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Most Maine hunters looking for something to do in winter generally turn to two species: snowshoe hares or coyotes. I have hunted both (with vigor!) since the mid-1970s when coyotes were still pretty much a novelty in the East, and once the regular hunting seasons come to an end on Dec. 31 (no more squirrel or grouse hunting), I dust off the varmint rifle or shotgun and head out to see what trouble I can get into.
Just this week I overheard a few fellows talking at the town office about “getting a gang together” to hunt coyotes. I had to smile at that because no animal is harder to fool than a coyote, and the odds are that if you try to drive them (like deer) you are going to get a lot of exercise that day – and not much else!
The best way to beat coyotes is to find a hot track and put some experienced hounds on the trail, but the majority of hunters are more likely to want to use hand-held or electronic calls to bring their quarry into range. The concept is simple enough: Pretend you are an injured rabbit or bird and make enough noise so that any coyote in the area will hear you and come running in to investigate.
Coyotes do in fact come running, but with eyes, ears and nose on high alert. They will invariably come in with their nose into the wind, even if they have to run a mile around you, so set up to call with the wind at your back and be ready to shoot before you utter the first squeak or squall. A coyote may show up in a few seconds or it may be 45 minutes later (give them time to cover the distance between you), but when they do appear they will be staring right at you, so do not move! One twitch and all you’ll have to show for your effort is an educated coyote, and those are the ones that never get shot!
Some hunters use continuous, varying-pitch calls to bring coyotes into range but I once raised rabbits for meat and I can tell you that injured or dying rabbits don’t sit there all day squalling at the top of their lungs. Two or three loud, pitiful squeals is all they can muster, but that’s enough for any hungry coyote. He’ll hear that sound and make a beeline for it, though deep snow and rough terrain may slow him down a little.
After you call, just sit tight with your gun up and ready and wait. Watch the wood line downwind of your position and be ready to shoot the instant the predator comes into view. I have called coyotes in close enough to kill with a .410 shotgun, but my recommendation would be to shoot as soon as you have a clear target. The closer the coyote gets the more likely he is to see or smell you, and as soon as he does he’s gone like a ghost. Don’t wait for a better shot, don’t fidget, don’t talk or even blink. It’s not impossible to get a shot at a coyote (a few thousand of them are taken by hunters each year), but I’m willing to bet that every sportsmen who connects with one has just as many failures to report. You will find that a coyote is one of Maine’s most challenging game animals and you will earn every hide you put on the wall!
If facing off with our top predator is too daunting for you, there’s always a snowshoe hare nearby. If you have a swamp or clear-cut nearby the odds are the rabbits will be there as well. By now there will be tracks and trails everywhere in the woods, and within two days of any storm there will be more fresh sign to ponder.
The first thing any hare hunter discovers is that there are usually many more tracks than there are rabbits. If you have access to a good Maine-bred beagle, you can enjoy some fast and fun shooting all winter. If you are the spot-and-stalk type, you can expect to bring home at least one rabbit per trip. Another option is “getting a gang together” and setting up small drives through alder and evergreen swamps, regenerating clear-cuts and other areas where low, thick cover abounds.
Finding a white rabbit with snow on the ground may seem like an impossible task, but the truth is that our hares are not entirely or exactly “white.” A hare in hand has white fur overall but has black eyes and ear tips. Also, there is a definite dark under fur that can be black or dark brown depending on the animal and the conditions. I like to think of them as off white, and in a fresh snow they appear to be the size and color of a bucketful of wood ash.
Rabbits are fun to hunt no matter how you do it because they are not spooked by cracking branches, hunters’ voices or even the close proximity of a human or dog. These winter-loving animals have great trust in their white coats and will sit still in their form till someone (or something) nearly steps on them. In fact, I bagged a hare a few weeks ago just before the snow came that was no more than 10 yards away! I had to pause a moment to make sure I wasn’t seeing a piece of birch bark on the bare ground, but when the rabbit blinked I knew what was on the supper menu!
I often use hare hunting as an excuse to get outdoors in winter, and the ruse works at least till the season closes March 31. After that I tell myself I’m scouting for deer or turkeys, or looking for a good place to call coyotes. In truth I just enjoy being out there and seeing what’s going on in the natural world. It’s a great cure for cabin fever and doesn’t cost a cent!
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