by Dave Fisher
The dogs were coming hard by the time I topped the sand dune and ran into the small juniper field and took a position. I was still panting hard when the hare broke into a small opening and I got a quick snap shot at him. Fully expecting him to drive across the next opening farther to my right I held the gun there. Nothing. And why weren’t these dogs following?
The big bunny never showed and I found him tucked in under a juniper just inches from where the shot hit him. The dogs never came because they had simply drove into another hare on the way to me. This was crazy and exciting hare hunting on Beaver Island back in 1993. I never saw anything like it, and after years of going back to Michigan I never get tired of it.
Hare hunting is a lot different than cottontail hunting. I call it “bit time hunting”, and after doing quite a bit of it over the years in Michigan, West Virginia, New York and places like this, I still am no expert at it. It varies a great deal from one place to another. The first time I hunted snowshoes in New York we hunted in minus 10-degree weather with ten inches of new snow on the ground. I thought we were all nuts, Zef Selca’s Swiss Hounds knew a lot more than I did. I was positioned on a rock slightly above the action, and it took a couple passes before I got acclimated to the fast paced hunting. Our party killed 18 snowshoe hares that morning, and it’s something I could never forget.
Lots of guys who have wanted to hunt snowshoes have asked me if their dogs will run hares. The answer is an “almost” yes. In most cases, even a mediocre dog can run a hare in good conditions. Dave Roop, who has hunted with us on Beaver Island many times, used to say; “Heck those things are so smelly sometimes, a poodle can run them!” True enough, but the hare is a lot different than a cottontail and the fact that he has so much scent and he runs so far and my dog Bowser would lock onto a very smelly one and pull up thinking he was running a deer! It was frustrating in both cases.
I have found that dogs that were a little laid back, listened well, and kept their heads usually did a better job of hunting them than the high-strung variety. There is also some merit to the idea that a little slower dog keeps the hare from going way out of hearing range. Any dog is going to gear up on a hare anyway, so speed isn’t quite as important. When we first started hunting them, Holly Wolfe and I both had fairly fast dogs, and they would drive the hares so hard they thought they were literally running for their lives, and we would have runs that quickly went completely out of hearing and beyond. Sometimes it took us hours to round the dogs back up, even if we killed the hare or not.
One day on Beaver Island we had most of Holly’s dogs and were hunting near Lake Geneserath. It was a hot afternoon, and Holly then had a pack of mostly Gay Demon bred dogs. They weren’t blazing fast, but really geared up when chasing a well-scented hare. The pack took the hare down the west side of the lake four times before Holly finally shot him with a pistol. The hare was exhausted from the heat and the long chase the dogs put on him. After many years of hunting in upper Michigan, it is still one of the greatest runs I’ve witnessed.
Hares are exciting to hunt because they rarely if ever hole up. Although I have seen them take a refuge under, or in hollow trees, their main plan of escape is simply out run or out last anything chasing them, and they can do a great job of it. We’ve seen some chases last for hours sometimes an entire afternoon, with so many twists, turns and circles you totally lose track of them.
Cottontails, as most of us know, will sometimes run fifty feet to a hole. On some days, every single run will end at the entrance to some kind of burrow. Here in our neck of the woods, the place is littered with ground hog holes, rock outcroppings, collapsed buildings, and so many places for the rabbit to hide, sometimes it’s hard to get a decent run.
Hares, however, give the dog a run for his money. Holly, the gang, and I sat down one day and tried to figure out how far the dogs could run in a single day. We figured if the dogs kept running from one hare to the next, as was usually the case, they could easily cover 75 miles in a day! That’s the reason we have started off the week with over 20 dogs, and barely had four or five running by Friday.
One October afternoon on Drummond Island in Michigan we were heading to the truck, but still over a mile in when the dogs brought a hare around and split it between several of us. We were pretty sure my buddy Denny Malone had hit the hare and the dogs went silent about 100 yards to our south in some heavier hemlocks and pines. We got there as quick as we could, but most of the dogs had wandered off. After some investigating we found my dog Bowser deep in a hole under an uprooted tree. We were just about to give up when Holly pulls Bowser from the hole and we see he has a mouthful of fur.
“Geeeessssh! If he’s that close, “I laugh. “Throw him back in there!”
Holly turns the dog loose again and a few minutes later Bowser backs out of the hole with the very much alive hare kicking in his mouth! This was certainly uncommon behavior for Bowser, and was proof positive that a hare will hole up if he’s hurt or just can’t get away from the dogs.
Lost dogs are one of the biggest problems while hunting hares, simply because of the distance they will cover. You notice I said WILL, not can. In just minutes the pack can be out of hearing range and we have had them circle us and never knew it. Then you are looking for dogs, let’s say straight north of you, when they are really south. In rare instances, we have been out of contact with the pack for four hours.
