I’m jumping the gun a little bit in writing this, but not by much.
March is the last month of my personal snowshoe hare season, even if the season is open year-round. That’s because the hares start moving into breeding activities in April, and I don’t like to hunt them then.
I might be stretching things a bit to call my March adventures “hunts.” We usually have plenty in the freezer by then, along with eating them at a steady pace through the winter.
I’m unlikely to shoot any in the waning days of my personal season, even as I still enjoy being in the hills and looking for them.
With the days rapidly growing longer, hares are less likely to be out and about in broad daylight. You’ll still see them at first and last light, but dawn and dusk are getting further apart by the day.
Once the breeding season starts, they’re active right through the bright hours of the day. But for now you have to be out early or late unless you really enjoy digging into the deepest cover to find them.
And that’s specifically what I like to do. Moving quietly through cover and glimpsing the reclusive little speedsters is a supreme challenge.
While you can certainly get lots of shooting in March with the help of a shotgun and a good rabbit dog, you have to work for every single one with a rifle, handgun, bow or muzzleloader. They hide well, and they’re quick to depart if they detect the slightest noise or movement.
I divide my hunting strategies into two broad groups, depending on the terrain. If it’s open with scattered pockets of cover or long edges between two types of cover, I reach for longer-range arms. I’m especially fond of very accurate, scoped .22 rifles, but as the mood strikes I’ll also opt for my scoped big game rifles stoked with greatly reduced loads.
In either case, it’s a matter of spotting the hares at longer range, then precisely landing my shots on very small targets, specifically the hares’ heads.
I try to spot the hares on the very edge of cover from longer range, pressing the limits of my shooting skills at around 50 yards. If I move slowly and look carefully, I can often spot the hares before they withdraw into cover or dash off in the hopes of losing me.
For this kind of long-range spotting, good binoculars are priceless. You’re unlikely to see whole hares, so the magnification will be welcome when sorting parts of hares from brush and grass.
In recent years, I’ve adapted a trick from tight brush for my open-country hunting on sunny days.
The hares like to sun themselves, and if you approach from the shaded side of cover you can often glimpse them.
As a matter of fact, you won’t be seeing any more of the hares. But you are very likely to see the sun shining through their bushy coats, forming a distinct bright halo around the hare. If you see what looks almost like a reflection in the edge of cover, look closer. It may well be that bright halo around the hare. You still have to make out the form of the hare and locate the head, but that’s easier once you’ve located its larger form. Look especially for black eyes and black ear tips when trying to locate the head.
If it’s not sunny, my approach is different.
I stay well clear of the cover, usually 25 yards or more. Then I slowly circle it. Make frequent stops and never walk directly toward the cover. If you’re not walking directly at the hare or the cover concealing it, the hare is less likely to bolt.
With the changing views as you circle the cover, your chances of picking out the hare within are greatly improved.
I continue circling and slowly making the circle a little smaller with each pass. If the hare isn’t spooked by your near passage, often you can work your way quite close.
The rules change dramatically when you move deep into the alders and salmonberries on the hillsides or the birch and willows in the lowlands.
You can’t see very far ahead, even as it is supremely difficult to move quietly. This is the realm of archery, handguns, open-sighted rifles and muzzleloaders, because the range of your shots will be so limited.
As already noted for long-range shooting, I prefer to walk directly into the sun in deep cover, looking all the time for those bright halos of light fringing the hares.
But without the sun I pay more attention to wind direction and walk directly into that. Right or wrong, I’ve always believed it’s an advantage to have any breezes helping carry away your inadvertent noises.
The breeze is an advantage for you, because it also causes the brush and grass to rustle and help cover any of your own small noises. If you make frequent stops in an irregular pattern, that will also help prevent the hares recognizing your occasional noise as the approach of a predator.
If you’re familiar with an area from previous hunts, you have a distinct advantage over hunting unfamiliar terrain. The hares tend to use the same lairs over and over, whether it’s one you’ve never managed to connect with or a new occupant taking advantage of the spot.
As much as I enjoy exploring new terrain, I have to confess a great fondness for hunting familiar ground. It’s almost like working a trap line as I move from lair to lair in search of hares concealed within.
If you know precisely where hares have been holding on previous visits, you know when to concentrate on stealthy movement. You also have an inkling which approach route gives you the best view of any hidden hares.
Even if I don’t plan on doing any shooting, it’s great fun to see how close I can come to a hidden hare before it spooks. While I might have had a shot at 10 yards, I’ve sometimes been able to approach to within 10 feet before the hare flushes. That is, if I move slow enough and quietly enough.
This kind of stalking, whether in practice or actual hunts, will pay huge dividends on future hunts. Certainly I’m talking about hunting hares now.
But come a rainy windy day during deer season when the deer have moved into deep cover, such skills pay handsomely then, too. Amid the noise of wind-rattled brush and falling rain, it’s comparatively easy to work close to deer after a season of working close on snowshoe hare.
You don’t have to like to eat rabbit or even carry a gun to enjoy stalking hares. The challenge of stalking close is a reward in itself, but the true rewards will surface come next deer season.
Are you feeling a little house-bound by this winter’s weather? Next time you wake up early to a day of inviting weather, why not head out into the hills to see if you can find any snowshoe hare and get close to them?
I’m not sure if it can be called hunting if you’re not carrying a gun, but I can testify that it’s great fun.