BRAINERD, MINN. - It's no secret ice fishing can be slow during February. Walleyes have become somewhat tight-lipped, and the best panfish action usually arrives with warm (relatively) March winds.
So, maybe it's time to switch gears.
Blow off the dust from that shotgun, rifle or bow. There are three species of hares and rabbits residing in Minnesota, and chances are at least one species lives near you.
Snowshoe hares are my favorite species to hunt. Good hunting can usually be found on public land. Often the same cover I stomped for ruffed grouse in October will also support a population of snowshoe hares. Unlike cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares do not go underground, so no matter how bad the weather, a hunter or two tromping good cover can usually roust a snowshoe.
Snowshoe hares travel mostly unseen through the frigid northern forests they call home, their cryptic winter coats of white providing them with near perfect camouflage against the snow. An abundance of hair grows from their outsized feet, allowing the hares to travel nearly effortlessly over deep snow.
My friends and I prefer to hunt the big-footed hares with archery tackle. Our technique of hunting snowshoes employs three or four hunters to make short drives. Usually two hunters attempt to push the hares while the others take stands. We execute short, circular drives of 200 yards or less using fields, roads or other openings on at least one or two sides to act as barriers. Snowshoe hares are reluctant to cross any opening and are thus funneled past the waiting standers.
Snowshoe hares use a maze of runways as they travel in the snow. These paths connect feeding and loafing areas -- an uprooted tree here, a brush pile there. The hunters who act as standers select ambush points near one or more of these hare trails while the drivers -- using the openings as barriers -- attempt to move the hares past their waiting colleagues.
White-tailed jack rabbit
A large cousin to the snowshoe hare is the white-tailed jack rabbit. Despite the name, jack rabbits are actually hares. Unlike the snowshoe, an animal of northern forests, jack rabbits inhabit the prairie. They prefer a home with a broad view.
I have a deep respect for these big bunnies. They can withstand the most severe weather simply by hunkering down in the wide open and letting a howling winter wind drift snow around them. Usually, though, they crouch next to some obstacle such as the base of tree in a shelterbelt or a willow bush in a low spot in a field. I've seen jack rabbits snuggled up to tires supporting a pivoting irrigation sprinkler.
The spots to locate jack rabbits are on sprawling farms with only bits of cover here and there. Those locations are usually on private land so permission must be secured.
Jack rabbit hunting is usually a long-range venture. They are much more wary than snowshoe hares and usually don't allow a hunter to approach closely. Often they'll run for some distance but then stop and stand on their hind legs to assess the situation. A flat-shooting accurate varmint rifle equipped with a high-power scope is the weapon of choice for most jack rabbit hunters.
Cottontails are true rabbits. That means, unlike hares, they are born naked and do not turn white during winter. Conversely, snowshoes and jack rabbits are hares, and are born fully furred and with their eyes open.
Cottontails are aptly named because when on the run they flash their outsize 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 behinds.
The familiar cottontail rabbit is usually found not far from man. In fact, they frequently live in our backyards, 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. Check out brushy draws, wooded creek or river bottoms, rock piles and old farmsteads, especially if these areas are next to farm crops such as standing corn.
When cottontails are sunning themselves near their dens, a hunter is best off bearing a rifle because the rabbits spook easily and simply dart underground. A .17 or .22 caliber rimfire is all that is needed. If the cottontails are out and about 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 the end of February.