The jury is still out on whether or not there is enough safe ice to allow anglers, snowmobiles and ATVs on our lakes and ponds, which is certainly stifling some folks, especially those who purchased some new machinery for Christmas. There’s nothing like having a brand new sled, 4-wheeler or even ice skates collecting dust in the garage while the warm winter wears on. The Farmer’s Almanac insists that we are going to have another harsh winter this year but it’s certainly slow in coming.
Fortunately, there is plenty for land-based sportsmen to do. The old rule has always been: When all else fails, go rabbit hunting! Few folks realize that Maine has one of the longest rabbit hunting seasons in the country, starting with an Oct. 1 opening day and running all the way through March. The simple reason for the lengthy season is that there are plenty of rabbits out there (actually snowshoe hares) and it is not all that easy to take a limit of four unless you happen to have a well-trained pack of beagles with which to pursue them.
I’ve always been a big fan of rabbit hunting no matter how it’s done and have brought home more than my share taken by stalking, hounding or jump-shooting. They all taste the same no matter how you hunt them and you don’t really need to shoot four per day because one rabbit is more than a meal for one person.
Our Maine snowshoe hares are among the largest lagomorphs in the country and are certainly much bigger than any other fuzzy-footed rodent that hops around the swamps and woods elsewhere in the East.
I have seen Western jackrabbits that were literally waist high, as big and goofy a rabbit as you’re likely to see, but few people hunt them for food. I hear that they taste like a combination of sage and asphalt, but because I’ve never put a fork to one I couldn’t say for sure.
I like Maine’s hares because they are so unique, turning white in winter (due to the shortened hours of daylight, not the cold or snow) and because they offer an opportunity to hunt when pretty much everything else that’s edible is closed to hunting till next fall. Also, I like the places hares lure me into, those deep, dark cedar thickets where all is quiet and serene. When conditions are right (quiet, cool and overcast) it is possible to creep right up on a sitting rabbit that, surprisingly, has complete trust in his white coat even when there is no snow on the ground. This can be a real boon to hunters when, as occurred this year, we had little or no snow going into January, and if we have a warm spring we may also see great swaths of brown ground well before the end of March, when the hares will still be in their winter coats, albeit in a raggedy, unkempt state.
There is no great mystery to successful winter rabbit hunting in Maine. It takes some walking and a lot of looking but even a hunter without hounds can bring home enough meat for the bean pot in a relaxing morning or afternoon in the woods. Because hares tend to sit tight until the last second (I guess when they figure you are too close for them to outrun you), it’s an easy matter to walk slowly through the alders, firs and birches with an eye peeled to either side, hoping to spot the tell-tale black eye of a sitting hare. I’ve seen them backed up against stone walls, blown-down trees, stumps, hummocks and all sorts of natural obstacles over the years, and in some cases they were sitting upright in full view, as if they can’t imagine that we mere humans could see through that shaggy white coat. You won’t get them all but you will see enough to make a hunt of it. Keep in mind that each hare will weigh 3 or 4 pounds, so two of them are more than enough for anyone to have to carry out of the thicket. I have killed my limit a time or two just because there were so many hares in the woods, but as I recall they made quite a load! I used to tie them to my belt loops with a piece of rawhide but that’s a good way to lose one’s woollies while trudging through snowdrifts and over blow-downs.
Another advantage of hunting winter rabbits is that you don’t need an expensive, specialized rifle, shotgun or bow. I usually use my trusty old .22 or a .410 shotgun, but I know folks who have good luck using archery tackle or even .22 handguns. I must admit that though I shot Expert with the .45 in the Marines that was 45 years ago and for some reason I’m not quite as deadly with a handgun as I was back then. In fact, one year I emptied a collectible Colt Woodsman Match Target .22 at a sitting hare and never even came close. I traded that pistol for something a little more manageable and haven’t been that embarrassed since.
By the way, hares are big, rangy critters but they are not very difficult to kill. These days I use .22 Shorts or 2 ½-inch shells in my .410 and have no need for a follow-up shot. Larger calibers and gauges tend to be overkill unless you use lighter loads. There’s not a lot of meat on a hare by the time you get it ready for the pot so it’s a good idea to be conservative with ammunition choices. In fact, a quality pellet rifle is more than adequate for hunting rabbits in winter.
I enjoy my winter rabbit hunts even when there are few rabbits around. Any walk in the woods, armed or not, is a pleasant adventure that may turn up any number of interesting things, many not the least bit related to rabbits or hunting. Stay off the ice, go into the woods and see what curiosities you can find!