Matt Hildebrand, Paul Bullock, Mark Bullock and Josh Dorn roast hot dogs while waiting for the dogs to bring a hare around. Winter afternoons in the woods offer all kinds of opportunities.
By Andy Duffy
Pictured on a map, the large tract of state forestland I was traipsing across looked like a giant puzzle piece set among all the other pieces of farmland and forest making up a rural slab of Northern Michigan. On the ground, towering oaks with spreading branches looked over open expanses of snow while the regenerating forest of maples, poplars, gray dogwood and other types of vegetation fought foot passage of humans. It did, The young forest provided lots of tender bark and protection for the hares that inhabited the land. An old logging road, by then nearly overgrown so only a footpath remained, led up a hill. On the path were the prints from half a dozen pairs of boots.
A friend and I had arrived early and released my trio of beagles. They were soon on a trail, and my friend and I traveled up and down the hill jockeying for position in hopes of seeing the hare when it approached the path.
After arriving, we heard another pack of beagles that sounded as if it were a couple of ridges beyond us. The dogs must have lost the hare they were running because they soon joined my pack. I didn’t care if the two packs of dogs joined forces, and neither did the owners of the other dogs. The pack size doubled, and so did the number of hounds men.
It was a typical, cold, late-December day. Shreds of Christmas wrapping paper probably still littered the floors of some living rooms in town, and plans for New Year’s Eve parties were in their final stages. Causing our muscles to contract, a chilly breeze occasionally wandered down the necks of our blaze-orange coats. Sometimes light flurries filled the air.
I could hear the beagle chorus still in the valley beyond the ridge jutting upward before me. I wandered down the path where I encountered a couple of the strangers who had thrown in with us. We stood in a huddle and conferred while we waited for the circling hare to draw closer.
Suddenly, erupting from a form fifteen feet or so away from us, a blur of white exploded across the snowy landscape. Despite a parade of hunters going up and down that trail and dogs having gone by on a hare trail not so far off, that particular snowshoe rabbit had remained in its form there until the knot of hunters standing nearby had finally unnerved it. Naturally, it escaped unscathed. Nobody was able to get off a shot at it. The critter’s surprise appearance on our hare-hunting stage just added a little additional drama to the morning’s hunt.
Every hunt is different, but every one is the same. The end is always to take home one of Michigan’s jackrabbits, the elusive snowshoe rabbit, also known as the varying hare.
I always think of hare hunting as Michigan’s answer to western pronghorn hunting. Michigan has plenty of public lands available for anyone to use. Hares proliferate on that land. The hares are wary and tough to harvest. They have a great natural defense system. With their large eyes and sensitive ears, they have acute vision and hearing. Their large hind feet allow them to run on the fluffiest of snow. They aren’t called snowshoe rabbits for nothing. And they make larger circles than their cousins, cottontail rabbits, do. That alone makes them challenging to hunt.
Fred Pekrul used a lever-action .22 Winchester Magnum to take this Upper Peninsula hare. A hunter’s choice of firearm usually correlates to the amount of challenge he likes in his hunts.
One of the things about hare hunting is it’s a throwback sport. We often hunt deer and pheasants in and around cultivated fields. We sometimes hunt squirrels in mature hardwoods between farm fields. Nobody does that with hares. We hunt hares in big, wild country, in country that stretches, often, for miles. It is hunting such as our pioneer forebears did. For hare hunting, we need compasses and survival gear. It’s not for the faint of heart. Hare hunting makes a man feel like a man. It’s chest-beating, testosterone-producing and heart-rate-raising fun.
During the summer, hares are a rusty brown. As winter approaches, they begin turning white. When snow is on the ground, the hares are almost impossible to see. Hunters who like to spot and stalk them find a hare track after a fresh snow and carefully scan ahead looking for a large, black eye or the tuft of black hair that edge its ears.
The females may have up to four litters each year. Usual litter sizes range from three to eight young. The babies are precocious. Soon after birth, they are capable of getting around quite well.
Despite what many in the Upper Midwest and Northeast tend to think, varying hares are widely distributed. They’re found from Alaska to Newfoundland along the northernmost reaches of their range and from British Columbia to Connecticut and Rhode Island in the east. Their range also extends south along the Pacific Coast ranges well into California, the spine of the Rockies down into New Mexico and the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina. In the United States, though, it is the northern tier of states from Minnesota to Maine that receive the bulk of hunting attention, perhaps because of the prevalence of tularemia in the West.
As a general rule, the farther north a person is, the greater number of hares he will find. In Alaska and Northern Canada, sometimes hares reach incredible numbers only to shortly suffer a population crash. Some researchers have documented population cycles that range in length from seven to 17 years. The cycles may be closely tied to lynx cycles. I have a friend who was stationed in Alaska when he was in the Air Force. During his time there, hares were near the peak of their cycle. My friend said hares were everywhere.
Even here in Michigan, I think the farther north I go, the more hares I see. Although I can find hares to hunt near my home somewhat north of the U.S. 10 corridor, still, I covet those times when I can make it closer to the tip of the mitt or even to the Upper Peninsula to hunt. Hares are plentiful, public ground is ample and more acres of hare habitat exist there.
The hares may even be bigger up north. Biologists have noted that often individual members of a species tend to be larger in colder climates. They believe that is because larger animals have a lower surface area in proportion to their body mass than smaller animals do. Whether or not the principle is at work in hares and makes a noticeable difference between those at the southern end of their range in Michigan and those in the Upper Peninsula, I’ve certainly seen some huge hares while hunting north of the bridge.
I began hunting hares while I was still in my teens. A neighbor had a brace of beagles, and I often accompanied him on cottontail hunts. When he invited me to go after “jackrabbit” hunting with him, I was mildly surprised. I was aware of hares, but I guess I never realized any were close to my home. As far as I knew, I had never seen one.
I was probably not alone. I’d bet that a lot of Michigan residents have never seen a hare – even if they live in hare territory. Hares are active during twilight and darkness. And, unlike cottontail rabbits, they’re seldom found in towns. They require expansive tracts of shrubs or young trees, flora that will provide large numbers of small stems. Loggers and clearcuts are the friends of hares. So are those areas of low ground that seem to always hold a dense network of small-diameter trees regardless of the age of the woody growth. Plantations of young conifers also provide hare habitat. Unless a person spends time in those environments, he might possibly spend his entire life in the state and never notice a hare.
In the fall and spring, a hare’s color change occurs across about a 10-week period. I occasionally spot one in the fall when I’m out hunting birds or deer that has a very mottled appearance as it is changing its color. By the end of Michigan’s season, they are obviously changing color again.
The theory of hunting hares with hounds is pretty simple. A hunter merely needs to take his dogs to jackrabbit country and turn them loose. The hounds will find a hare track and begin baying on it. The hare, having a home territory it won’t want to leave, will run in a circle. The hunter can just wait until the hare comes past the spot where the dog began baying on the trail and take a shot.
Ah, but only the naive believe things actually work that way.
First, hares don’t really circle any more than a child playing a game of tag in his yard will. They might make a figure eight or backtrack. They might see or hear the hunter and change their route. They might do any number of things. Hares have a lot of tricks up their sleeves.
When the snow is deep, hares will tend to travel on routes they and others have gone before. A hunter in the hare woods will notice these main routes littered with tracks. A wise hunter will find a vantage point where he can watch one of those hare highways.
And speaking of wise hunters, I firmly believe this: Hare hunting is as good an IQ. test as anything Alfred Binet ever originated. Just watch the good hunters. First, they have an uncanny sense of place. They’re rarely disoriented. They seem capable of wandering far off the beaten path without fear of getting lost. They quickly analyze the circle a hare is making, and get in position to take a shot.
Often, though, hare cover is so thick a person will rarely see more than a glimpse of his quarry. In those areas, a hunter is mainly exercising his dogs while listening to the hound chorus. Even that is enough to get me to the woods. I simply like being outdoors, watching the dogs work and enjoying nature.
When a person isn’t seeing hares, he can still find plenty to do. One typical hunt went like this: I rounded up a group of guys to go on a daylong hare hunting excursion with me. We went to a parcel of state forest I had found tracks in a couple of weeks earlier. We let the dogs out of the truck and found a fresh sign. Baying happily, the dogs took off for all the places a hare likes to go.
The hunters fanned out, each one hoping to find the magic spot where he could get a shot..
The dogs trailed the hare back through the general vicinity where the chase began a couple of times, but nobody was able to get a shot at it.
The thing must have decided to try to outwit the dogs in another area or the dogs switched hares. Anyway, the beagles took off for new country. I, trying to guess where the hare was headed from the arc of the dogs’ path, went on a wild goose chase through hemlocks and red pines. With snow down my neck and pine needles in my face, I realized I had miscalculated. The hare was back in the area where we had parked.
It was mid-afternoon by then and I was exhausted. I made my way back toward the truck. When I got there, someone had built a fire. The other hunters were roasting hot dogs and eating venison jerky and candy bars. One of them had seen the hare when it came by, but once again couldn’t get off a shot at it. After a while, the dogs came back through. We loaded them up and headed home.
Even when a hare comes right by a person, it can present difficult shots. First, the swamp ghosts are erratic. They typically stay way out in front of the dogs. Sometimes they will just sit and wait for the dogs to nearly catch up. Then they will flee at a dead run. Other times, they just hop along far ahead of the dogs. I’ve had them hop behind me unnoticed. I didn’t realize they were nearby until the dogs came through. That happens because of their camouflage. A person can try to keep looking around furtively, but the things are so easy to overlook. Usually, we don’t really see hares. We see blurs of movement when they come by.
But every generalization has an exception. Last winter Fred Pekrul and I were on one of the Upper Peninsula hare hunting excursions we love. About a hundred yards apart, we stood on a seasonal road where a little stream flows under it. Along the stream bottom were the typical creek-bottom types of cover – alders, a few aspens, tall grass and other assorted types of vegetation. Outside the creek bottom was a regenerating aspen clearcut and a smattering of cedars, tamaracks and hemlocks. A hundred yards or more away, my beagle was hot on a hare track. We could hear her baying swelling across the snowy landscape as if they were waves rolling up on a beach.
The trail my dog was on must have taken her close enough to another hare so the second hare became totally unnerved. This I know: A hare bolted along the creek bottom straight toward me. It looked like a shadow running along. Then it turned to parallel the road and charged toward Pekrul.
I gestured frantically hoping to catch Pekrul’s attention. He saw me pointing toward the woods and spotted the hare. It was sitting again by then. The bullet from Pekrul’s .22 Winchester magnum tore through the hare’s engine compartment, and Pekrul had something to add to his game pouch. That is what hare hunting is all about: Big country, big rabbits and lots of excitement.