay indoors claiming bad weather as an excuse. Rainy days are often the best time to hunt.
If you develop a craving for stewed rabbit this week, all you have to do is go out and find one. Best of all, you won’t have to worry about falling through thin ice!
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