|A friend called the other day with the news that he’d seen a bobcat walking along the edge of his woodlot. I like hearing about wildlife sightings from our area. It’s good to know the critters are out there and that the people who spot them take a few minutes out of their busy day to observe and appreciate them.
The bobcat sighting was notable because these cats are rarely seen in daylight, are usually very shy and cautious and spend most of their time far from the hustle and bustle of human habitation. That a bobcat would wander that close to a busy household suggests that times are hard in the woods and that food may be difficult to come by.
What intrigued me most, however, was my friend’s comment that the cat, which he estimated at about 30 pounds, was walking easily on top of the frozen snow. Hmmmm . . . . My mind switched from the rarity of a bobcat sighting to the possibility of a rabbit hunt. If the cat could walk on the packed snow, perhaps I could as well. If the snow was hard and compacted in the woods, it would put a rabbit hunt high on the list of priorities, certainly well ahead of doing taxes, walking the dog or spring-cleaning!
Maine’s rabbit season opens Oct. 1 and closes March 31, one of the longest small game seasons in the U.S. I use my rabbit days as trump cards when there’s nothing else to do, the weather is bad or I just want an excuse to ramble in the woods with a .22 or shotgun in hand.
Unlike most other small game animals, rabbits remain in the open regardless of the weather. They do utilize brush, downed trees and stumps to conceal themselves from the wind, rain or snow, but they mostly depend on their fur coloration (brown in fall, white in winter) to help them evade predators. A slow, cautious hunter can creep up to within five yards of a sitting rabbit, sometimes closer if the animal (officially a “hare,” but it’s not necessary to pick those nits in central Maine, where cottontails are few and far between) feels he is safe from harm. In fact, when I am deer, grouse or “other” hunting, I am often surprised to see a hare sitting just a few feet away, patiently hoping that I will keep on walking, when I pause for a look around.
When there’s new, deep snow on the ground, the noise and effort it takes to struggle through the woods, even on snowshoes, easily alerts the rabbits to the hunter’s presence, and I’d guess that more than half the rabbits see the commotion and hop away without being seen. At ground level, hares can see 50 yards and more even in the thickest cedar swamps, but at human eye level, you’re lucky to see 50 feet! So, the rabbits see you flouncing around, splashing snow everywhere, and simply fade away unseen.
Which is why, when a friend tells me some fat cat has just walked by on top of the snow, my mind switches from responsible endeavors to the only other sensible thing to do: go rabbit hunting! If the snow is frozen (which it usually is at dawn and again near dusk at this end of the season), the advantage is mostly mine. I wear my heaviest, widest boots (less likely to break through) and move slowly through the alders and cedars, looking for the signature rounded, grayish blob of a hare in its resting mode.
In dreams, hunters can walk on frozen snow all day without making a sound, but in the real world, it’s more likely that you’ll take several steps and then crash through up to your thigh. When that happens, I bring my gun up and look all around me, alert for the ghostly form of a rabbit bouncing away in the low brush. In most cases the rabbit will hop a short distance and then pause for a look back, the perfect time to center the crosshairs and squeeze the trigger! I do this before I try to free myself from the rotten snow, otherwise I’m likely to miss a chance for an easy shot.
On one such trip I opted to hunt with a .22 handgun (with which I’m no great shakes!), and found myself waist deep in a wet hole with a rabbit sitting at a high crouch (meaning he was ready to shift into high gear). Well, I knew I could hit him with the pistol at least once per magazine of 10 rounds, so I leaned back, took careful aim and carefully squeezed off a shot. The rabbit didn’t move and nothing jiggled around him, so I aimed again and shot. And again . . . and again . . . 7 more times! The last shot finally found its mark, but in my own little world of Steve against the wilderness, I counted that one as a win for the rabbit! I have a personal rule that says if I empty my gun at a critter and he walks away, I just let him go. It rarely happens when I hunt with a rifle or shotgun, but I have had some close calls when handgunning no matter what the quarry!
Woods walking and hunting can be iffy propositions at the end of March. Expect lots of water out there (from melting snow) and tough walking (also from melting snow), but when you pick a clear day with a warm breeze blowing, even those aggravations seem miniscule. The birds will be singing more now, the days are getting longer and the promise of spring is everywhere. I never want to see another hunting season come to an end, but this is an enjoyable way to celebrate the finals days of our rabbit season. Get out there all you can between now and the end of the month the chores will wait for you, I guarantee it!