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Winter is definitely upon us. Storm after storm blows in leaving more inches of fresh snow, ice and slush. I’m sure not many normal people are smiling about the situation, but when it comes to winter rabbit hunting, you aren’t really talking “normal,” anyway!
In fact, fresh snow every few days is any winter hunter’s dream. Snow reveals the comings and goings of any wild critter that dares touch the ground, and rabbits are quick to fill the woods with their tracks and trails. In fact, within days of a storm you can find deep troughs where rabbits have hopped back and forth among the alders in search of food,
This turns the tables on the elusive hare for sure, because there’s nowhere they can go without leaving tracks behind. Following a rabbit track in no way guarantees a shot, but where you find lots of rabbit tracks the odds are the rabbits that made them are going to be nearby.
If you’re young and spry enough to bend and twist your way through an alder patch, chances are you’ll see plenty of tracks, gnaw marks where the rabbits tested the bark of young saplings, and of course the trademark, round scat left behind by feeding rabbits.
(By the way, rabbits are coprophagous, a polite way of saying they eat their own scat. The best way to tell “old” scat from “new” scat is the color. The first time through the pellets will have a greenish tint to them, but the re-digested material is dull and brown. Isn’t it amazing what you can learn from this column?)
You won’t catch many rabbits in the act of eating their own excrement, which is probably a good thing if you plan on eating the rabbit later. In most cases you’ll spot them sitting quietly up against a stump or brush pile, or, most often, hopping away from you in an Artful Dodger sort of way. One of the more amazing traits of wild animals is that they are masters at determining which encounters with danger merit instant retreat, and rabbits are adept at it. When humans lock eyes with a sitting rabbit they tend to start thinking about what to do next, but the rabbit has no problem deciding (then and there) that it’s time to go. Given enough time, humans could probably win the game 99 times out of 100, but because we are predators, not prey, we don’t seem to be able to react as quickly when we are duped.
Instead, the time to start thinking is the instant you enter the rabbit woods. I will take a few minutes to settle down, remind myself that I am hunting for rabbits and generally tune out the distractions of life. When I am ready to start hunting, my mind is clear and my thoughts are on my quarry. I tell myself that there could be a rabbit behind that cedar, under that brushy fir or maybe behind that cluster of fallen trees. I look and look, and when I’m in a place where tracks and sign are abundant, I slow down, pay even more attention and pick apart every hill, hummock and hideout, knowing that sooner or later I’m going to spot my target.
In typical winter rabbit cover it’s a great day when you can see 50 feet around you, but it’s easy to just glance here and there and hope a rabbit will make a mistake. That does happen, but rarely. The more sensible approach is to plunk yourself down in the snow, get your binoculars out and start looking at every high spot, low spot and thick spot you can find. Rabbits in thick cover are not easy to see, however, even though their fur is a dusky white a this time of year. You need to look for the bright, black eye of a nervous rabbit, or the curve or his back or ears. Find something out of place that catches your eye and just stare at it till you see (or don’t see) a rabbit.
My favorite rabbit-hunting spot is so thick and forbidding that I often hunt with a .22 handgun because a rifle is just too long to handle in the tangled alders, birches and cedars. In many places I just can’t get through, but that is exactly why the rabbits are there. They want to avoid predators and if the cover is so thick you can’t see or reach them, living till tomorrow is a definite maybe!
Truth be known, I’d prefer a rifle in these places because I am probably the world’s worst pistol shot. Even though I qualified Expert in the U.S. Marines, the ensuing 35 years has had a marked effect on my vision. I have to look, squint, aim, look and squint again just to make a shot, and most of the time I can’t quite connect the dots! When cover allows I take my .22 rifle and easily double my take of rabbits.
Some hunters add to the challenge by using archery gear. Any rabbit taken by a bowhunter is a major achievement given the density of the cover, the distance to the rabbit and the conditions. One twig in the right place can send an arrow clicking and clacking over the horizon, and the rabbit will run off with what really looks like a sneer, especially if you are the one who’s doing all the missing!
Take advantage of the fresh snowfalls and bright, cool days and see if you can outsmart one of our native Maine snowshoe hares. It takes some practice and some determination, but if we’re going to get a storm every other day from now on, you should have plenty of time to practice.
A good hunt can take all of an hour from start to finish, and there’s no reason to make a full day of it unless you truly like the feel of cold snow drifting down your neck. Walk slowly, aim straight and see what it’s like to go one-on-one with an animal that, they say, is at the bottom of the food chain. I think if humans were included we’d take over that spot in a heartbeat!
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