Leighton Wass grew up in Southwest Harbor and graduated from Norwich University with a BS in Science Education. He taught high school biology in Vermont for 33 years and is also a freelance writer. At 79, he continues to use the outdoors as his playground. Wass lives in Adamant, Vermont, with his wife Jane and two Labradors. He has a book coming out this spring, “Fly Fishing The Hex Hatch”, published by North Country Press.
The barking of beagles in the winter woods when they are on the trail of a snowshoe hare is a sound you will never forget. This is the classic way to hunt them.
Hunters who may not have access to a dog like to walk slowly through good hare cover and spot them for themselves, sometimes called “walking them”. But what about tracking snowshoe hares in the snow?
It can be done and it’s hellish fun, but there are keys to a successful hunt.
Don’t attempt unless you have fresh snow. I’ve always liked 3 to 5 inches. It is also essential for success to hunt coverts with the lowest hare populations – much the opposite of hunting with dogs. The fewer hares there are in a hunting ground, the easier it is to track one.
The choice of weapon is a matter of personal preference. If a handgun is selected, a “Moses Stick”, or shooting stick, is useful.
Last on the list is patience.
Give it time to work and try again if you don’t succeed the first time. Hare tracking can be tricky, but sitting shots at close range (10-20 feet) are common, and it’s not uncommon to have a “gift wrap” (bow and all) at 6 feet.
Weapons that work well include shotguns, .22 rifles, small caliber black powder rifles (I used a .36 caliber “underhammer” with round balls), and handguns. I prefer a .22 handgun.
Handguns are definitely more of a challenge, which I like, but they also keep your hands free to use a shooting stick to crush snow from branches and help with snowshoe balance. A big plus is that the meat will have no pellets!
Handguns are also light to carry, and with them under your jacket, they stay out of the snow.
Hares feed mainly at night, starting near dusk and often remaining active until the wee hours of the morning. Fresh snow overnight is the best scenario for tracking. And, if you want to sleep the next morning, no problem. These hares will stay in their shapes all day.
The freshest track is the one to follow. We have always avoided the thickest evergreen covers because of the high probability of too many hares, which produce too many tracks.
We opted for more open, mixed hardwood/softwood spots that had some blowdown and scattered softwood 4-6 feet. Recently felled trees feed magnets for hares.
Our strategy when first entering potential hare cover, which I call team tracking, was to stay away from each other until someone found a new lead, then call the other hunter. One person stayed on the hare trail while going slowly and checking ahead.
The partner walked parallel, or slightly ahead, from 15 meters to 25 meters, depending on the thickness of the cover. They also look ahead, but more so to spot the hare that may have bounced and run away.
The tracking may lead you into a small thicket where it is impossible to see inside. The non-tracker must then slowly circle the thicket, looking for the trail that comes out, and if found, the team’s tracker is back on schedule.
Often there won’t be a track coming out, so the non-tracker should post in a place likely to see the hare when it comes out of the thicket. It could provide a seated shot, or at least a running shot for shooters (I’ve never shot one while running with a handgun, although I’ve tried several times).
The tracker gets the worst job, plowing the thicket slowly, step by step, trying to stay on the track. He will occasionally get a shot sitting in the evergreen thicket.
Other times a hare may be tracked in a very large tangle, or it may move into an area with other hare tracks and the original track will be impossible to follow. Then it’s time to regroup, take a break and look elsewhere for a unique and fresh piece.
More often than not, it’s the stalker who gets the shot seated, but my hunting partners and I used to take turns when possible. If one of us had a sitting photo, we would often radio the other to take it.
If a hare bounces several times while following it, instead of continuing to hammer after it, let it rest for about half an hour. Dig into your gorp for some energy, then start tracking again, but very slowly.
And by the way, the saying “as wild as a March hare” still holds true. If you follow one in March, don’t be surprised to see it heading into the next state.
A final technique that works when tracking is to set up an ambush. Hares tend to run in circles. Once the track begins to arch, as if starting a circle, or the track returns to the hare’s original track, it’s time to ambush.
I’ve always liked to sit within sight of where the hare was leaving. An essential part of an ambush is staying solid as a rock. Do not move. They’ll spot movement in a second since they’re usually heading in your direction and offer a running shot at best.
After spotting a hare in an ambush, move your weapon very slowly. I scared more than I shot that way. How often do ambushes work? With a handgun, I would say 15-20% of the time.
When we took one during the follow-up, we tried to savor the moment by taking lots of photos and weighing them with small pocket scales (the heaviest weighed 4.3 pounds).
If it was close to lunchtime, we lit a wood fire to grill sandwiches or a slice of pizza. We had those midday fires every time we went into the woods, and I have to honestly say they were usually the highlight of the day.
I looked in my hunting logs from 1995 to 2004 for some statistics. During those years, my hunting partners and I hunted hares 51 times. We have killed at least one hare in 26 of these hunts.
Six times we shot more than one, four being the maximum. A hare required 4 hours of tracking.
Remember, the keys to successful snowshoe hare tracking are finding an area with low population density, staying patient, and waiting for fresh snow overnight.