Common laments among Mainers in February are that it’s too cold, there’s too much snow and there’s “nothing” to do. I suppose if you are a golfer or a bicyclist winter conditions could conspire to hamper your enthusiasm, but outdoorsmen simply adapt to the changes and find things to do that fit the climate and the present temperature.
Popular February diversions include snowmobiling, skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding and ice skating, and plenty of folks find the time for such enterprises. Consumptive sportsmen combine one or more of these activities with ice-fishing, rabbit hunting, predator calling or shed hunting, among other pursuits. If it gets you outside doing something that’s reasonably strenuous, enjoyable and satisfying it counts as something to do as winter wears on and daylight hours slowly increase.
For those who like to be on the move without actually going anywhere, snowmobiling, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing are logical options. One generally ends the day exactly where the adventure began, with nothing to show but sunburned cheeks and some fond scenic memories. There is nothing wrong with going and looking (I do the same thing most days, albeit on foot), and if all is well at the end of the trip there’s nothing lost. If it gets you out of the house and into the sunshine and fresh air your attitude about February, winter and the cold will certainly be improved.
Hunters and ice-fishermen are more likely to have a destination and strategy in mind. Some anglers are happy to spend the day catching bluegills, perch or pickerel while others prefer to focus on the glamour species (trout, salmon or togue). The more involved your ice-fishing gets the longer you are going to be outdoors, so there’s no down side to it regardless of the target species. When I want lots of action and flags a-flying I focus on pickerel or perch, but if I want to bring a few trout or salmon home for dinner I’ll go the extra mile (literally) and head for a secluded cold-water lake where these species are more abundant. I’m not a huge fan of stocked fish but sometimes that’s the only game in town and in fact increases the odds for success because you know there should be a truckload of fish lurking under the ice. Many native trout and salmon fisheries are hit hard and have been for decades, so the fishing on these waters can be what one might consider to be “slow.” Some of these waters have restrictions on size and bag limits as well as the number of traps one can possess, so it requires some planning and forethought. Of course, if it involves spending the day outdoors it can’t be all bad!
Predator calling has been one of my favorite winter pastimes since the 1960s. February options include coyotes, bobcats, red and gray foxes, which are abundant and common throughout Maine, although certain areas may contain more of one species than another simply due to competition and territorial disputes. As a general rule the farther south you go in Maine the more diverse the predator population, but, again, given ideal conditions (farm country and suitable habitat for prey species) it’s possible to sit down and call in one, two or more predatory species (including owls) on a given day.
The game here is simple enough. Find a quiet, secluded spot with a good view of a beaver flowage, farm field or river bottom, sit down and start calling. Two or three pitiful squalls on a standard predator call is enough. Sit tight facing downwind and keep your eyes peeled for the (usually silent, swift) approach of a hungry predator. Think of it as being the hunted rather than the hunter – the predator thinks you are a wounded rabbit and he’s planning to make dinner out of you. Coyotes come in relatively quickly (20 minutes or so), while red and gray foxes may take 30 minutes or more to tip-toe in. Bobcats are, like any other cat, lazy, easily distracted and prone to ignoring what’s right in front of them. Sit still for an hour or more if you want to get a look at a Maine bobcat. Even the hungriest bobcat will take his sweet time coming in to a call site.
Rabbit hunting is a Maine winter mainstay. The hunting season for snowshoe hares in Maine is one of the longest hunting seasons in the country, running from Oct. 1 through March 31 (except Sundays, of course, when we all go into the woods for family picnics). The daily bag limit is four hares, which is entirely doable whether one is hunting with beagles or not. It makes sense that hound hunters have more luck than a hunter armed only with his wits and a .22 rifle or shotgun, but a sharp-witted sport who knows his quarry should have no trouble taking a limit of hares without the help of dogs.
The trick to solo hare hunting is to be able to crouch down below the evergreen boughs and foliage in order to see hares sitting fully exposed 20 or 30 yards ahead. Hares put great trust in their white winter coats and long legs, so they will sit tight while any predator (even human ones) walk by at close range. At some point the hare will decide that it’s time to put some distance between himself and the intruder, but enough of them will hesitate just long enough to end the day in the bean pot.
Hares never go to ground no matter how harsh the weather, but I have the best luck early and late in the day especially on warm, windy or rainy days in winter. The very best hunting occurs in late February and March when the hares are in breeding mode and moving about in search of mates. Spot them first and shoot quickly because a March hare that takes off in high gear is likely to leave the county.
Shoot fast and straight or consider spending the day fishing for yellow perch. Either way, get out and enjoy these crisp, invigorating winter days. Black flies and mosquitoes will soon be upon us!