Hunting March hares thrills William Clunie of Dixfield, an outdoor writer who enjoys this exciting winter sport with Molly, his 13-inch beagle. The season offers lots of shooting until it ends March 31.
Clunie calls this hare “rabbit” – a common, colloquial term in Maine. In this state, though, true rabbits are scarce and illegal to shoot, so the misnomer causes no problem.
This Dixfield man grew up in Michigan, where cottontail rabbits and varying hares flourish. Despite good populations of both species there, Clunie claimed that hunters in Michigan also refer to hares as “rabbits,” which sounds a little confusing.
Varying-hare populations run in cycles, and Clunie feels a single, up-and-down cycle spans seven to 10 years, increasing from few rabbits to dense populations before crashing again.
His area is now on the upswing, so he said with ebulliency, “Rabbits are all over the place this winter.”
This season he has hunted with a Ruger MKII .22 pistol and leaves his shotgun or TC/Hawken black-powder rifle home.
He readily admitted that he’d shoot more rabbits with a shotgun than with a single-projectile .22 handgun, but he enjoys the shooting challenge.
His muzzle-loader has a rifled, .54-caliber barrel and an interchangeable smoothbore for shooting multiple pellets at once instead of a single Maxi-Ball or round ball. Smoothbore barrrels handle pellets better.
A typical Clunie rabbit cover begins with “low, wet spots frozen over,” and he prizes swampy areas with new-growth cedar. Rabbits love to forage on this conifer, but he also likes second growth such as hemlock, alder and leatherleaf. However, he prefers cedar covers but said this tree species grows less commonly in his area than the other three forage choices.
For hunters new to the sport, Clunie suggests that they look for covers similar to the ones mentioned above and then look for lots of rabbit tracks. He didn’t say this, but after a new snow, tracks may be scarce until hunters walk through a cover and start moving these animals. By 10 a.m., tracks may dot snow everywhere.
Varying hare breed in March so wander a lot now. Hunters may think that lovesick hares run long distances after a dog flushes them, but Clunie said that he hasn’t noticed hares fleeing farther in March than other months.
This Dixfield man did say that individual rabbits behave differently once jumped. They sometimes make normal circles and return back to the origin of where the run began, but at other times they make a tight circle the first time and then make a much bigger circle on subsequent loops.
This circling tendency makes the sport fun because it adds an element of strategy.
Once the dog moves a rabbit, the hunter can station him or herself in an opening where the run started. Often the critter returns.
When I was a kid, this strategy worked over and over again, heady stuff for a young fellow – and for mature folks, too. My successes made me feel like the second coming of Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett.
Even more bizarre, varying hares may flee cross-country in a straight line and then return on the same path. Hunters hear the howling dog perform this evasive maneuver, so their ears follow the action.
When deer run from dogs, these long-legged ungulates often run straight across country for a mile or certainly more, but rabbits are less apt to do that. These animals live their lives in an area from 300 to 1,000 yards, so when they reach the boundary of their territory, they won’t leave it and turn.
Clunie notices one point about a March hare hunt: Because these small-game animals are breeding now, they may travel in pairs.
Like many hunters, Clunie enjoys dining on rabbits. His favorite recipe is rabbit stew – an American favorite – and this dish goes back to colonial times for Old World settlers and even longer for Indians. Clunie likes his rabbit stew with mushrooms, carrots, potatoes and parsnips – the latter somewhat uncommon in a small-game stew.
In Maine, parsnips do prove common in deer stew and some unwavering folks claim, “It ain’t a deer stew without parsnips.”
When interviewing Clunie, I said something that a Maine native seldom admits. I really dislike this white root veggie, even though: 1) my parents routinely fed me parsnips in my youth and 2) Mainers feel parsnips are an essential ingredient in a deer stew.
However, to me, parsnips taste like tarragon, which elicits my gag reflex.
Clunie agrees that parsnips do have a tarragon flavor, but he likes the white veggie and tarragon, too, as the latter wafts out that familiar herb odor when a rabbit or two simmer on the stove top.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: