Photos by Andrew Hetherington
The hounds have turned. I hear them in the distance, echoing off the rolling, snow-clad Maine hills. A chorus of barks and yips morphs into a clamor of bawling chops and ringing howls, sharp as breaking glass. And they’re headed my way.
I shift in my snowshoes, breathing hard. For a half hour I’d clambered over blowdowns and shouldered through cedar thickets so tightly grown the snowshoes hardly fit through. It’s my first try at chasing rabbits with tennis rackets strapped to my feet, and I don’t want to lose sight of Joe Ewing, the man I’m following through dense cover. Ewing lives for beagles and snowshoe hares. He has the GPS dog-tracking unit, two-way radio, and a whopper of a patch on his blaze orange jacket that touts his hunting club back home–BIG WOODS HARE HUNTERS OF THE ALLEGENY. When we practically fall into a tiny opening in the woods, Ewing nods. “This is the spot,” he says. I bat away branches and chew my lip. “You just wait,” he says. “You’ll see.”
Snowshoeing into the thick woods.
I glance around as the beagle ruckus grows louder. The opening is maybe 20 feet square and hardly clear. Scrubby brush erupts from the snow. I have to back into a cedar tree for my shotgun barrel to clear branches in front of me. I don’t need a 12-gauge for these bunnies, I think. I need a chain saw.
Not two minutes later, a smudge of white on white slides across a dark slash of pine. The spectral shape stops and vanishes against the blanket of snow, leaving but a black marble of a hare’s eye gleaming at 25 yards. I take a quarter clockwise turn on my snowshoes, but it’s a quarter turn too much. The hare vaults and the gun goes off, and I watch the bunny fold into the deep snow. For a split second the woods go silent, as if the snow and the hills have sucked up the dog clamor and gunshot. Then the dogs go double crazy, goosed by the shotgun’s report. I peer into the woods. White on white on white. And a blush of bright red.
The Rabbit Rut
The author sneaks close.
This is the spot–deep in the north woods of Maine, early in March, for four days of the craziest rabbit hunting on the planet. I’ve chased cottontails through swamps and garish cutovers back home in North Carolina, but I’ve long wondered what it would be like to trade greenbriers for spruce fir and knee boots for snowshoes.
The answer: pretty cool–and much more difficult. Snowshoe hares are notorious for the smoke and mirrors they use to bedevil trailing hounds. They will swim through a cedar swamp. Or hop out of the track, hunker down, and snicker as the dogs blast past. They’ll lay new tracks over old to confuse the dogs. When all else fails, a hare can jump 15 feet in a single bound, leaving a large swath of scentless snow to greet a beagle’s snout.
The action is at its best this month, when sex-crazed buck hares travel widely to snoop for breeding does. A single cover might hold a harem of a dozen hares, and when the beagles bust them loose, the pack breaks apart as the dogs scatter to push the hottest scent they can find. Things get really dicey if the beagles catch the hot scent of a breeding buck. “Crazy as a March hare,” so the saying goes; put too much pressure on a March buck and he’ll line out for some distant cover. When that happens, you’ll chase dogs, not rabbits, for half the day as the buck streaks out for parts unknown.
My guide, Bob Howe, drives a monstrous old-school Suburban with a license plate that lays it all on the line: HARHNTR. His Pine Grove Lodge in Bingham, Maine, is the epicenter of a snowshoe hare hunting network that draws clients from as far away as Italy and Greece. His beagles are pure athletes. In summer, he hooks the hounds to an ATV for daily paw-toughening runs. Cardio work comes via a johnboat bristling with PVC pipes, each one tipped with a dog lead. He’ll swim eight beagles at a time. Over the last 25 years, Howe has guided hundreds of hunters into the Maine woods.
Joe Ewing takes a break wih one of this beagles.
On my first day, Howe matches me with Joe Ewing’s threesome, a group that makes an annual pilgrimage from Pennsylvania to Pine Grove Lodge. Ewing and his boyhood pal, Andy Hoover, have hunted together for 40 years. Joined by another friend, Wayne Wilson, they house their own beagles in one of Howe’s spare barns. They’re a curious bunch, outfitted in matching jackets and more electronic dog-tracking technology than a K-9 squad. And they have a curious approach. Like many bunny runners, for these guys hunting hares is more about the dogs than the quarry. They have some strict rules to ensure that their beagles get a workout. I pick up the drill while lashing on snowshoes.
