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For Maine’s rabbit hunters, this week is the swan song for a season that opened way back on Oct. 1. Most folks don’t know it but our rabbit season is one of the longest uninterrupted hunting seasons for wild game in the U.S. Very few hunting seasons for any species lasts more than a few weeks at best, and even the longest deer seasons are split to accommodate rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader or archery hunters.
It’s an interesting progression to hunt from opening day, when conditions are almost as balmy as summer and the rabbits are still in their chocolate-brown coats. For some reason, October rabbits (actually hares – our northern snowshoe hare is not technically a rabbit) seem bigger, fluffier and somehow longer than they are in the dead of winter, but that may just be because the fur seems darker and thicker.
There are many hound hunters out there who start training their beagles (and coonhound pups) on rabbits as soon as the season opens. There is the occasional conflict with bowhunters over who has priority over a particular patch of woods (neither, although first come, first served is the tradition), but in most cases dogs busily chasing a rabbit can actually benefit a deer hunter by keeping the whitetails on the go as they move around to avoid the noise of the hounds. When deer are moving they are more vulnerable to hunters, and I know that there are times when any deer hunter almost wishes a dog would wander through and get something going!
In fall, hares tend to be easy to hunt because they are easy to see, don’t run very far and are plentiful. As the season wears on and mortality increases, there are fewer rabbits, and once the snow hits and the animals change to their white winter coats, they are not so easy to see. There have been many times that I have stared at a patch of “snow” thinking something wasn’t quite right with it only to have the “snow” suddenly jump up and run a few yards! Rabbits always put great trust in their camouflaged coats, and would much prefer to sit tight and let predators walk by rather than make a run for it and risk being caught and eaten. Most predators can outrun a rabbit in a short race, but of course those long-legged hares will quickly outdistance any larger, slower animal in a lengthier race.
By the end of March the rabbit population is at its lowest so the animals are not as easy to find. If you’ve been hunting the same areas all season you will see the difference, so the logical option would be to find a new place to hunt that has not been scoured all season by beagles or other hunters. Luckily, we are in an area of Maine that contains ideal habitat for rabbits, so finding a new spot shouldn’t take much effort. Walk down any logging road or old rail bed and find a corner of a swamp that has no signs of human activity and just plunge in. Odds are you will find plenty of rabbit sign (tracks, trails, chewed alder saplings and “raisins”) as well as enough rabbits to keep you busy till the season ends.
While late-season snow, ice and other climatic calamities mean much misery for those on the way to work or school, rabbit hunters rejoice when bad weather hits. The reason is that snowshoe hares are not prone to going underground – they stay out, exposed to the weather, no matter how bad things get. When frozen snow or ice prevail, it’s easy for hunters to get around in the woods, and a patient sportsman with good eyesight (or bright, clear binoculars) will have no trouble finding a few rabbits for the pot.
The simplest technique is to walk slowly, make little noise and scan the horizon for signs of game. With experience, it’s easy to spot the rounded form of a sitting rabbit, though most hunters claim that the first thing they see is the rabbit’s large, gleaming black eye. Sometimes a rabbit will sit up suddenly if he thinks you’ve spotted him, or the animal will hop away a few feet in order to get a better look at you, but if you are alert for signs of sitting or moving game, you will get your share of rabbits.
I like walking them up at late March, often using a .410 shotgun or .22 rifle or handgun, but some hunters like to maximize the challenge and use archery tackle. I have tried them all and have taken plenty of rabbits with each method. I think I like using my .22 rifle best, however, because it requires all my skills to find a rabbit and it’s even more demanding to make a shot using the little rifle. I’m not good enough with a handgun or bow to thread a bullet or arrow through thick alders or cedars, but once in a while I’ll get an open shot that makes up for all those previous misses.
If you have little time available but still want to end the 2007 rabbit season on a high note, simply pick a spot along the edge of an apple orchard or dense swamp at dawn or dusk and be alert for rabbits coming out to feed. A great place to be is in the middle of the worst alder thicket you can find. If you’re quiet and patient (and can sit still for an hour) you’ll see rabbits moving about as they prepare for a long night of feeding and dodging owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and weasels.
Make the most of this last week of the season. If nothing else, go on a “rabbit hunt” in an area that happens to be near your favorite trout stream. After all, no sooner does the hare season end (March 31) than the spring trout season opens. You may be able to find a few rabbits and a spot where several trout are waiting for someone to toss a lively garden worm into the middle of a sunlit pool!
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