Rabbit hunting is prime thanks to the mild winter

Bill Graves, Special to The County
2 months ago

Mild November and early December weather with only a couple of come-and-go snowstorms finally led up to Aroostook’s first green Christmas in nearly 20 years. It was not an auspicious start to ice fishing season, as the milder temperatures created questionable ice thickness on most lakes. On the other hand, regional snowshoe hare hunters, especially those without dogs, enjoyed excellent shooting as the cotton-white rabbits stood out on the bare ground like a Q-tip in a coal mine.

Sparse intermittent snow and warmer than normal temperatures have led to low snow depths and excellent accessibility to most rabbit hunting covers. Any sportsperson in Aroostook has a half-dozen productive woodlots or second-growth fields that harbor dozens of hare within a 20-minute drive or less of their home. It’s a rare winter when hunters can pursue small game in February with no need for snowshoes. 

Normal Crown of Maine winters make it very difficult to hunt rabbits without the aid of a couple or three well trained beagles. The dogs locate a fresh scent, then give chase and usually the hare will run in a loop attempting to stay in its home territory. The hunter will locate a fairly open area near the spot where the chase began and hope for a passing shot as the fast-moving bunny streaks nearby. 

Usually there’s at least a 50 percent chance of success, but it’s no simple chore moving through the trees and brush on a pair of snowshoes. Current snow conditions don’t require snowshoes, so a chance at a good shot increases greatly. Nonetheless, a blur of white fur on white snow is a challenge, so most gunners opt for a shotgun’s wider pattern of pellets to tip the odds in their favor. Size 6 shot is my preferred load, but a lot of shooters load with size 4.

Most Maine outdoorsmen have one all-purpose scatter gun, generally a 12 gauge that accepts 2 3/4-inch or 3-inch shells and works for partridge, duck, turkey, rabbit and even pesky groundhogs or squirrels. I prefer a 20 gauge for rabbit if I carry a shotgun, and once in a while for a challenge I’ll lug my T/C Contender, single-shot .410 handgun. 

The low snow cover allows “sneak and peak” tactics for those of us without dogs, so it’s possible to get stationary shots at rabbits that think they are hidden. A scoped .22 rifle allows head shots for a sure, quick kill and less ruined meat. Shooters seeking more of a challenge even use .22 handguns, bows or crossbows. If a camouflaged hare suddenly bolts from cover, however, chances of a sure shot are far lower than with a shotgun.

Shallow snow depths this winter have allowed hare hunters to access great rabbit covers without snowshoes and take open shots at sitting game. (Courtesy of Bill Graves)

Stop-and-go rabbit hunting in low snow cover works best with two or three gunners. Wear easy-to-spot fluorescent orange and spread out side by side, 10 to 20 yards apart depending on forest and brush denseness. Snowshoe hare in their white winter coatS tend to believe they won’t be spotted when they hunker down and blend in, so often will stay put rather than run.

Hunters need to all move forward quietly and slowly at the same time, scanning the lower tree line, under limbs and near stumps and blowdowns. The rabbits’ dark, sparkling eyes stand out, pink noses twitch and most of all the ears swivel and tilt as they listen for danger. It’s often possible to get an easy shot when the hare holds tight, and if one tries to make a break someone in the line of hunters will get a passing shot once alerted by the sport on one side or the other.

March is generally my favorite month to hunt rabbits; days are longer, the sun is warmer and snow levels recede daily. Also it’s mating time for the snowshoe hare, so the amorous animals are active all day seeking a companion rather than just out feeding at dawn and dusk as usual. As long as there are no major blizzards, hunters will enjoy easy travel and gunning conditions until the season ends the last day of March.

I’m not sure if it’s global warming or Mother Nature taking pity on us for a change, but let’s take advantage of it. Not only is it good to get outdoors in milder weather and enjoy one of winter’s few shooting challenges, but rabbit stew and rabbit fricassee are wonderful taste treats. Have a go of it while the conditions cooperate.