“We do things, ah, a little differently,” Ewing says. “We like to see the dogs work, so you can’t shoot a rabbit till it’s been run an hour.”
I nod. I guess the beagles deserve some fun.
“And you can’t shoot at the same rabbit twice,” Wilson adds. “Miss him, and he’s home free.”
They let this sink in as I shove shells into my shotgun.
“We don’t shoot side-jumpers,” Wilson says, referring to those rabbits that leap off to one side of the trail. “And if you jump one up without the dogs, well…”
I get it. To these guys, it’s almost like cheating if you do it without the dogs.
“And really,” Ewing says, patting a pistol-shaped lump in his hunting vest, “you should give them a chance.” Both Ewing and Wilson carry Thompson/Center handguns loaded with .410 shells. Next to these guys, the 12-gauge autoloader slung on my shoulder feels like an RPG.
But I’ll take any advantage, and need it. My second crack at a hare comes late in the day, after the dogs circle three times, my heart pounding as their howls thunder through the woods, then fade away as the hare leads them elsewhere.
By now I’ve separated from the group, each of us staking out a shooting lane through the dense conifers. Posted up along an open wood’s trail, I listen to the run for an hour or more, silent and still. At any second I expect to see a snowman speaking with a Burl Ives accent. Instead I hear the pack turn, a few hundred yards away. Soon they lose the scent, with scattered yaps here and there as they pick at the trail, until a single voice strikes with unquestioned faith and the stragglers join the song. The hare might be 20 minutes or 15 seconds in front of the pack, especially after having been run this hard. But he still catches me by surprise, his zigzag hopping closer than I expected, and farther to the left than I like.
I get the gun up and swing toward the hare, but now he’s disappeared against the snow. No, there he is, at 2 o’clock, but too many branches block the shot. I go down to my knees, thread the barrel through twigs and needles, but he’s on the move again, so I roll to my right, lying straight out in the snow, and he’s in the open again and the orange bead closes the gap but the white rabbit jumps into oblivion, leaving me sprawled under the spruce.
The dogs pile in for the ride back.
“Let me tell you about these dogs,” Bob Howe says, pulling beagles out of a sled-mounted dog box. “Beat up, bleeding, they keep giving everything they’ve got. You and me, we lose a toenail, we’re going nowhere but to the doctor. But I’ve pulled these beagles out of the woods half-empty of blood, and they’re back at it again. Day after day after day. It’s something to see.” After he frees the dogs, they tear into the snow, a squirming mass, mashing muzzles into deep drifts, snorting powder.
I plunge into the woods behind Howe’s son, Heath, tracking down an old logging cut. I’m starting to look at these woods through a snowshoe’s eyes. On the run, these rabbits aren’t blindly fleeing the dogs, but purposefully leading them through bogs where their fat feet carry them across crusty ice that will break under a beagle’s weight and through dense evergreens where snow shaken from the limbs will snuff out their scent. They’ll often run in a giant mile-long loop or figure eight. The trick is to figure out how close you can edge into the maze without bumping a bunny that’s far ahead of the dogs.
It’s not like these woods give me many options. There’s thick and there’s Maine thick, and I break a sweat trying to find a clear shooting lane through interlocking limbs. I bump rabbits twice trying to move in on a race, then decide to settle down for a long wait. Clear lines of old logging trails radiate from a big fir like spokes from a wheel, so I post up in the center and circumnavigate the hub as the beagles comb the woods.
Andy Hoover holds back the hounds.
Settled down, I can hear the dogs run, and I give a little fist-pump when I realize I’m smack in the middle of the hare’s big loop. The race shifts shape as the beagles work the track. On the slope above me, shrouded in dark timber, their full-throated howls suggest noses on a hot track and wide open running. The music crosses the woods in front and moves downhill, turning into picky little barks and yelps as the rabbit moves through a dense bog maybe 75 yards below, and the beagles have to hunt and peck for scent. I spin like a compass needle, following the sounds. They cross behind and course up through scattered pines now, back in a pack, howls on top of yelps on top of howls. Three times they run the loop, and I see snippets of a tail and an ear, telling me just how close the hare has come.
