While deer hunting in Belgrade a few years ago, I was sneaking along an abandoned tote road through an overgrown clear-cut where poplars in various growth stages had reclaimed the once leveled forest. This area lay beside a swale swamp filled with large clumps of alder and leatherleaf.

Much to my surprise, a varying hare took off 10 yards away like a little, bouncing rocket. This species can run a tad over 30 mph, and it made a surprisingly large racket in dry ground cover. I wouldn’t shoot with my deer rifle, but the sound in the ever-so-still air made my heart race as if it were the targeted game animal instead of deer that day.

Most Mainers call this species rabbit instead of hare, and as Mr. Long Ears fled, it had clearly caught me by surprise despite the perfect hare habitat. Why? These days in the state’s bottom third, varying hares prove far less prevalent than in my youth, so each hunting season I spot more deer than rabbits – a complete opposite from my childhood.

In my teens, secondary forests reclaimed myriad abandoned farms and clear-cuts in central Maine, creating seemingly endless rabbit cover. As I’ve said here before, rabbits were so plentiful then that it seemed every fourth home on any country road had beagles or larger hounds, tied to backyard shelters. Rabbit hunting and trailing dogs ruled winter in those days.

Dogs are too much fun to leave outdoors, so my childhood rabbit hound, a long-legged, beagle-bloodhound-Lab mix, lived indoors and slept under my bed at night, a terror in a rabbit cover.

This poplar run in Belgrade was a long walk from the road, so several days later Steve Duren of Waterville sort of shocked me. We were talking rabbit hunting, and he mentioned “my” cover as a where-to tip for me – mainly he and a buddy had found good hunting there. I questioned how he had found the spot and, naturally, he wondered the same about me.

That’s central Maine rabbit hunting these days. We find pockets with a bunny concentration and they become treasures – just like a great trout brook, woodcock covert or fiddlehead patch. You can add to the list.

This month, running rabbits with a hound creates exciting sport in snow-tunneled evergreen thickets and shrub-filled swamps.

Folks without a dog can shoot hares by still-hunting these places two slow steps at a time, while scrutinizing surrounding covers 360 degrees – ahead and behind.

Studies have shown that if hunters or more likely coyotes clean rabbits out of perfect habitat, this species may not recover in that spot. Varying hares live their whole life in an area the size of three to 10 football fields and will not move more than 1,000 yards to inhabit another cover. So in southern and central Maine we can find perfect hare habitat without a single one living there. Careful scouting is a must.

In my youth, folks chatted about a recent rabbit hunt with where-to details because these critters were everywhere then. Few of us cared much about keeping honey holes secret. Folks blab much less these days.

Serious rabbit hunters in Maine’s bottom third may travel to the North Country for great sport because cutting practices up there keep rabbit populations high. For central Maine folks reluctant to travel, though, we must find back-corner hot spots down here – beyond sight of roads.

These searches put delectable rabbit meals on the table with more consistency.

Google maps of rural Maine can tip folks off to rabbit-hunting possibilities or we can just hoof it – or pedal. While exercising, often pedaling for me, I find rabbits by spotting tracks on snowbanks or along gravel edges on roads. Sharp-eyed walkers and pedalers find hunting spots this way.

In winter woods, myriad tracks in fresh snow tell us where rabbits are plentiful, and the footprints leave an odd trail. When this animal sits to keep its head higher to look around, the five-toed front feet are behind the longer, four-toed back feet so tracks resemble exclamation points side by side.

Varying-hare scat offers another indicator of populations, usually a scant handful of round pellets measuring 3/8- to 1/2-inches each. The roundness strikes me as more perfect than droppings from other hares and rabbits.

If woodland hikers walk up to, say, a red-maple stump or raspberry cane, and look at newer shoots and suckers, they may note buds and twig ends nipped off at a 45-degree angle and others 180 degrees. A varying hare makes the 45-degree cut and deer do the straight-across one.

Forage items are seasonal but the signs remain year-round. Old bites are grayish-black but new ones whitish. In winter, hares eat buds, twigs, and bark of poplar, willow, birch, maple, sumac, alder and leatherleaf. In summer they forage on grasses, clover, dandelions, berries and ferns.

Yup, they’re herbivores and definitely opportunists, so a sharp eye can find rabbit signs – an indication of a healthy hare population in a cover.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at:

KAllyn800@yahoo.com