Bad Hare Days

After two winters of being skunked, our editor asks: What does a guy have to do to get a rabbit around here?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

One summer morning when I was surf-fishing in the Atlantic with my Uncle Tom, I caught a runt of a striped bass on a piece of bloodworm. When I unhooked the fish and prepared to release it, Uncle Tom stopped me.

"Never give back a gift from the sea, or the sea will give you no other," he said.

At the time I thought Uncle Tom's golden rule was nothing more than an excuse to keep and eat everything he caught, which he frequently did in those years before size limits. But his words came back to me late in the afternoon of the day I let the snowshoe hare go free.

It made me wonder if Uncle Tom's observation didn't have some validity after all, and whether it might serve as an overall hunting and fishing jinx.

Curse of the Snowshoe
It was 16 degrees below zero that February morning when I gave the hare a pass. A small group of us had met for the first of what would become an annual winter rite: a northwoods snowshoe rabbit hunt along the New York-Canada border. Had the temperature not been so terribly cold, the pack of beagles we hunted behind would no doubt have lived up to their billing as crackerjack rabbit dogs. It started off well enough. We had barely gotten out of the trucks, strapped on snowshoes and grabbed shotguns when one of the hunters flushed a hare from the ditch beside the road.

Four of us immediately started moving off in opposite directions to take up flanking positions as Merle Crain, the owner of the hounds, turned out a boxful from the bed of his pickup. As the beagles did what dogs always do when they've been penned up awhile, I moved a few yards into the spruce. I stopped, waited and listened. The beagles hadn't opened up yet when I spotted the snowshoe, gingerly hip-hopping perpendicular to me behind a deadfall about 10 yards away.

How easy is this? I thought. I raised the pump shotgun to my shoulder and sighted along it to where the hare would appear from behind the deadfall. It did, but I didn't shoot. It occurred to me that Merle had brought his dogs from central Illinois to upstate New York to run snowshoes, and that the rest of us had bundled into several layers of clothing for the privilege of hearing hound music.

I decided to help make it happen. I took a mulligan on the bunny. No doubt there were plenty of hares, and lots of chances to come. As the snowshoe slipped out of sight, I yelled "Tally-ho." I ran to the trail used by the hare and whooped and hollered until the beagles arrived. I sicced them on the bunny but, except for a couple of desultory howls, the dogs never seemed to get unwound on the track. But don't we all have mornings like that?

I gave the beagles the benefit of the doubt. The hunt moved on. It was tough going. The woods were a jumble of spruce, cedar and hardwood saplings, and the snow had drifted to about 4 feet deep in places.

My hunting partner, Frank Miniter, managed to jump a rabbit several minutes later. He yelled for the dogs. They came, snuffled their noses around in the new layer of powdered snow, and went on their way. Frank gave the beagles a look, chuckled sarcastically and left, too. The weather got warmer, but the hunt stalled. Frank eventually bagged a snowshoe that waited too long to leave its hiding place in a fallen treetop. So did William Clute, our host on the upstate New York hunt. But that was it.

We were supposed to hunt two days with the beagles. Merle, disgusted with the scenting conditions and his dogs' performance, loaded up and headed south the next morning. Bryce Towsley, who was also hunting with us, and I might as well have gone with him; we didn't fire a shot that hunt.

The following season, our small band-minus Merle and crew-rendezvoused in Vermont, close to Island Pond, again near the Canadian border. This time we were hunting with Pete Richardson, a burly, bearded Vermonter. Pete's beagles, rn and reared in the Northeast Kingdom, could track an ice cube across the Arctic. What made this second hunt more promising was that the weather was several degrees warmer than during our New York fiasco. The woods were filled with deep snow and bristled with maple saplings and miles of spruce thickets. Hare country.

We had a number of races, beginning with one that presented me with my closest opportunity to bag a snowshoe. The dogs had jumped the rabbit several hundred yards away from where Danny Lamere-Pete's sidekick-and I waited near the snowmobiles. When we determined where the race was going and where Pete, Bryce and his son Nathan were in relation to the dogs, Danny and I clomped up the road a ways and entered the woods.

It was difficult to keep track of the race because of all the snowmobilers racing by. Although we were hunting public land, we were also stationed along a snowmobile trail that had attracted a lot of traffic. (One snowmobiler who stopped for a friendly chat while we were all gathered up asked, "You mean they let hunters in here where we snowmobile?" "No," said Bryce, "they let snowmobilers in here where we hunt.")

