|We’re fast coming to the edge of winter, that nebulous period when cold and snow meet warm winds and the promise of spring. It’s always great to look ahead to better things, but there is still more to do outdoors before we look to mowing lawns, trimming hedges and finding a trout stream that hasn’t been fished since early last summer.
Winter fishing is still legal and, for the most part, viable till the end of the month, but there is some risk involved, especially as the warming winds of late March turn several feet of once-solid ice into a gigantic cocktail of crushed ice and slush. This is the time of year when the risk takers cash in their chips, we will see another drowning, another lost vehicle and perhaps another snowmobiling fatality before the snow and ice leaves us for another year. It’s a shame that some folks will test the limits of nature’s laws as they walk, ride or ski across the state, but it happens and it usually ends badly. There was a spate of hydroplaning accidents this year across the north, cases where snowmobile operators literally rode across open water at full throttle. Exhilarating, perhaps, but certainly foolhardy because not everyone is a trained, experienced, professional rider who knows when not to tempt fate, and an instant of misguided enthusiasm could cost someone their vehicle if not their life.
This is no time to be a cowboy on ice, so think twice before venturing onto any lake or river that looks safe. Check it first! I trapped beavers for many years in Piscataquis County and focused my efforts on small flowages and streams rather than the bigger rivers, and not one winter went by that I didn’t have some kind of through-the-ice experience. Slush, rotten ice, pressure ridges and other unexpected variations in the ice come up quick and are unforgiving. Most of the time I went in just to my belt or, on one occasion, over my head, but I was lucky enough to be in shallow water with shore close by. Had I gone through in deeper, moving water I probably would not be writing these words today. It’s not the fall through the ice that gets you, it’s the sudden, unexpected shock of near-freezing water that puts you in a sudden trance that, if not thwarted, can render you helpless and, in seconds, kill you.
In other words, check the ice before you go out! Sure, the ice-fishing season is still open and welcome to it, but don’t take foolish chances. The end of March is nightmare time for game wardens, sheriffs and other rescue personnel. The one job they do not want is pulling your body out of the water, so take precautions, stay alert and admit when it’s time to go back.
A more enjoyable if not productive sport to consider in these waning days of March is a last-of-the-season rabbit hunt. It’s likely to be cold, messy and slushy in the woods these days, but a good set of snowshoes or knee-high rubber boots will take care of that. The great thing about Maine’s snowshoe hares is that they are common everywhere and they do not seek shelter in holes or stumps. For some reason, these white ghosts of the forest are content to face the weather fully exposed and unfazed by such things as sleet, rain, hail, snow, wind or bitter cold. They’ll sit on a high hummock and simply wait out the storm, and when things clear up you’ll be able to find innumerable tracks and trails in the alders and cedars. Forget trying to track a rabbit they move around so much at night that even a hot-nosed beagle couldn’t figure it out. Instead, grab a .22, bow or shotgun and simply creep slowly through the thickest cover you can find, those impenetrable alder and jack fir thickets that are the devil to get through but perfect for hiding a hare at the end of March.
The key is to look for a piece of the rabbit, not the whole thing. I seem to be able to spot their coal-black eyes first, or sometimes the signature curve of their backs as they hunker down next to a log, tree trunk or other obstacle. I’ll often spot them sitting fully exposed in a dense alder patch. They seem to sit there oblivious to my presence but trusting implicitly in their protective white winter coat. At this time of year, however, that pure white coat has become a bit dingy, almost black in places, making the rabbit appear to be a large blob of dirty snow, and that’s a dead giveaway.
One of my favorite ways to hunt in late March is to walk slowly through the thickest cover I can find and, every few yards, stop and scan my surrounding with binoculars. It’s amazing how often I’ll look over the same piece of cover once, twice, even three times, and then suddenly realize I’m looking at a rabbit that, obviously, had been there all the time! Some hares will run off just about the instant I spot them (isn’t that always the way?), but enough of them will sit tight and trust their white coats at least long enough for me to get a shot at them.
I once hunted March hares with a handgun, but after one incident in which I emptied the clip of a Colt Woodsman Match Target pistol without cutting a hair, I decided I was better off with a .22 rifle or .410 shotgun. I don’t miss too many rabbits now, but there are days when I wonder if I should have brought something bigger!
Don’t sit indoors thinking there’s nothing left to do this winter. Find some safe ice or take a hike in the woods but get out there and do something!