KODIAK — Though Kodiak’s snowshoe hare season never closes, my own personal season starts around Nov. 1 and runs through the end of April.
That doesn’t indicate any lack of enthusiasm for snowshoe hare. Rather it reflects a practical limit on the hunting conditions. The hares breed in May, and it takes only one nursing female in your bag to make you rethink hunting in spring or summer.
Over the course of the summer, the hares are brown and the vegetation is thick. There could be record numbers of hares, but good luck in spotting them.
I could actually start my hunts in October, but I’m a bit distracted by deer at that point in the year. Why hunt snowshoes when I could be hunting deer? Especially if my rattling around in the bushes for hares isn’t advisable while the hills are home to lots of deer hunters.
So, November it is.
Most hunters are home watching football as the hares have already turned wintery white.
In falls like this when snow is scarce, you’ll appreciate the advantage of looking for white hares against a background of brown.
You’ll also find more hares in the field than at any other time of year. An average of three litters per summer means there are lots of young hares around even in years of low abundance.
There’s also lots less hunting pressure.
By spring, hare numbers will be greatly reduced by four-legged and two-legged predators, while the survivors are lots wiser to the ways of both.
But don’t tell yourself that lack of snow and plenty of hares make the hunting easy!
Snowshoe hare are largely nocturnal, and, during the daylight hours, they’re specialists at hiding their snowy white coats.
Add in lots of rain and their general aversion to it, and the hunting is more than a little challenging. It’s so downright challenging at times, I call it “interesting.” And that’s sincere praise from this dedicated hunter.
If you want the highest probability of seeing hares out in the open, early morning and late evening hours are best. They aren’t hidden away in tight spaces, and you’re just more likely to run across them.
Early and late in the day, you still have to consider the possibility of encountering bears in low light, and especially on walks from the field after dark. But, you’ll certainly see lots more hares than in hours of bright sunlight.
Best of all for me are days with overcast resulting in longer hours of “dawn and dusk” when the hares are more likely to be out and moving.
If you’re not familiar with hares, and especially if you don’t know the terrain, it’s best to make your first hunts with other hunters. More people moving through the bushes simply results in more hares kicked from hiding. But there’s more to it. You often never see the hare you dislodged from cover because they’re so good at hiding and the cover is so thick. If you’re moving slowly and quietly, you’re much more likely to see hares dislodged by your companions.
Of necessity, shotguns are best for hunting in parties. The first order of business is safety. It’s better to use shot rather than sending bullets ricocheting off through brush when in the company of others. There’s also the factor of connecting. Most hares you see on party hunts are in high gear and you have little hope of connecting with anything but a shotgun.
If your dog is well trained against chasing deer while having a nose for hares, you’re in for the most productive hare hunting of all. Dogs and rabbits just go together.
But if you’re a dedicated cottontail hunter, you have a learning curve when your dog sets of for snowshoe hare.
Snowshoes make their living around predators by being fast open-field runners. In seconds they’re hundreds of yards ahead of the trailing dog. If you focus on the sound of a baying dog, you won’t be ready for the hare that goes flying past you as much as 5 minutes ahead of your faithful canine companion.
My best stunt learned over lots of years and lots of dogs chasing snowshoe hares is to pay attention to where your dog first bayed.
As quickly as you can, move toward that spot and stay there. Be as still and quiet as you can, and be ready the moment you hear the dog turn and start back in your direction.
While hares don’t necessarily “circle” as is claimed for cottontails, they most certainly have their large home terrains and familiar escape paths. The hare is highly likely to pass its starting point again once the chase is on.
My deepest affection, however, is for stalking snowshoe hare.
I prefer to match wits with them, moving slowly and silently through the terrain in order spot them before they take off.
This is head-shooting only with a focus on preserving sweet eating meat.
Depending on my mood and interest at the moment, that can mean anything from handguns to rifles to muzzleloaders. Back in the days when my aging hands allowed, I shot a whole lot of snowshoe hare with my bow.
Hare’s have those big ears for a good reason; their principal defense is hearing the approach of a predator before they’re discovered. They’ll slip quietly away long before the predator arrives.
They’re also keenly attuned to movement in my experience, though I’ve never seen anything in writing about their great eyesight. In any case, they have large eyes for nocturnal living, and those appear to serve them well if you move quickly even while being quiet.
To do best while stalking, you need to develop an eye for the kinds of places hares use for daytime lairs.
If you slowly and quietly circle a lair, you’re likely to catch a glimpse of it from at least one angle. In truth, hares usually have more than one escape route from any lair, and you’re most likely to see them back in cover when you look back along those open routes.
Don’t be fooled by that white coat however!
Though shiny and bright out in the open, their white coats turn surprisingly dull back in the shadows. Unless a bit of sunshine breaks into the cover to illuminate them, they’re going to look gray rather than white.
The best lairs always seem to be right where two types of vegetation meet and overlap.
It may be grass draped over low spruce bows or alders, salmonberry stalks that have collapsed in a heap, sometimes trapping grass with them. It can also be the dark shadows under large low alder branches, stumps, fallen logs or any other large debris.
One final word is important, more of a practical insight than a strategy.
Don’t bring your cottontail habits of “breaking” brush piles into the field for snowshoe hare.
Good lairs are scarce, and if you destroy them with your big feet, the hares are going to move on.
But if you leave them intact, there’s likely to be another hare waiting on your next visit even if you succeeded in collecting a hare on your last.
It’s a whole lot like running a trapline, except you’re hunting a long succession of rabbit lairs.
That’s where knowing your terrain can really pay off. Knowing where they hide, you can take many a snowshoe hare from places where other hunters seldom find a one.