The bird-hunting seasons have ended in Minnesota, but that's no reason to stow your shotgun, bow or rifle. Rabbits and hares await those who wish to spend more time outdoors this winter.
Snowshoe hares are my favorite species to hunt. One reason is good hare-hunting can be found on public land. Another reason is snowshoe hares, unlike cottontail rabbits, do not have underground burrows. No matter how nasty the winter, a hunter can usually roust a snowshoe.
Snowshoe hares are furtive animals. They travel mostly unnoticed through the frosty northern forests they call home, their winter coats of white providing excellent camouflage against the wintry surroundings. An abundance of hair grows from their large feet, thus allowing the hares to travel nearly effortlessly over deep snow.
My friends and I prefer to hunt the snowshoe hares with archery tackle, but our tactics work no matter the weapon. Our method involves three or four hunters making short drives. Two hunters can often push the hares while the others stand along a hare trail in the snow. We perform short, circular pushes of 200 yards or less, using fields, roads or other openings on at least a side or two to act as barriers. Snowshoe hares are reluctant to cross any opening and are thus funneled past the waiting standers.
While snowshoe hares inhabit the forested regions of Minnesota, cottontail rabbits can be found throughout the state. However, they are most common in central and southern Minnesota, especially in the farming regions.
Cottontails are true rabbits. That means, unlike hares, they are born naked, without any hair. Also, cottontails maintain their brown fur coat year round. Conversely, snowshoe hares are born fully furred and with their eyes open, and their summer coat of brown is replaced by a fleece of white during winter.
When on the run, the aptly named cottontails flash their oversized snow-white tails as they bound for safety, much like a white-tailed deer. The brown rabbits appear to have a cotton ball sewed to their butts.
The familiar cottontail rabbit is usually found not far from human habitat. In fact, cottontails frequently live in our back yards, much to the dismay of gardeners whose plants disappear overnight.
When deep snow covers the ground, cottontails will be confined to whatever cover is available. Hunters should check out brushy draws, wooded creek or river bottoms, rock piles, old farmsteads and shelterbelts, especially if these areas are next to farm crops such as standing corn.
When it's warm and sunny, cottontails will often sit out in the sun near brush piles or underground dens, particularly early and late in the day.
A hunter in search of cottontails sunning themselves near their dens is best off bearing a rifle because the rabbits spook easily and simply dart underground. All you need is a .17 or .22 caliber rimfire. If the cottontails are out and about feeding, they can be jumped from cover and shot with a shotgun as they dash for safety.
In Minnesota, the limit on rabbits and hares is 10 combined with 20 in possession. Shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. The hare and rabbit season runs through February.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.