Nov. 1 marks an important point in fall.
With the close of the regular deer season on the road system, almost no one ventures into the hills. That’s when my mind turns to snowshoe hare.
Though there’s no closed season and no bag limit on Kodiak, I only hunt snowshoe hares from November through April. They start breeding late in April and continue through August, so I don’t like to hunt them when there’s a chance of litters.
And, of course, it’s just about impossible to see them in the dense vegetation of summer and fall.
About the time deer hunters pack it in for the year, the vegetation clears enough to start hunting snowshoes in earnest. There are also lots of young hares that have never been hunted. Later in the season the survivors are going to be lots harder to hunt, so hunting is usually best before Christmas.
It helps that by Nov. 1 the hares are turning white now, with or without any snow on the ground.
You’d think white hares would stand out like flashlights against dark vegetation. But are you in for a surprise.
These little masters of concealment can disappear almost anywhere. Just give them a little bit of cover to break their form, and that white hair vanishes.
It turns out that snowshoe hares are the perfect counterpoint for duck hunts. Bluebird days that are so hard on the duck hunting are perfect for hare hunts. And conversely, the rotten days that are so good for duck hunts are terrible for hares. No matter what the weather, you’ll find ideal conditions for one or the other.
While I think of myself as a deer hunter, in truth I’m more of a snowshoe hare hunter. For every day I put in hunting deer, I spend 10 days hunting hares. In years of peak abundance, we might even end up with more hare meat than deer meat in the freezer. That’s fine with us!
Snowshoe hare populations fluctuate on approximately a 10-year cycle. The last peak in their numbers occurred from 2008 through 2010, and the best guess is that the next will occur from 2018 through 2020. It’s easy to see that their numbers are already increasing over the low point a few years back.
There are challenges waiting between the decision to hunt snowshoes and bringing home fresh, sweet hare for dinner. Simply wandering out into the hills with a gun in your hand might not be productive.
You need to learn where to look for the hares, then you have to manage an accurate shot. Hares are generally spooky, so you also have to get within range for a shot without sending them flying.
In my 40 years of chasing snowshoes I’ve learned to look for mixed terrain. A huge alder field or forest isn’t likely to have many hares in the middle of it. They prefer the edges. You’ll see more hares right where alders meet grasslands or where spruce forest meets alders than you will even 50 yards on either side.
My experience sends me along those margins, but always along the denser side. Fleeing hares tend to break into the more open side when given a choice, and I get better opportunities for shots.
Out in open grasslands any small pocket of cover can be especially productive. Look for small stands of alders or salmonberries, as well as isolated spruce trees. Snowshoe hares like cover for their daytime resting spots, and you’ll find the best right where the two types of vegetation join.
Grass hanging over limbs or brush provides great little “tents” for the hares. They can lay back in them for shelter from wind and rain, as well as the prying eyes of predators.
At all costs resist the temptation to stomp around and break up the lairs hoping to scare out a hare. It’s best to leave all those little lairs undisturbed. There aren’t many of them, and when you take a hare from one, another is likely to take up residence before your next visit.
As you get acquainted with an area you can make repeated visits to the lairs, almost like running a trap line. Such detailed knowledge of an area can really pay off over the long haul of a season.
I can certainly score on running hares with a shotgun, but the challenges mount when I’m carrying a rifle, handgun or bow. I simply can’t hit them when they’re on the move.
It’s challenging, but I have to spot the hares before they move when using anything but a shotgun. The trick is to catch sight of them at a distance before they break and run.
My favorite stunt is to spot a potential lair, then slowly circle it at a distance. Especially on the sunny side, there’s a chance you can spot the hare within.
If my first circle fails to produce a sighting, I move a little closer and make another slow circle. If that fails, I move to within 20 feet or so and do it one more time. If you’ve been slow and quiet in your circles, there’s still a good chance the hare remains.
If it spooks and runs while I’m circling, I make a mental note to return to the spot as I meanwhile plot a strategy that might give me another sighting.
Spooked hares will run anywhere from 50 yards to 200 yards, depending on the details of the terrain. But when they stop, they do so with a clear view of their back trail. If they spot you or hear you following along, they’ll spook again before you even spot them.
I’ve found it best to move 25 yards or so to the uphill side of their route, then stalk along slowly and quietly as possible. Especially if I’m on a hill, being above them gives me the best chance to spot them as they sit and watch for your approach along their path.
Snowshoe hare make good use of those big ears. I have little doubt that hearing is their primary means of defense. If you can move quietly, your odds of getting close are multiplied many times.
The easiest time to stalk hares is immediately after a rain while the vegetation is still soft. You can simply walk more quietly.
The hardest condition is snow with a crunchy crust on it. Dry conditions with lots of alder and salmonberry leaves on the ground are a close second.
You’ll find terrain that’s a mix of willows and grass, or salmonberries and grass, that are just too dense for moving quietly, yet because of the grass offer all sorts of lairs.
Years of trying to stalk through them have pointed me at another strategy. I need help!
That’s the perfect setup for groups or hunters or hunters. Send most of the hunters to find safe spots beyond the cover, then have one or two make slow progress through the cover. Move too fast and the hares will be departing fast. But if the hunters in cover move slowly, the hares usually come out at low speeds, often stopping right on the edge of the cover.
Have you heard that hares aren’t all that great eating? It’s time you heard the right way to prepare them.
Their flesh is darker than cottontail or domestic rabbit, but there’s an easy solution. Quarter the hares and soak them overnight in a mild brine of 1 cup salt in a gallon of water. That pales the meat and removes all traces of “gamey” taste, yet for some reason, they don’t seem to absorb much salt at all.
Then it’s time to prepare some great meals. We substitute hare broadly for chicken in our favorite dishes, reserving the smallest and most tender for frying. Older hares need longer cook times, making them ideal for stews and soups, casseroles, potpies, shepherd pies and dumplings.
But hare really comes into its own in Mexican dishes. Simmer the quarters in minimal water until the meat is falling off the bone, then shred it and use it tacos, enchiladas and tamales. If you have a favorite recipe for Texas-style chili, forget the beef and use snowshoe hare for the best-ever results.
It’s hard for me to decide whether I prefer hunting snowshoe hare or eating them. Fortunately the two go hand in hand.