One time on Beaver Island, we lost six dogs (five of them mine) on the very first full morning of hunting. You may have heard this story before, and it was the time when I lost my dog Lighting for nine days. Two others were lost until the middle of the week, and it made for an unpleasant trip, because we spent a great deal of time looking for dogs instead of hunting.
Holly introduced us to the electronic ‘beepers’ frequently used by bird dog hunters on the 1993 trip. I still like these as it is a very unnatural sound and it carries a very long way in a area where you seldom ever hear an airplane. The newer beepers made by Tri-Tronics and other companies are not near as loud and not near as good as the older ones.
The only sure way to recover lost dogs is a “tracking” system like the kind made by Wildlife Materials, Tracker, and Johnson’s Telemetry. Many hare hunters have now equipped some of their dogs with tracking collars. Most guys are familiar with trackers; the dogs wear a small transmitter that sends back to a receiver. The receiver and antenna are usually stowed back at the truck until needed. [This is the biggest disadvantage to this system; however some companies are now making units that are small enough to be carried along on the hunt. I am skeptical of their range and real usefulness.] Let’s say you’ve lost all contact with the dog: You get out the receiver unit and move the antenna around until the signal is strongest. The dog is in that area, and the signal continues to get stronger the closer you get to the dog. These units work well, but are expensive. I have held off buying one of my own because of the expense, but just the peace of mind and the fact that you can recover the dog in hours instead of days pushed me over the edge, and I recently purchased one. I am hoping it keeps me driving back to Michigan to recover a dog.
If the dogs hunt, and stay tight together a five-dog pack may only need two transmitters. Again, find one dog, you find them all. When we hunted on Beaver Island, coyotes were not a real big problem, but every local guy I talked to on Drummond Island said if Beagles were lost, and had to stay out overnight, they would usually be killed by morning. A small, docile Beagle is no match for a pack of coyotes. So it was very important to us to see the dogs back on the truck in the late afternoon.
One very memorable run back in 1996 really had me worried. It was late when we jumped this hare, and he had entered a cutover, where it was almost impossible to see 20 feet. Holly, Ken and Denny were in there somewhere, but I had heard no shots since the chase began. Reluctantly, I started clawing my way inch by inch through the downed treetops and scrub brush that made walking a new adventure. I’d try to climb up on a stump or tree branch, only to fall back down into the stuff. The hare had now gone past me once more, and had taken the dogs into a very thick forest way over on my left. I noticed he had skirted the cutover edge where it met these woods several times.
“Man, if I could only get over there,” I said under my breath, but it was still a good 100 yards to the woods edge. I can’t remember all the dogs’ names we had with us, but they were all screaming up a storm!
When hare hunting, I think that more important than if the dog can run, is how well can you control the dog. Will the dog listen? Hunt in the direction you want to go? Could you call him off a hot track if you absolutely had to? Remember, a coyote may eat him if you can’t get him back by dark.
Anyone who has hunted with me knows that my dogs listen very well, and Holly is always amazed that I do not have to leash my dogs to get them to follow me to the truck. But, call them off a hot track? That’s tough sometimes!
So while I was fighting my way ever closer to the woods edge, I was seriously thinking we may have to try to call the dogs off the hot track soon. I was now about fifty yards, maybe a little less, from the woods that appeared to be even thicker than I had thought. I looked around for the rest of the hunting party, but could see no one… and I wasn’t going to yell and turn this hare away from us any further.
“I’ll never get a shot in here!”, I thought, as I tried to find a stump or something to get up on. The dogs had swung around again and were out in front of me, but much farther back in the woods than I hoped… he was going south again… “Where is everyone?”
The chase turned slightly right and the hare entered the cutover again about 100 yards up the woods edge where I was precariously perched on some type of tree branch. I couldn’t see fifteen yards. But I heard him coming.
Sccchhhhh… Sccchhhhh… Sccchhhhh… The unmistakable sound of rabbit feet hitting the ground. Then he’s just there…point blank. I raise the 1100, fire… and fall off the tree all at the same time. I’m thanking God I wasn’t killed, and shaking my head because I know I didn’t get the hare. I crash after him, and in a second or two, I’m where I saw him last. He flushes (I must have nicked him on the first shot) back in the general direction of the dogs, and let fly one more shot… it’s incredible, but I hit him somehow!
“I’ve got the rabbit!”, I scream at the top of my lungs, “Get over here!” When the guys arrive, I have several of the dogs by the collars and the others are trying desperately to rip the hare out of my arm I’m holding as high as I can. It’s just another crazy afternoon hare hunting, but we got all the dogs out of the woods by dark!
Why am I reminiscing about all these great hare hunts? Well, because it gets all of us psyched up for the season. And if The Lord is willing, but the time you read this Holly Wolfe, Ken Joslin, Jim Barr, Bob Clarke, and I will all be back on Drummond Island, chasing those magnificent, smelly hares, and yelling at the dogs! Hare we go again… stay tuned!!!