Hunting at this time of year can be cold but very rewarding in many ways. Our guest blogger, Dan Donarski, gives us his account of snowshoe rabbit hunting in the Upper Peninsula.
It’s cold. There’s fresh snow in the woods. So are the snowshoe hares.
It’s well below freezing with a gentle breeze blowing as we unloaded the dogs from the truck. A brace of beagles were connected by leash and leads to Wayne Ferguson. They strained against the leash throwing up last night’s snow with their paws as they began sniffing for the scent. The sun still hadn’t struggled past the tree tops.
Rabbit tracks, snowshoe rabbit tracks, and more correctly varying hare tracks, pock-marked the trail where the cedars and hemlocks sent fingers through the aspens and alders. “Yeah, buddy!” Ferguson exclaimed. “This should be great.”
Ferguson had come to the U.P. from downstate, on an extended hunt. He’d just left southern Marquette County. His first stop was in the Manistique area. I found him in the Strongs area today, on a snow-covered side road in the Hiawatha National Forest. This was his last stop on a week-long jaunt.
“The dogs have really been hunting well. The snow conditions weren’t great but we had some great chases,” he told me. “With the snow last night, and some warming temps, today should be the best day of the week.”
Ferguson, and varying hare hunters all across Michigan, live for days like these. A prior evening snowfall of an inch or two. Early morning temperatures in the teens with the promise of warming to the upper 20s or low 30s. A slight breeze.
These conditions spell perfection. The temperatures are perfect for the dogs to pick up on the scent of a rabbit. Too warm and the scent washes away and the dogs could overheat. Too cold and the scent isn’t laid down. Fresh snow means only fresh tracks. No old tracks to decipher.
The landscape we were hunting was also perfect habitat for snowshoe hares. A heavy cover of cedar and hemlock hung over the lowlands like a fist and sent fingers into the surrounding aspen forest. Alders lined most of the cedar/hemlock fingers before the aspens took over.
“Cedar and hemlock provide good cover for the rabbits,” Ferguson told me. “They also provide some food. The alders and younger aspens are the rabbits’ real food. See? Look over there.” An alder was stripped of bark for three inches just above the snow line. The rabbits’ teeth had chewed the bark off, exposing brilliant white wood in delicate, tooth-carved patterns. “The dogs are going to have fun today.”
With that he released the dogs. Within five minutes a beagle sounded and the chase was on.
Hunting snowshoes is a circular sport. Hound hunters do it for the dogs, who do it for the rabbits, who do it for the hunters. The rabbits themselves have their own circles in mind.
Typically, once the rabbit is jumped by the hounds, the hounds are in for a grand chase. A chase that will have them coming back to the ground they just ran over like a lost hunter circling back on his own tracks.
As the dogs are running, hunters find a good place to set up for an ambush. They need a good position to shoot from as well as a shooting lane to intercept the rabbit as it streaks by. They also need a fair amount of concealment to hide their movements and they have to be quiet.
“A lot of hunters don’t realize that the rabbits are easily spooked. If you have good cover and are quiet there’s a good chance that the rabbits will come right by. Then it’s up to you to shoot fast and straight,” says Ferguson. “And be patient, the chase can last a half hour sometimes and you may need to move to a new shooting spot. Snowshoes are a big help to move fast if you have to.”
Shotguns are the rule here. While .22 caliber rifles work fine at times, shotguns are the real answer. The rabbits appear and disappear quickly. A shotgun provides a better answer to bringing home the rabbits for dinner.
Just before noon we called it a day. Four rabbits were in the game bag out of seven chases. After a shared cup of coffee poured out of a battered thermos, Ferguson and I said our goodbyes.
“Ya know, there’s nothing like watching and hearing the dogs work. The rabbits are a bonus, but just being with the dogs…” he said with his voice trailing off. “Next year, why don’t we meet on Drummond Island, maybe do a two-day thing. I’ll call ya a couple of weeks before I head up.”
Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.