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If you’ve spent more than one winter in Maine you can probably tell that spring is on its way. Longer days, warmer breezes and small hints of big things to come are right in front of you. It doesn’t matter how much snow we have or how cold it may be right now, this is the time when winter loses its hold on the North Country and opens the door to balmier spring weather.
Though spring is as dear to me as it is to anyone else, I also enjoy my winter activities and almost hate to see it all come to an end in one great, big thaw. My winter rabbit hunting forays (for rabbits, coyotes and other predators) keep me from bouts of cabin fever, and I always enjoy ice-fishing because it’s good exercise, the scenery is great and the chances of bringing home the makings of a good, stout chowder are excellent.
When I have the time and inclination, I often make a day of it, going ice-fishing in the morning to catch the sunrise and then heading into the woods for an afternoon rabbit hunt. This provides variety, a change of scenery, new challenges and a great excuse to avoid cleaning out the garage or some other mundane (indoor) pursuit!
We are fortunate to have a plethora of such opportunities in our area. In less than 30 minutes you can be ice-fishing or rabbit hunting, often with the woods or ice all to yourself, no matter where you live in the Rolling Thunder’s delivery area. Lakes and ponds still open to ice-fishing offer great trout, salmon, bass, pickerel and perch fishing, and just about any cedar swamp you care to probe will have its resident population of snowshoe hares.
Both seasons (hunting and fishing) are open through the end of this month, and some of the most productive action of the year occurs in March. Whether it’s the warming temperatures, thinning ice or some other factor, ice-fishing can be quite exciting in these final days of winter. Many of the biggest fish of the year are taken in March, and some lakes and ponds don’t really “turn on” till late winter. I’ve yet to see scientific proof of why the bigger fish seem to become more active in spring (maybe because of the smelt run?), but it pays to be on the ice this month as long as it’s safe and prudent to do so.
I would recommend fishing the smaller waters or the protected bays of the larger lakes because once the ice starts to disintegrate conditions can turn ugly. What was an 8-inch hole in the ice last month could morph into a 3-foot hole that could easily swallow a fisherman and his pack basket, which happened to a friend of mine as we walked across the ice with me some years ago. We were heading out to center ice, laughing and talking about what a great day we were going to have, and then suddenly Wayne disappeared from sight in a loud, gushing gurgle that scared the life out of me! Wayne had stepped over an old, thawed ice-fishing hole that was covered with skim ice and a little snow. He was down to his armpits and stuck between several layers of slush and ice. I slid my ice chisel under his arms and levered him out of the hole, but that day was lost then and there. He was shivering like a Spanish dancer by the time we got back to the car, and he didn’t warm up again till the next day!
Though the risk of falling through the ice in March is slim, it’s a good idea to test the ice or check with local authorities before venturing out, especially on the larger lakes. Smaller water will stay frozen longer and often provide great fishing through the end of the month.
I am a great fan of March rabbit hunting, as much because of the balmier weather but also because it’s the last hunting we’ll be able to do till turkey season begins. March rabbit hunting is quite productive because the spring breeding season is approaching and the hares will be traveling far and wide in search of mates. Sometimes you’ll hunt a patch of woods and find a dozen of them, and then the next day you can hunt the same cover and not find even one! The trick is to keep moving and check out every alder patch or cedar swamp you can find.
This is a great time of year for hunting with beagles, too. Warmer days mean the scent holds better, and that means the dogs will stay on track longer. The real game here is keeping the dogs within hearing because those adventurous March hares may run over the next hill and beyond, often several miles in a great circle, before coming back to where the race started. It’s all but fruitless to chase these traveling bucks on foot, but if you’re patient (and have some experienced dogs) you should be able to get into some good shooting.
Without a dog, the game changes to “sneak and peek,” moving slowly through thick cover and trying to spot a rabbit sitting on a high spot or under a log or brush.
The greater challenge is that “moving slowly” part because, just like lake ice, March snow is treacherous in its own way. It may not seem obvious, but things are already melting under the snow, and you are sure to find places where this is a gap of a foot or more under what looks like solid, packed snow.
This is a tough time for walking in the woods with or without snowshoes. Once the bottom falls out of the snow you’re better off wearing hip waders to keep from getting wet as you constantly break through to your thighs. One good thing about this kind of hunting is that when you break through the crust you are suddenly on the same plane as your quarry, and it’s often just then that you’ll spot a rabbit sitting alertly atop a hummock just a few yards away.
Enjoy the March woods while you can. Soon it will be spring, with all its warmth and promise – and all those bugs!
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