With muzzleloader and expanded archery seasons over, Maine sportsmen will be shifting their attention to other pursuits.

Many will hang up their guns and pull out their ice fishing baskets, but a few will downsize to a slightly smaller mammal that they can continue to chase well into winter – the snowshoe hare.

Though sometimes referred to as rabbits or rodents, hares are neither. They belong to the same order as rabbits – Lagomorpha – and both are characterized by having two pairs of upper incisors (front teeth), one smaller set behind the larger front pair. However, rabbits are altricial, being less developed at birth and entirely dependent on their mother for care. Hares are precocial, born fully furred, with eyes wide open and ready to head out and face the world.

Hares, at least those in our part of the world, have another very handy survival trick. In winter, their hair changes from brown to white, which is why they are also sometimes referred to as the “varying hare.” Being brown in the spring, summer and fall and white in the winter helps them better blend into their environment, most of the time. Occasionally, Mother Nature plays a nasty trick in the form of an early snowfall or an early spring thaw, making it much easier for a predator.

Natural selection has instilled in hares two tactics to avoid being eaten. One is using their powerful paws to propel them away from predators. Their Plan B is to remain motionless. Sometimes the predators fail to pick out their prey, but if they do, the hare can always revert to Plan A.

Both these tactics typically work pretty well against the hare’s numerous predators, including bobcats, coyotes and foxes, as well as hawks and owls. Their principle predator over most of their range, the lynx, is and always has been a peripheral species in Maine, occurring only along the northern fringes of our state, and in small numbers.

While Plan A – flight – also helps hares avoid human predators, Plan B can sometimes be more of a fatal flaw. Still-hunting along in areas of abundant hare sign, hunters scan the underbrush for patches of white, and especially for a beady black eye. They may sometimes be spied close at hand, but it’s still no easy shot, for once eye contact is made, it seems the animal senses danger and shifts quickly to Plan A.

The classic and more common method for hunting rabbits and hares is to run them with dogs, most often beagles. Whether they’re chasing bears, birds or bunnies, the real joy for hound hunters is in watching their dogs work, and even the most successful hunts sometimes end with nothing in the bag.

Beagle hunting is particularly effective with hares because they have another trait that serves them well against all other predators, but not so much with humans and dogs. Once flushed, the hares will often take a long, circuitous route, eventually circling back somewhere near the vicinity of the flush. By listening to the music of the hounds, hunters can sometimes put themselves in front of the fleeing hares.

A side note for the flatlanders not familiar with the ways of the woods: As you’re driving the back roads, you may come upon a coat on the side of the road. Your first reaction might be finders, keepers. Or, you may be tempted to bring it to town in hopes of reuniting it with its owner. Leave it be.

Chances are very good that its owner left it there intentionally. When a hunting dog fails to return, it’s common practice to leave a coat in hopes the dog will eventually make its way back to the road, then travel the road until it finds the familiar smell of its owner, where it will wait. Unfortunately, the dogs don’t always return. Increasingly, hare hunters are reporting their dogs being attacked and maimed or killed by coyotes.

So if you’re not quite ready to put away the guns and you’re looking for another excuse to get some fresh air and exercise in the woods, give hare hunting a try. Find a friend with dogs, hire a guide, or just head for the local woodlot. And should you be successful, when properly prepared, hare makes excellent table fare.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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