Now the dogs are on a full-throated howling cry in a stand of scattered pines below me, and they’ve turned in my direction. I take a few steps around my tree, and there he is, hopping straight toward me, three times the size I expect.
The hare tucks under the low boughs of a tree, in range but at an awful angle, and I remember what happened the last time I tried to shift my snowshoes. I bring the gun up just as a beagle barks not 20 yards away, and that’s all it takes to launch the bunny. I shoot twice, quickly, maybe too quickly. My first shot seems right on target, but the second is desperate and wishful, and I know it’s a miss the instant the trigger breaks.
By the time I shuffle over, three dogs have blasted by, hot on the track. I mark the spot well, though, and see needles and bark shorn by my shot. There’s a streak of red blood on the snow, too, and my pulse quickens. When I take a closer look, though, I see toe pads and claw marks. The smear of red is the blood from the paws of a beagle that’s giving it everything he’s got.
The Big Finish
A crew of hunters heads back to the snow machines after a hunt.
The next morning I fall in with a crowd of big-woods Mainers that are nothing like the Ewing group. The Knight clan hails mostly from the Rome, Maine, area. They’re clad in Carhartts, checked wool, blue jeans, and hooded sweatshirts. We’ve not been out of the truck five minutes when the dogs start a hare, turn it, and head our way. Shane, Travis, and I line up along an ATV path, shoulder to shoulder and guns mounted. There’s none of this run-’em-for-an-hour, let-the-dogs-work business. “If he comes out,” Travis says, “he ain’t crossing the road.”
Donnie cautions from the sidelines: “Don’t shoot the dogs and don’t shoot nobody. Them’s our rules.”
Now the dogs are so close we can see the bushes shaking 15 feet away, the clamor almost painful to the ears, but the hare never shows. Most likely it heard us shuffling along the trail and turned back into the dark timber.
“Rabbits ain’t stupid,” Travis says. “Sometimes I think we’re the crazy ones.”
The Knight clan is serious about hares, and it’s clear they’re not going to hold my hand. Within minutes I’m on my own, searching for a shooting lane, while the dogs start rabbits almost immediately and never stop. That’s when it strikes me, what seems so different about running snow bunnies from chasing cottontails back home in the South. Sure, there’s the snow and the snowshoes, but so much of classic cottontail hunting is wound up in old sporting-calendar imagery of the frantic few moments when the hounds close in on the rabbit and the bunny bursts in front of the hunter, gun to a shoulder, the iconic moment frozen in the split second before the shot. We’re 14 dirt-road miles into the woods, up toward Bald Mountain–huge country where snowmobile trails web all the way into Canada. The scale of the chase, thanks to the sprawling landscape and the hares’ giant looping runs, paints this pursuit on a grander canvas. Unlike cottontails, snowshoe hares rarely go to ground. They run and run and run some more, and the hunter is more like the hound, pushing as close to the action as he dares.
Now we’ve hit a true hare harem, a cover sick with scent. At some point the pack splits and for two straight hours they run, first one hare and then three and right now who knows how many. I catch a glimpse of one hare, and a glance at another, and roll one bunny in a stand of beech. Now the dogs go half mute as they tunnel through a wet swamp, yelps and barks like blips on a radar screen.
One hare closer to a limit.
When they turn the hares out of the bog and into the trees, all hell breaks loose. I haven’t seen a human in an hour, but suddenly there are shots to the left and right and yells from everywhere. In the woods between me and the bog, Shane has a good view down an overgrown tote road where he’s running a one-man shooting gallery. In 10 minutes he puts four hares on the ground with his ancient hammer gun held together with electrical tape. He’s done for the day, but the dogs aren’t, and I can hear him yelling through the pines: “Get down here! Get down here! Rabbits are running!”
The dogs are frantic now, and I’m on the move, threading snowshoes through the brambles, batting pine boughs away from my face. There’s a lump in my gamebag and another rises in my throat when I see him, pale as a ghoul. There’s no time to think. It’s white on white and then the orange bead, and lead shot on its way.
It’s crazy. Crazy as a March hare.