Leighton Wass grew up in Southwest Harbor and graduated from Norwich University with a B.S. in science education. He taught high school biology in Vermont for 33 years and also is 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 baying of beagles in the winter woods when on the track of a snowshoe hare is a sound never to be forgotten. It is the classic way to hunt them.
Hunters who may not have access to a dog enjoy slowly walking through a good hare cover and spotting them on their own, sometimes called “walking them up.” But what about tracking snowshoe hares in the snow?
It can be done and is hellish fun, but there are keys to a successful hunt.
Don’t try it unless you have fresh tracking snow. I always liked 3 to 5 inches. Also critical to success is to hunt covers with the lowest hare populations — pretty much the opposite of when hunting with dogs. The fewer hares in a hunting spot, the easier it is to track just one.
The choice of gun 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 it again if not successful the first time. Tracking hares can be challenging, but sitting shots at close range (10-20 feet) are common, and it’s not unusual to have one “gift-wrapped” (bow and all) at 6 feet.
Weapons that work well include shotguns, .22 rifles, low-caliber black powder rifles (I have used a .36-caliber “underhammer” with round balls) and handguns. I prefer a .22 handgun.
Handguns are surely more of a challenge, which I like, but they also allow for keeping your hands free to use a shooting stick for swatting snow from branches and helping with balance when on snowshoes. A big plus is that the meat will not have pellets!
Handguns also are light to carry, and with them holstered under your jacket, they stay free of snow.
Hares are primarily nocturnal feeders, starting near dusk and often remaining active into the early morning hours. Fresh snow overnight is the best scenario for tracking. And, if you want to sleep in the next morning, no problem. Those hares will remain in their forms all day long.
The freshest track is the one to follow. We always avoided the thickest evergreen covers because of the high likelihood of too many hares, which produce too many tracks.
We opted for more open, mixed hardwood/softwood spots that had a few blowdowns and scattered 4- to 6-foot softwoods. Recently downed trees are feeding magnets for hares.
Our strategy when first entering a potential hare cover, which I call team tracking, was to walk apart from each other until someone found a fresh track, then call the other hunter over. One person stayed on the hare’s track while going slowly and checking ahead.
The partner walked parallel, or slightly ahead, from 15 yards to 25 yards away, depending on the cover’s thickness. They’re also looking ahead, but even more so to spot the hare that may have been bounced and is running off.
Tracking may lead you into a smallish thicket where it’s impossible to see inside. The non-tracker should then slowly circle the thicket, looking for the track coming out, and if found, the team tracking is back on schedule.
Often there will be no track coming out, so the non-tracker should post in a likely spot to see the hare when it does exit the thicket. That could provide a sitting shot, or at least a running shot for shotgunners (I have never shot one running using a handgun, although have tried a few times).
The tracker gets the worst job, that of plowing through the thicket slowly, step by step, trying to stay on the track. He will sometimes get a sitting shot within the coniferous thicket.
Other times, a hare may be tracked into a very large tangle, or it may move into an area with other hare tracks and the original track will be impossible to follow. It’s then time to regroup, take a break and look elsewhere for a single, fresh track.
More often than not, it’s the tracker who gets the sitting shot, but my hunting partners and I used to take turns when possible. If one of us had a sitting shot, we often radioed the other in to take it.
If a hare is bounced several times while tracking, instead of continuing to pound after him, let it rest for a half-hour or so. Dig into your gorp for some energy, then start tracking again, but ever so slowly.
And by the way, the saying “as wild as a March hare” is ever so true. If tracking one in March, don’t be surprised to see it head for the next state.
One last technique that works when tracking is setting up an ambush. Hares tend to run in circles. Once the track starts to arch, as if starting a circle, or the track comes back on the hare’s original track, it’s time to set up an ambush.
I always liked to set up within sight of where we started the hare. A critical part of an ambush is to stand rock solid. Don’t move. They will spot movement in a second since they are typically headed in your direction, and offer, at best, a running shot.
After spotting a hare during an ambush, move your gun ever so slowly. I have spooked more than I’ve shot that way. How often do ambushes work? With a handgun, I would guess 15 to 20 percent of the time.
When we did shoot one while tracking, we tried to savor the moment by taking lots of photos and weighing them with small pocket scales (the heaviest was 4.3 pounds).
If it was near lunchtime, we’d build a woods fire to toast sandwiches or a piece of pizza. We had these noontime fires every time we went in the woods and, I have to honestly say, they were usually the highlight of the day.
I searched my hunting journals from 1995 through 2004 for some stats. During those years, my hunting partners and I tracked hares 51 times. We shot at least one hare during 26 of those hunts.
Six times, we shot more than one, four being the most. One hare required 4 hours of tracking.
Remember, the keys to success tracking snowshoe hares include finding an area with a low population density, staying patient and waiting for fresh overnight tracking snow.