Camouflage Coat Protection Makes Hares a Difficult Target
I stood at the edge of a thicket, listening to the hounds and straining my eyes to catch a quick glimpse of white moving through the trees. Snowshoe hares! It had been a long time since I last hunted the big white rabbits of the woods. So, when Tom Waite of Greendale suggested that we give it a try before all the snow melted, I was ready to go. We loaded Stubby and Sister, two of Waite’s tried and true rabbit-tracking beagles, into my truck and headed north.
Weighing in at about 3 to 4 pounds, snowshoe hares are bigger than cottontail rabbits and, as the name implies, they have huge hind feet capable of distributing their weight, even on top of deep, soft snow. A hare is also distinguished by its color, which changes with the seasons to provide natural camouflage. In winter, hares sport a pure white coat, which turns to brown in the summer months. Although snowshoe hare hunting is open year-round, Waite likes to hunt them from January through March. “It’s a time when most of the other hunting is done,” he said. “Before the walleye runs get going on the rivers and the spring turkey hunting starts up, it’s a good excuse to get out and hunt.”
Hare hunting with beagles is similar to cottontail rabbit hunting. The dogs jump a rabbit and track it as it circles through the cover out in front of the dogs and back to the area where it was jumped. But hare hunting takes place on a bigger scale. “A cottontail will make a circle of about 100 yards or so before it starts doubling back,” Waite said.” And they sometimes pull tricks like doubling back on their tracks or ducking into a hole.” Snowshoes, which are tireless runners, rely more on speed and distance than trickery. “They make big circles up to a mile or more,” Waite said. “Once they’re jumped, their means of safety is to simply outrun you.”
With all that in mind, I pulled the truck off a dirt road and parked it on some public land that skirts the Eau Pleine River in Marathon County. It was one of those rare, in-between mornings when you could almost feel spring taking over and winter letting go of its grip. There was still some snow on the ground, but the sun was shining and the snow was melting, exposing patches of brown earth. We loaded our shotguns, turned the dogs loose and began hiking a logging trail that took us into a stand of young growth aspen trees with trunks about as thick around as your thumb.
The thicket was crisscrossed with a network of trails made by hares, but they weren’t the only residents. A grouse flushed from a thorny, trailside blow-down, affording what would have been an easy shot, had the season been open. Later, we put up a few woodcocks as well, and it was fun to watch them fly.
It didn’t take too long before the beagles started to howl, signaling that they had jumped a snowshoe hare and the chase was on. It was the first of many chases that day. Each time they started, our strategy was simple: we spread out, looked for a stump or a clump or a piece of high ground that afforded a reasonably good view, took our stands and waited.
The dogs ran well, relentlessly pursuing the fast-running hares, following their big circles through the cover, even if they were 5 to 10 minutes behind their quarry. We listened as the dogs took the chase so deep into the thicket that we could barely hear their plaintive voices. Then we got ready as the howls began to grow gradually louder and the chase turned back in our direction.
Sometimes the speedy hares escaped. I saw two of them scamper across openings in the distance, well out of gun range. But three times that day, the long chases ended with the sound of a gun. The hares we shot all had mottled brown and white coats in transition between their winter and summer colors.
“We timed this right,” Waite said afterward.” In a couple more weeks, they’ll be all brown and a lot harder to see.” And by then, of course we’ll be busy fishing for walleyes or scouting for turkey.
Written by Bob Riepenhoff
The Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel
March 28, 1999
Category: Gundog Articles