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The Organized Confusion Of Hare Hunting

by David Fisher
         The pack went screaming straight south into the thick tangle of cedar, small pines, hemlocks and various brush that made up the snowshoe’s prime habitat. I stood there in awe as the hounds went almost out of hearing range in a matter of just a minute or two. My lead dog, Bowser, continued to "Owwllll" almost every footstep as the hare began a giant sweep toward the east. Even though I had heard and seen many chases like this, I was still impressed by the pack’s tenaciousness, and the sheer ability of the hare to run this marathon. This was a rabbit they were running! Incredible!

          I did what we always did; searched out an opening and waited; hoping the big footed bunny would turn my way. Other members of our hunting party entered the heavy brush looking for their own openings. It didn’t matter where you were … it was almost by sheer chance if the hare came through your opening. Hares, like their smaller cousins cottontails, will circle to stay inside their home territory, but it’s much larger and much less defined. The hunter has only one advantage … the small pack of beagles pursuing him. Keep him moving, and eventually someone would see him and perhaps get a shot. Miss him, and he may line out for another section of timber a mile away.
          It was about 2:30 p.m. when I came upon my opening. It was close to a big loop in the sand road we had came in on, and contained the leftovers of an old log cabin. By the amount of deterioration, the cabin must have been standing a long time ago. I found a nice seat and continued to listen to the chase. The hounds had circled to the east at least once and were on their way back. Ken Joslin soon strolled into the opening and took up a position behind me, hoping to see me get a shot at the hare. At 3:10 we were still listening. The hare had approached the clearing a few times but refused to enter it.

          "Man, Ken, that’s some run, huh? It’s still hard to believe that’s a rabbit in front of those dogs!" I comment.

          "Yeah, I know it," Ken replies.

          Ken is a soft-spoken guy. Tall and graceful in the woods, Ken’s good at tracking down the dogs and always seems to show up when you need him. He carries a .410 Contender pistol, but could care less if he ever shoots a rabbit. I’ve been on seven hare hunts with him, and I never get tired of him being around. Ken lives in Michigan, a few hundred miles south from where we were hunting.

          Together Ken and I look over the old collapsed cabin, study the sky and the impending rain to come, and talk about the dogs.

          "You know Ken most people will never see all this. I really feel privileged just to be here and take all this in." I wasn’t real specific, but Ken knew exactly what I meant.

          "Yeah, I know it. It’s a lot different than back home, that’s for sure," Ken replied softly.

          The snowshoe hare was coming again. Suddenly Bill Noel shoots a short distance to our left, but the dogs veer hard around again and head south. When things quiet a little Bill calls from his position.

          "I got the rabbit, but it must not be the one they’re running!"

          It was like that. The dogs would be running one hare and others would be stirred up by the action. Someone would shoot, thinking they had taken "the" hare, only to discover it was just "a kicker". This was good for the hunting, but bad sometimes when it was time to gather in the dogs before they ran themselves to death, or covered up by the coming darkness. Sometimes the only way to corral them was to kill the hare in front of them, then be ready with leashes and flailing arms when they pulled up there. It all lent excitement to the hunt.

          Sometime around 3:30 the pack came bearing down on us again, but looped around behind us and ran the very edge of the sand road. I got a quick glimpse of the hare heading west and I quickly shifted that way. The next time I saw him he was cutting down along the west side of the clearing just inside the woods. I threw two quick shells at him, and was disappointed when the pack only slowed at the shot site, but tore off south again. I had blown a fairly good chance to collect my third hare of the day. After the shot, Ken melted away into the underbrush following the dogs. He wanted to be close when the call was made to collar the pack.

          Hunters affectionately call them rabbits, but varying hares are only mildly related to cottontails. Hares belong to a totally different family, (Lepus americanus) with several different traits and habitat requirements. The hares’ most well known difference is his ability to turn color as the season changes; hence the name varying hare, as he varies his appearance from season to season. Contrary to popular belief, the hare doesn’t really change to a white coat in the winter, this is his natural coat … he turns a buff color in the summer when there is no snow. As the light of summer decreases, a sensor in the eye reacts to the pituitary gland triggering hair growth. The white hair underneath quickly pushes off the light brown, and by mid November the snowshoe hare is his natural, white, self again, with long ears trimmed in black.

          Because of the climate he lives in, hares are born with fur already intact and will eat just about anything. The young snowshoe weighs about 3 ounces at birth, and develops so rapidly that it crawls on the second day of life, and can hop around on the third day. Unlike cottontails, (Sylvilagus floridanus) the young are weaned very quickly, and soon survive very well on juniper, cedar, the bark of aspen, birch and whatever is handy. Even when young, his feet are very large and intricately woven with very tight short fur. He literally is wearing snowshoes.

          On this trip, the hares were beginning their winter molt. Younger ones were still very dark or light beige, older ones were gray, trimmed in white. Some already had pure white feet and underbellies.

