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Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things to do outdoors at this time of year is the “rabbit ramble.” Most types of hunting can be expensive, stressful and time-consuming (not to mention often non-productive), but a February hare hunt is none of the above. Few of us are in a do-or-die position when it comes to rabbit hunting – it doesn’t really matter if you bring one home or not, you’ll eat tonight. Also, there’s no need to shoot more than a couple of rabbits in a day’s jaunt because there are plenty of them, the season is long (Oct. 1 to March 31) and there’s no pressure to succeed as there is in deer, bear or moose hunting: You never hear anyone say, “Didja get your rabbit yet?”
The good thing about rabbit hunting at this time of year is that Maine’s hares are beginning to get into their breeding pattern, which means you’ll see more rabbits as the males run around looking for mates. They also fight with each other a lot, especially in the coming weeks, and it’s not unusual to find tufts of fur in the woods where two rabbits had a battle. They rear up on their hind legs and strike each other with their front feet, bite each other and claw each other with their strong back legs. A rabbit’s hide is very thin and easily torn, and it’s not a rarity to see tattered rabbits hopping around in the woods at this time of year. I’ve seen them with nips and bites taken out of their ears, and even saw one once that had a 2-inch patch of hide torn off its side after a fight that lasted all of about five seconds. Rabbit “love” is not the way Disney depicts it!
If we’re lucky enough to have a thaw in the next few days, look for rabbits in the alders and cedars, particularly in the areas where the thick cover meets the open woods. Rabbits like to use these edge areas for travel routes between their feeding and resting areas. If you happen to get out early in the morning, or again just before dark, sit quietly nearby and wait for rabbits to come by on their nocturnal rounds. Be alert, move slowly, and aim straight – you should be able to end the day with a rabbit or two for the pot.
You can also walk through these areas in hopes of jumping rabbits, but this is better if you have a partner to serve as a “blocker” somewhere up ahead. Rabbits spend a good part of their time avoiding danger and are very good at it, so the odds are that the walking hunter is not going to see many hares as they slip furtively away from the oncoming threat. But, the blocker, who would have gotten quietly into position at the far end of the thicket, should see some action if he’s paying attention. Keep in mind that hares are still in their white winter coats now, and their big, well-padded feet allow them to skip across the snow making little or no noise. They’re relatively big targets for “small game,” but they can disappear quickly if you aren’t ready for them.
My favorite way to hunt February rabbits is to sneak along in thick cover and scan ahead with binoculars in an effort to spot hares sitting in the open under blowdowns, on hummocks or in brush piles. Hares are quite content to depend on their white winter outer fur to camouflage them from predators, but the truth is that the fur is not particularly “white” and, on certain days, looks downright dirty in comparison to the snow cover. Still, it’s not easy to spot a rabbit huddled under a blowdown when there is snow on and under everything in the woods. After a while, everything looks like a rabbit sitting there, and every once in a while I’ll dismiss a blob of “snow” that ends up hopping away without offering a shot!
I prefer a .22 rifle for this kind of hunting, but you can do it with a shotgun, too. I’d recommend a .410 or at least the lightest possible small game loads in a 20- or 12-gauge because rabbits are thin, fragile creatures and are not difficult to kill. A few No. 8 pellets in the right place will do the trick, so there’s no need to use heavy (and expensive) magnum turkey loads for these oversized hoppers.
Varying hares suffer from a unique affliction called “shock disease,” which occurs when the animals are at the peak of their population fluctuation cycle (usually occurring every 10 or 12 years). At such times the woods seem to be full of rabbits, and that means trouble for them. Shock disease apparently affects the hare’s liver, which ordinarily produces glycogen from glucose and proteins and stores it to be released to the muscles as energy when needed. Hares affected by shock disease have an abnormally low amount of blood sugar, and without this blood sugar the hares are not active, do not feed and cannot withstand cold. Any excitement (such as being chased by a predator) can cause convulsions, paralysis and death. And you thought you had problems!
If you fancy yourself to be a tracker of game, perhaps the greatest challenge of all is untangling the nighttime trail of a wandering hare. You might find two or three places where the rabbit left some clean, easy-to-follow tracks in the snow, but when you get into the alders, be prepared for a puzzle, especially if you go into the woods a day or two after the last snowstorm. It’s a good guess that one busy hare can leave behind about a million tracks in a day, so plan on spending some time sorting through a major haystack in search of a very small needle. If snow is falling and you happen upon a fresh track the odds are certainly in your favor, but rabbits can move far and fast when pushed. Tracking is a challenging way to put rabbit meat on the table but keep a frozen dinner in the freezer just in case!
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