In my preteens, rabbit hunting meant a short walk east from my home, taking me through a stately grove of white pines and then to a tumbling brook that rushed downhill, enough of a drop for a kid to sled the bank.
The stream skirted a huge varying hare (Lepus americanus) cover, dozens of acres of narrow, very steep, fir- and spruce-choked ridges with swale, alders and leatherleaf swamps between.
These dense thickets created perfect habitat for a game animal that most Maine natives called “rabbits.”
On Saturday dawns in winter, my hound, Stormy, a beagle-bloodhound-yellow-Lab mix, and I would quietly crunch through snow, splash across the shallow brook and slip into the rabbit cover.
Soon this intrepid rabbit tracker would be bawling that melodious howl, which echoed across winter woods. I’d take a stand by a game trail and wait. Until the wind picked up later, it was usually absolutely still except for my breathing and the howling dog in the near distance.
I thought those days would never end, but now, two houses with lawns sit in that old rabbit haunt and a third one perches within sight of the brook. In a nutshell, those woods have lost the mystery that such half-impenetrable tangles can hold for a boy, changes tough to take.
My hound had long legs and could press a hare in good shape, so it was imperative to take a stand where there was enough open country to see all around the fleeing quarry. One favorite spot, a rejuvenating, half-acre clear-cut, had a well-beaten trail that crossed the east side next to a wall of balsam-fir and white-spruce saplings.
When Stormy pushed too close to the hare, I would not shoot my father’s old, single-shot, full-choke Everlast 12 gauge at the fleet target for fear of hitting the dog — the pitfall of owning a fast rabbit hound. Hunters after hares constantly think of shooting safety — or at least I did.
Varying hares can run extremely fast — up to 31 miles per hour, an official time clocked by researchers. This hare can also leap 12 feet through the air — quite a broad jump for a 15- to 20-inch long animal.
Unlike eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus) or New England cottontails (S. transitionalis), this hare seldom hides in holes to escape predation, but cottontails run much slower — 18 mph instead of 31 mph. The slower speed may have encouraged them to evolve as a “hiding” critter.
New England cottontails weigh 11/2 to 3 pounds and eastern cottontails are similar sized, but according to Audubon figures, eastern cottontails can weigh up to 4 pounds. Varying hares go to 2 to 3 pounds, figures that surprise hunters who know little about the natural history of the two species. Folks often think of cottontails as being smaller than our hares, but they can be similar in size more often than not. In “Wild Mammals of New England,” Alfred Godin claims varying hares can grow to 4.4 pounds.
And speaking of sizes ... Varying hares are among the smallest (and shiest) of the continent’s hares, but two can feed a small crowd in a fricassee with dumplings or a pie with biscuits for a cover instead of pie crust.
Varying hare breed two to three times a year and produce one to six offspring per litter. Scientists call the young “leverets,” which are born with open eyes and hair. Cottontail young go by the name “kit” and come into the world blind and nearly hairless. Their litters average three to eight.
Hares and rabbits generally live up to two years in the wild, and as a novice hunter might guess, a 2-year-old is much tougher to eat than a yearling. Hares can last five years in the wild, a tough meat to chew.
People have often told me that cottontail rabbits are better eating than hares, a more tender meat. I’ve had little experience with cottontails, so I’m no authority on the comparison.
As I’ve said in this column, jugged hare ranks as my favorite recipe for varying hare. After seasoning pieces with salt, pepper, sage and cloves, I brown them well in virgin olive oil and a pad of butter, and in a separate skillet(s) also saute pearl onions and mushrooms. Then, in a bean pot, I layer the meat and veggies and cover with chicken broth and a cup or more of dry red wine. Then bake the earthenware utensil in a preheated 280-degree oven for one to two hours. St. Emilion, French bread and a green veggie such as frenched green beans with slivered almonds perfectly complement jugged hare.
After a day in the woods, a meal like this with China, crystal wine glasses and linen napkins reminds us of why we hunt — a civilized end to a day of exercising while matching wits with a true north-country speedster.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: