Weather often dictates the start of three hunting seasons in Maine – varying hare, red fox and coyote. Folks often wait for the first coating of snow before hunting these three critters, but the state’s hare season officially begins Oct. 1, red fox Oct. 20 and coyotes year-round in daylight hours.

That first permanent snow cover often arrives in December, but November is never out of the question, as we saw this year.

When hunting hares, I wait for the first snow, a tradition easily ignored should serendipity bring a long-eared bunny hopping my way – ingredients for one of my favorite dishes, jugged hare. Lacking one or two hares, I may make this dish with boneless chicken thighs, a good substitute.

Quality cookbooks may include a jugged-hare recipe, which requires browning the serving pieces in olive oil in a skillet before slow simmering for one to two hours in a red-wine and chicken-broth sauce in a bean pot. The chef layers glazed pearl onions and sauteed mushrooms with the serving pieces, the latter with six to eight whole cloves stuck into the browned meat for a holiday aroma. Hares weigh 2 to 3 pounds and measure 15 to 20 inches long, so a brace can feed four diners or two gluttons.

In my youth, central Maine woods often consisted of second-growth forests because of myriad wood-cutting operations – ideal for hare, grouse and deer. The forests have now grown into primary woods that turkeys adore, but the other three critters dislike.

These days, serious hare hunters head north for sport, places such as Bingham, Jackman, Rockwood, Greenville, Ashland, Fort Kent, etc. The Intenet shows multiple Maine guides offering guided hare hunts with hounds. These entrepreneurial adventures were unheard of in my youth.

When looking for a productive hare-hunting spot, snow cover reveals tracks, but after a fresh snowfall that ends at dawn, the first hour or three of the morning may produce few to no track sightings. Hare are nocturnal rather than diurnal and sit tightly during daylight. Once hunters poke around a cover and jump these small-game critters into a panicked flight, which move other hares, tracks eventually dot the snow everywhere.

When settling into a hare-hunting spot, wise hunters check out vegetation. In winter, long-ears forage on bark and twigs of small saplings, including alder, gray birch, red maple (particularly shoots off a stump), apple, aspen, choke cherry and black cherry. Shrubs such as willow, black alder, high-bush blueberry, raspberry cane, etc. also draw hungry hares.

Red maple grows profusely where I hunt in central Maine, and hare and deer concentrate on shoots growing from stumps. Hare nip the buds off with a 45-degree angle cut and deer bite them off, sometimes leaving a perpendicular snip. Often enough, though, the maple shoot looks as if an animal with dull teeth chewed it off – ragged looking.

First-year hare prove far more tender than 2-year-old or older specimens, and fortunately for diners, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife claims that 75 percent to 95 percent of the hare population dies each year. Predators include hawks, owls, dogs, cats, coyotes, foxes, weasels, minks, fishers, martens, lynx and bobcats.

Because of the high mortality rate, varying hare are prolific breeders and produce two to three litters per year with one to six leverets in each batch. Litters may run smaller in years with high varying-hare populations or scarcity of hare forage.

The term “varying” refers to the species turning white in winter and brown in summer. A photoperiodic phenomenon causes the change, when the hours and minutes of light diminish in fall or increase in spring to a certain level. Cottontail rabbits do not turn white in winter.

Sometimes hares change to a white phase before snowfall, which creates fast shooting with white fur against somber browns and tans. A running hare can hit speeds of 30 miles per hour, so any advantage helps in shooting one topping out in full throttle.

The daily limit is four hares and possession limit eight. The season runs until March 31, a long time to hunt each year. Buying and training dogs with all the expense and time are worth the effort for a season lasting a half-year.

I cannot leave the topic of varying hares without mentioning a point. This species has four toes on the back feet and five toes on the front. Dense hair grows around the toes in winter, creating an adequate snowshoe, but even in summer, hair is thick enough so observers may not see foot pads in the track in soft earth. But the four vs. five toes intrigue me. How did evolution comes up with this plan? A couple wildlife nerds could argue into the night on that topic.

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

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