**

Strike Two**
During a lull in the snowmobile parade I heard the beagles pushing the hare my way. When the dogs got to within 100 yards, I started looking back and forth. Finally, in my peripheral vision, I saw white-on-white movement. As the bunny hopped from behind a spruce in front of me, I jerked the gun up to my shoulder. As I did, the hare spun around in midstride and disappeared back into the tangle.

Bryce didn't fare any better. Later in the day, as another race got underway, he and I stood near each other and figuratively dared a hare jumped by the beagles to run our gauntlet of death. Much to our surprise, it did. Bryce got a shot at the varying hare with his side-by-side, but he did no more than disintegrate a few popple branches.

"Oops, by golly, I missed him cleanly. Well done, hare," shouted Bryce-or something like that. After the dogs came through and chased the snowshoe into Canada and back, the hare made a big loop and approached Bryce. He had to turn around to shoot, except he forgot that he was wearing snowshoes. He managed to twist up his legs so thoroughly that he dropped to the snow with a plooof!

"Oh, that rascal, he made me fall. How funny! Ha, ha!" hollered Bryce-or words to that effect. Within an hour of sunset, Bryce and Nathan each got a snowshoe ahead of Pete's dogs. But for the second year, I went home without a sag in my hunting coat.

It's said that the muskie is the fish of a thousand casts. I concluded that snowshoe hares were my muskie, and I had a lot of hard winters ahead.

The Tide Turns
Danny Lamere finally figured out where I was going wrong, and it had nothing to do with Uncle Tom's observation about letting critters off the hook. On a hunt last February, Danny and I were again standing on a trail and waiting to determine where a race was heading. It came our way. There was a chance the hare might zip across the road between us, though the keening of the beagles was still far off. That's when I noticed that Danny had already raised his ancient single-shot to his shoulder. I instantly mounted my shotgun only to realize a few seconds later that there was nothing to shoot at. I asked Danny if he had seen something.

[pagebreak] "No, but it's better to have your gun up and ready for when the snowshoe gets close," he observed. "A hare pays attention to everything, even when he's being chased. He'll be gone before you can get your gun up if he sees you. They're dodgers, those guys."

It was that simple. What Danny said made sense. I thought about two hares I had seen the year before that might have given me shots had I been standing ready when they came by. Instead, they swapped ends and disappeared in a flash when I was busy mounting my gun. That's one more difference between cottontails and snowshoes, besides size and color. Cottontails rely on their speed to dart past a hunter. Snowshoes can run moderately fast on snow, but they mainly depend on their eyes and quick feet to steer them clear of danger.

Armed with this new knowledge, I waited with Danny. I shouldered my gun and supported the forend by placing my left elbow against my stomach. The hare took the beagles on another tour of the neighborhood. I shuffled into the woods.

Then I saw a snowshoe hare hopping toward me, except it wasn't the one the dogs were trailing. Their howling had gone in the direction where Pete and Frank were stationed, and Pete shot the hare moments later. The snowshoe I watched was an innocent bystander that apparently determined to skedaddle after the beagles got near it.

Closer it came. The hare stopped and sat on its haunches. The snowshoe's ears rotated around its head like radar as it tried to place the distant beagles. Pete's shot boomed through the woods and the dogs hushed. The hare in front of me resumed its course. For a fleeting moment, I considered calling the dogs. Then I remembered that there is a fine line between fair play and stupidity. Having crossed it once, I wasn't willing to do it again.

Uncle Tom would have been proud.h when I was busy mounting my gun. That's one more difference between cottontails and snowshoes, besides size and color. Cottontails rely on their speed to dart past a hunter. Snowshoes can run moderately fast on snow, but they mainly depend on their eyes and quick feet to steer them clear of danger.

Armed with this new knowledge, I waited with Danny. I shouldered my gun and supported the forend by placing my left elbow against my stomach. The hare took the beagles on another tour of the neighborhood. I shuffled into the woods.

Then I saw a snowshoe hare hopping toward me, except it wasn't the one the dogs were trailing. Their howling had gone in the direction where Pete and Frank were stationed, and Pete shot the hare moments later. The snowshoe I watched was an innocent bystander that apparently determined to skedaddle after the beagles got near it.

Closer it came. The hare stopped and sat on its haunches. The snowshoe's ears rotated around its head like radar as it tried to place the distant beagles. Pete's shot boomed through the woods and the dogs hushed. The hare in front of me resumed its course. For a fleeting moment, I considered calling the dogs. Then I remembered that there is a fine line between fair play and stupidity. Having crossed it once, I wasn't willing to do it again.

Uncle Tom would have been proud.