|This looks like it may be one of those curious snowless winters that occur only once every 20 years or so. As I recall, the last one was somewhere back in the 1980s when it was windy and below zero on Christmas Day. The ground was frozen solid, making it easy to get into formerly impassable swamps and lowlands with woodcutting equipment. Large stands of cedar and fir bit the dust that winter the moss and muck was so hard the biggest skidder could skim along as if on a superhighway. I remember that I needed some straight, thick cedar logs for an addition on my house, and that year I was able to walk in and cut trees at will, selecting only the best and not having to worry about slurping around in the mud or getting vehicles hopelessly mired.
A drawback of all that snowless terrain was that there was nothing available to bank the foundation with, and so the relentless wind simply cut through the house like a frigid knife. There were nights when I had the wood stove glowing like a charcoal and still could feel a curtain of cold air next to the wall. Like everyone else, we banked and chinked and padded as best we could, but the cold always won. I remember that the foundation split and rose a good 6 inches that year I could not shut the front door because the handle was so far away from the latch. For weeks I had to barricade the door shut with firewood and then pack blankets around the opening.
Bad as all that was, I remember that as the best year for rabbit hunting ever. Cold and wind are bad enough, but imagine being a snow-white creature with no snow to hide in! Our native hares were exposed like flashlights in the dark, visible from 100 yards or more and, because they don’t go underground to escape their enemies, all they could do was run from danger not much help, really, if you only run 20 yards and hope that’s enough!
That was the year I became a serious rabbit sniper, stalking the woods each day with my trusty .22 rifle and turning a simple rabbit hunt into a stalker’s game. I knew where the rabbits lived and when it was best to find them (midday is excellent in winter because hares love to sit in the sun and soak up what warming rays they can find), and all I had to do was walk quietly and pay attention to the woods around me. In winter, Maine is essentially brown and dull green, not much camouflage for a white hare, and even in the thick alders along the brook I was able to spot them from remarkable distances. In fact, I’d approach such cover as silently as possible, and then squat down and scan the area around me using binoculars, much as a summertime woodchuck hunter or mountain sheep spotter would do. It happened to be a great year for rabbits, too, so I rarely had to spend much time looking before I spotted my quarry. At that point it was a simple matter to creep over to a stout alder stub, take careful aim and make the shot.
The ideal place to go for bare-winter rabbits is in the thick cover along a lake, beaver bog or river course. The lowland thickets offer some degree of protection from the wind and from predators (at least those armed only with teeth and claws!). There are places where the high banks of a river offer easy walking, and all the hunter needs to do is keep a close eye on the thick cover below. A white rabbit is an easy thing to spot among all the browns and grays of winter, and those that attempt to skitter away can be seen for long distances. An accomplished rifleman can make some remarkable shots with a scoped .22, and I’m not even going to brag about some of the impossible shots I’ve made under such conditions. Let’s just say that a white target the size of a basketball is not easy to miss, even at 50 or 75 yards.
Rabbits are easy enough to find even if you aren’t close to wetland cover. The frozen ground also benefits hares with a penchant for travel, especially at this end of winter when the males are starting to expand their territories and wander long distances in search of mates. For an animal that supposedly has a one-acre home range, winter hares can do some moving! One winter I spotted a hare along the railroad tracks in LaGrange and followed it a good mile down the tracks before I got a clean shot at it. The rabbit seemed to know the limits of my abilities and kept loping along about 100 yards from me. I finally got smart and ducked off the tracks and kept to the far side of the right-of-way till I got to where I thought the rabbit was sitting. I crept slowly up the riprap and laid my rifle right over a rusted rail and there was the rabbit just 40 yards away! He actually stood up and looked back down the tracks for me, then sat down and scratched his ears, perhaps thinking he’d finally eluded me. Not on bare ground, my friend!
I would not want to bet on this being a snowless winter, but for now things are looking that way, certainly in the most southern regions. If this is the case, take a day, grab your .22 and head for the woods. It’s not often that human hunters are given any sort of edge against our wild adversaries, but on bare ground you should have no trouble finding a limit of four snowshoe hares.
Remember to take some pictures to document your day in the woods it may be 20 years before we have another winter without snow!