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One of the luckiest things about being a Maine sportsman is that there is something to do outdoors any time of the year. In most states, the hunting seasons are closed and everyone's inside fretting about taxes and spring cleaning, but we have more than enough options to keep us busy at least till April 1 (and that's time enough to worry about Uncle Sam's demands on our finances!).
One of the unsung joys of the Maine sporting world is the rabbit season, which opens Oct. 1 and closes March 31. That's the longest-running hunting season for a game species in the U.S. Varmints of various species may be hunted year-round, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a state that allows gun hunting for any game (large or small) that lasts half the year. A few states have squirrel seasons that last nearly as long, but one big Maine snowshoe hare is equivalent to a limit of squirrels from a meat-hunting standpoint.
Yet another advantage most folks don't realize is that you don't need specialized equipment to conduct a productive rabbit hunt in Maine. Unlike cottontails, the snowshoe hare (the big, white hopper most common in the North Country) doesn't hide in dens or holes in the ground. No matter what the weather or what's chasing them, hares tough it out on foot in the open, trusting their speed and white coats to keep them from inhabiting the empty bellies of starving predators (including man).
And that is an advantage for hunters who don't have dogs, a shotgun or particularly good eyesight. Hares are so confident in their snowy camouflage that they will sit tight and let nominal threats just walk right on by. I have seen them do this as early as mid-November, when I'm busy stalking deer and don't have the time (or see the need) for shooting rabbits. As long as I keep moving more or less away from the rabbit, it will sit there, plain as day, and let me pass. In rare years when the ground is bare and the rabbits are white as the snow that's not there, you can stroll any convenient logging road and pick them off as they sit tucked away in the roadside alders.
Without the help of some hot-nosed beagles, the options are the same whether you hunt with a .22 rifle, a shotgun, a handgun or a bow. Hares don't move around much during the day, which means you have to do the walking. Any copse of low-growing evergreens, alders or mixed birches will show evidence of rabbits, which could be the familiar M&M-sized brown droppings, gnawed sections of twigs and limbs close to the ground, or, in snow, well-packed trails winding around and through both cover types. Find a place where snowshoe rabbits have been and you're in business. Odds are you'll start seeing hares within 100 yards of a track or trail, so be ready! Hare's are tolerant and patient, but only to a point. If you move too fast, stop too often or become over-anxious, all you'll see is a brief flash of white as your quarry hops over the hill and out of sight - another lesson learned!
Once a rabbit knows you are in pursuit the game changes considerably, and you won't be able to catch up. Your best option at that point is to hunt with a partner, circling and looping through cover in an effort to ambush a furtive rabbit.
One trick that works well in our area, where thick brush and low-hanging limbs are the norm, is to stop frequently and squat down to see under the lowest limbs and branches. I've gone as far as to bring binoculars and scan around me, alert for the rounded form of a sitting rabbit, its coal-black eye or black ear-tips. If I'm quiet, deliberate and unobtrusive, the rabbit will sit still, I'll have time to spot him, bring the gun up and take a shot. This technique works very well in times of unsettled weather, such as during a snowfall, on wet, foggy days, or when the wind is blowing. Patience is the greater virtue in these situations, and don't be fooled - rabbits have plenty of patience! They won't stick around once you've shown them (by moving quickly and aggressively) but if you stay calm and focused they'll give you time for a clean shot.
It may sound as if hunting for winter rabbits are a simple endeavor, but there is plenty that can go wrong. There are days when the hares won't sit still, the weather is wrong; the brush is too thick or . . . you can't hit the broad side of a barn from the inside! I once emptied two clips from a Colt Match Target .22 pistol (one of the most accurate handguns of its time) at a sitting rabbit and never cut a hair. Another time I was bowhunting and shot six (expensive) feather-fletched arrows at a fully exposed hare and didn't even scare him away! The rabbit sat there without twitching through the entire event, and when I ran out of arrows and went near him to retrieve the misses, he just hopped another 20 yards out and sat down again!
I tend to use small-gauge shotguns (a .410 sometimes seems like too much gun) when hunting rabbits because, the truth be known, snowshoes and, for that matter, cottontails, are not that hard to kill. A well-placed pellet or two is all it takes. But, the cover is often thick, full of frozen alders and thick evergreen boughs, and . . . well, it is possible to miss a rabbit with a shotgun! I have been witnesses who saw me fire five shots at a rabbit, albeit running, through thick alders, and got nothing but a week's supply of firewood for my efforts!
One year while hunting in Newport I tried my .22 rifle, deadly on squirrels, but made the mistake of using light, fast ammunition designed for open-air shooting at varmints. I emptied the gun at a sitting rabbit and, except for an occasional twitch of its ears, saw no indication of a hit, even though I could hit a dime dead center at 40 yards.
The hare moved, I took careful aim (again!) and finally made good on the shot, but when I looked the rabbit over I found that its ears were full of tiny pinholes - the light bullets had shattered on unseen twigs along the way and had nothing left by the time they got to the target! And another lesson learned . . . use hollow-point or solid bullets, not high-speed “varmint” loads.
The challenge is all in the hunt and there's no time to go like the present. You can pursue snowshoe hares anywhere in Maine from now till March 31. The limit's four rabbits a day, and you'll earn each one, with or without beagles.
Get out there and give rabbit hunting a try - it's fun, it's challenging and it's a sure cure for cabin fever. And what great stories you'll have to tell at the end of the day!
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