          Even though they weren’t totally white when we hunted them in the middle of October, they were beautiful to behold coming through open woods. Many times when I saw them they looked like big, fluffy, cartoon characters; a big stuffed animal bounding along with giant hind feet kicking up leaves behind them. They are a beautiful animal, and seem almost out of place in the woods.

          I’ve always said cottontails hunts are nothing more than "organized confusion" and hare hunts are basically the same, but runs are longer, take more time, and can cover thousands of yards instead of a few acres. Occasionally, I’d hear a shot and someone might come on the hand-held radio to report what was happening.

          "I got one!" or "Does anyone know where the truck might be?" That would be me.

          One time during the late afternoon I heard two quick shots then Jim Barr came on the radio. "I missed him … but Dave, there’s something wrong with Bowser." I had a faint sinking feeling when Jim quickly replied, "He’s leading the pack!"

          Bowser has been a good cottontail dog, but like a lot of other hounds he goes a little berserk running hares. He either runs them exceptionally well, or not at all. And he wants to lead! If he is put under pressure from better, faster hounds sometimes he’ll simply pull up and come in. Strange, but everything was different here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

          Just a few minutes after Jim shoots, I hear the chase turn my way again. I back off the opening and take a position on the south end. I figure the hare might run the same pattern again, but as they tire, they will sometimes cut the circle a little tighter.

          This is exactly what happened and suddenly as the pack comes close, a large hare bounds out right behind the spot where I had been sitting. He takes two large hops and my shot catches him perfectly up front. I have little time for celebration as Bowser, Bull, Suzie, Batman, and the other hounds come charging out of the undergrowth. I show them the hare and give them much deserved praise. Incredible two hours!

          As I began to field-dress the hare, Bill came into the opening since his stand was just a short distance away.

          "Yeah, that’s a nice one," he said. "They came in pretty close to me, but I never saw him, boy they were moving!" Jim said motioning to the pack, already reentering the brush on the southeast side of the clearing.

          "Boy, this is some hunting", he said.

          Bull, had found another track, and the dogs were already running again. Bill watched me clean the beautiful hare, then quickly turned away.

          "I better get back to my spot", he said. "I’ve got a little swampy opening over there and they seem to run around there." With that Bill again disappeared back into the cedars of the nearby swamp.

          Snowshoe hares are found in many of the northern states and offer great fall and winter hunting. Good populations exist in Michigan, from the city of Claire north into the Upper Peninsula. Maine and Vermont boast good hare hunting, and I hunted them around the Saint Lawrence Seaway in New York for five consecutive winters early in the 90s. We hunted no private land in Michigan, but state forest and places open to public hunting.

          Hare habitat is not hard to spot … it’s thick, containing the food the hare survives the winter on. We found them mostly in juniper clusters, or new growth cedar and small pines. Hares also may not be sitting in dense adder and cedar swamps, but it’s a sure bet they will be close by. Many of our chases began there, and once up and running, the hare will readily cross acres of lightly flooded lowlands.

          More important than seeking out exact hare habitat, is the addition of a good pack of dogs. Even in sparsely populated areas, dogs that are willing to search will find a hare fairly quickly, and rarely did a half-hour go by before the hounds would roust the first hare of the day. We’re Beaglers, and we would not want to hunt hares or cottontails without them. The sheer jubilation and excitement they bring to the party is worth the effort of hauling them 750 miles from Pennsylvania as I had.

          As the week wore on, however, the cream comes to the top, and some dogs were eliminated from the pack. Holly Wolfe, from Port Huron, Michigan had brought seven dogs with him, I had five and the rest of the guys had another half dozen … probably close to 18 hounds. But by Thursday we had only seven still running, and by Friday at noon, maybe only five. Pulled muscles, sore feet, exhaustion and a variety of ailments knock them down. You have to use your dogs wisely, try to rotate them as much as possible, rest, and take care of them relentlessly, if they are to make it to the end of the week.

          It was late in the day when the dogs came bearing down on the cabin opening again. I saw the hare coming and my first shot hit him lightly but he kept coming. The second one struck home and I got ready to scoop up as many dogs as I could. I grabbed several and in just a few minutes Bill came in to give me a hand. I noticed a couple dogs missing and I quickly got on the radio.

          "Holly! I’ve got the dogs, but no Batman!" I speak into the little walkie-talkie.

          Holly Wolfe is sort of our unofficial Master of Hounds and captain of our hunting team. As Bill was snapping the last of the pack on leashes, Holly came on the radio.

          "I have Bat and Bossy on the truck. Come on out!" With that a great day of hare hunting came to an end.

          A while later we assembled back at the trucks, cleaned rabbits, checked radios, tracking collars, dog ailments and generally wound down after a long day of hunting. Sometimes an entire run might be described from several points of view. It was hard to believe that all this organization gives way to mass confusion once we hit the brush. If you’ve ever hunted hares with a pack of hounds you know what I mean … it’s nothing more than organized confusion.

Should you have a concern regarding the health of your Beagle(s), you should contact your veterinarian. All information on this site is presented solely for educational and informational purposes and should not, at any time, be considered a substitute for seeking or receiving veterinary care for your Beagle(s).