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An online space for outdoorsmen from CNY and beyond. Tell us about the one you caught or the one that got away.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Snowshoe hares remain a winter challenge

By Leo Maloney
Outdoors Columnist
Recently I was reminiscing with friends about when we were young and the “four seasons” were trout, grouse, deer and white rabbit. It seems that most of us from the north country had beagles or hounds and spent a good deal of the winter hunting the white rabbits or snowshoe rabbits as they were often called.
Times have changed and snowshoe rabbit hunting isn’t the popular sport it once was but it still remains a challenge and a fun way to spend a winter day. Today we have more things to occupy our spare time like snowmobiling, cross country skiing and steelhead fishing. When you combine that with the declining numbers of snowshoe rabbits you can see why fewer people hunt them as actively as they once did.
Technically the big bunnies are known as varying hares. They are hares since they spend their lives above ground and the young are born covered with hair, unlike rabbits. The varying means that they change their hair colors from brown to white in winter due to decreasing amounts of sunlight striking the eye. This hormonal change occurs regardless of the snow cover and this is why in years when there is no snow, the big white hares stand out on the bare ground.
But whether you call them varying hares, snowshoe hares, snowshoe rabbits or white rabbits, they are an interesting creature and fun to hunt. The snowshoe nickname comes from their oversized feet, which allow them to travel freely on top of the deep snow.
They are animals of the big woods or wilder areas, unlike cottontail rabbits which inhabit brush lots or even our backyards. During the summer the hares feed on grass, green shoots, etc. while in winter they subsist on bark of softwoods like alder, willow, or other brushy plants. Thus they tend to be found near tag alder swamps or second growth woodlots.
Since they live their life above ground the snowshoe hares need low-lying evergreens for shelter in winter. This provides cover from snowstorms and protection from avian predators like hawks or owls.
Changing habitat is one reason that numbers of snowshoe hares has declined. Many of the evergreen plantations that once held lots of hares are now mature and there are no low lying branches for cover. There are also less brushy areas for food supply and cover, although some areas where logging has occurred have seen an increase in hare population.
Snowshoe hare populations have always been cyclic. Typically they rose over a seven-year period to a population high, then crashed. Biologists theorize that dense populations led to stress, competition for food supply, and easy spread of disease, all contributing to a population crash.
When there was lots of good habitat, the predators had minimal impact on the population. Now in smaller areas of good habitat and with more predators, especially coyotes, the population is subject to dramatic decline in numbers.
Even though there may be less snowshoe hares running around, they are still fun to hunt with beagles. It takes a good dog to be able to sort out and follow a scent trail through the sometimes confusing maze of tracks. Hunting is best after a fresh snow when the temperature is around 30 degrees for maximum scent.
Since the big hares do not head for their burrows like cottontail rabbits, it is more likely that the beagle will follow the hare on a long run. The big snowshoe hares like to run in a long loop, hoping to confuse or evade the dog. Hunters usually take a stand near where the dog started tracking the hare and wait until they come racing back.
Openings in stonewalls or other natural funnels are good spots to watch. The hunter should stand behind a tree or next to some brush to block their outline so the hare will not spot them and change its route.
Another factor that has cut down on the snowshoe hare hunting is the fact that those infernal coyotes often hear the beagle baying and come in to try and intercept and kill the beagles. Several people that I know have had their dogs chased or attacked by coyotes.
Hunters without dogs can hunt snowshoe hares although it presents a special challenge. This is usually done with a .22 and the hunter slowly stalks slowly and carefully looking for snowshoe hares under evergreen branches or in their “forms” -- depressions beneath brush. The big black eyes or dark tips of their ears can give them away to the patient and observant hunter.
Whatever method you choose, snowshoe hare hunting can be a fun and interesting challenge. It’s a chance to try your skills, and enjoy yourself in the wild snowy country the big bunnies call home. Snowshoe hare season remains open until March 17 in the north country, which is where most of them are found.
Of course that part of the state has been getting lots of lake effect snow and this week snow depths were knee deep so be sure to pack your snowshoes if go chasing the big white rabbits.
Snow fun: If you are looking for traditional outdoor snow sports, remember there has been snow for winter sports in the Central Adirondacks. They were also receiving fresh snowfalls daily during this week. If you want to get in another weekend of outdoor fun of snowmobiling, cross country skiing, downhill skiing, snowshoeing, etc. head up to Old Forge and Inlet this weekend, where there is adequate snow for most sports. If you doubt it, check the webcams at Also check activities at and call 1-877 -OLD FORGE or 1-866-GO INLET for more information on conditions, activities, and accommodations.
Rotary Turkey Shoot: Save the date of April 20, 2013 for the Chittenango Rotary Turkey Shoot. It will consist of teams of four shooters competing for team and individual prizes. Sign up your team today or become a sponsor. Email for details. There will also a wide variety of sales and conservation booths at the event to make it a fun filled and interesting day.
Lapland Lake Events: Lapland Lake Nordic Center in Northville continues its winter schedule of snowshoeing and cross country skiing events. This weekend will feature moonlight and illuminated night snowshoeing or skiing along with dinners. On Thursday, February 28 there will be senior discounts during the day. Call 518-863-4974 for more information.
Pheasant Release Program: The application period for Day-Old Pheasant Chick Program has begun. The program provides pheasant hunting opportunities through a partnership amongst DEC, sportsmen and youth who are interested in rearing and releasing pheasants.
Day-old chicks are available at no cost to participants who are able to provide a brooding facility, a covered outdoor rearing pen, and an adequate release site. Approved applicants will receive the day-old chicks in April, May or June. All release sites must be approved in advance by DEC and must be open for public pheasant hunting opportunities. The program is funded through the State Conservation Fund from license fees paid by hunters, trappers and anglers.
Daily care is necessary to monitor the health of the birds and to ensure there is adequate feed and water for the rapidly growing chicks. The pheasants may be released beginning when they are eight weeks old and no later than Dec. 1. Individuals interested in these programs should contact their nearest DEC regional office for applications and additional information.


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