That wascally wabbit the Snowshoe Hare!
For being one of the most widespread small game animals present in southcentral Alaska the Snowshoe Hare can be one hard critter to find!
The mystery decreases however once you learn WHERE, HOW and WHEN to look for them.
We will start with the Where. Naturally the hares will be where the food is. What do they eat? Good question! Hares eat small willows, aspen, rosehip bushes, alders and even spruce needles in the winter time. Summer time forage is predominatley fresh greens.
Now just like you would not get good nutrition from eating the same thing all the time, neither does a Hare. So you want to focus on Forests with a good mix of the woody browse they prefer for food. The younger and more tender forage the better. One good hint is if you see moose sign in the area, a hare should be close by as these two animal share the same taste in winter food.
Generally you will find these places along river banks, valleys, swamps, burned out areas and subalpine areas.
Not only do these areas provide food but they provide cover and protection from the elements and more importantly Predators. So look for very thick stands of tangled young brush. You will not find Hares in an old open large forest even though it contains spruce, aspen or other woody browse because that area does not offer protection.
Once you find a likely area, look for clues as to wether or not Hares live there, Of course look for tracks in the snow, twigs on the ground with the bark gnawed off and of course the little brown round droppings. Even with no snow these clues should be easy to find other than tracks. If a short search of the area reveals nothing, move on.
Okay, you found Sign! They should stand right in front of the gun right? Well you know that isnt true. Finding a Hare requires skill and patience. As a general rule if you are moving slowly and deliberatly through the woods a Hare will hold still relying on his camoflauge to avoid you. He wont be out in the open either, he will be under a spruce tree, a log covered in snow, a thick tangle of alder ect.
You need to train yourself to look for a part of a hare, not the whole thing! Believe it or not the easiest part of a hare to spot is his eye. Its the only object on his body that sticks out among the snow. The second best is his ears wich often are speckled grey with black tips. Keep your foucus about 30 yards out. Try to look to far ahead and a hare being so small you wont see it, look to close and you will have invaded his confort zone and he will be long gone.
Of course sometimes you will see one on the run. Try to keep track as best you can where he goes. Often times they will just run a short distance, reposition themselves (often facing you) and wait you out.
The good news is once you spot a hare or two, it will become second nature to you.
Before we move on, lets talk about hunting pressure. These hares will behave much more skittish the more they are shot at. Sometimes, you will find lots of sign but not see a hare. Thats usually because these hares will flee long distances the moment they hear you coming. Or the deeper they will hide in the thick stuff. The farther out you walk and get away from the crowd the better it will be. There will be more game, and as a bonus they will not be as well "trained"
Now there are times when the hunting is better too. For the most part hares are nocturnal. First light and dusk are the best times to be out looking for them as they are moving about. However unlike a rabbit, Hares do not burrow so you can run into them at all hours.
Conditions are a HUGE factor as well. Hunting just after a fresh Dumping of snow in not practical. For one, sign will be pretty much nonexistant, the snow on the branches and ground will be high and conceal the rabbits. Even if the rabbits were neon orange they would be hard to see. Also, even though these Hares do not "burrow" they will take advantage of natural tunnels created by snow on fallen trees and can often travel 30 feet or more underground to escape you. Also dont go on a windy day, the constant swaying of branches can be a huge distraction.
My favorite and most productive times to hunt are overcast, calm winds and right at 33 degrees and above with the snow dense, moist and settled.
Hares begin to breed around march. They are highly active at this time and are a bit easier to come across. Also the temps are milder and the snow is just right. Hunting from March to may is tops. Late september through november is good too. December through Febuary are the hardest months. Now once in awhile, we get those warm chinook winter winds that really melt everything away. Get your self out in the woods when that happens as the hunting can be fantastic!
For the beginner Hare hunter I highly reccomend a shotgun in the 12-20 guage persuation with 6 or 7 shot. The thick cover and often suprise encounters virtually demand this firearm for the novice.
Well I hope you enjoyed my Hare hunting primer. As I get out some more I will take pictures of the habitat, sign and conditions that I have described and post them. Good Luck!