Sat, 23 Feb 2013 19:07:54 EST
One of my favorite winter pastimes is listening to beagles howling in hot pursuit of cottontail rabbits or snowshoe hares in a dense and snow-covered swampy setting. My pulse began picking up in anticipation as the sound of the beagles began to near my position in the ravine just below me and I kept my eyes peeled peering through the dense maze of firs, cedars and tag alders. Snowshoe hares can put on a burst of speed that easily hits 30 mph and are often quite a ways ahead of the hounds, so it pays to be on your toes continually. The sound of the chase however veered away from me and I settled back against the enormous standing dead pine trunk that was saturated with woodpecker holes.
This hunt was taking place during the MOWA (Michigan Outdoor Writers Association) Winter Rendezvous that was being held recently at the R.A.M. Center near Roscommon. I almost always opt for the Rabbit (and or Hare) hunts at these meetings and as a result have been able to sample this type of hunting throughout Michigan, which has been a real gem for me to do. Most of these hunts of course, have been with beagles and it is always a pleasure to share the field with houndsfolks who thoroughly enjoy working with their dogs. The real key in these hunts is experiencing the thrill of the chase, with the number of rabbits or hares in the bag as being secondary.
My fellow writers on this hunt were Jay Van Houten (toting a vintage Ithaca pump 20 ga) and avid buckskinner Dennis Neely. Neely was in his typical 1790ís frontier garb entailing homespun hunting shirt and buckskin leggings and moccasins, and was toting his .62 caliber (20 ga) flintlock trade gun. My hunting arm was a peep-sighted 20 ga (New England Arms) single-shot that has had the barrel bobbed off at slightly over 18 inches and I call it my little ďPugĒ due to its pugnacious nature. Being compact and lightweight, I figured it would be perfect in hare country, especially when stoked with number four, high-base birdshot loads.
Our guides on this hunt were Andy Duffy (also a fellow MOWA member), Andy Eichelberger (because there were two Andys present, we called him Ike) and Matt Hildebrand, all of Evart. Iíve hunted with these houndsmen many times before and they are really good at it and have great beagles. Eichelberger was toting a Mossberg pump .410 and Hildebrand a vintage Stevens .22/.410 over and under (probably the most versatile rabbit/squirrel gun ever made). Duffy on the other hand was only toting dog leashes, a factor Iíve found that is not uncommon with avid beagle folks in the field.
Our journey near Roscommon found us turning off a backroad onto a logging trail that required 4x4 on our trucks all the way to the end. From there it was another hike by compass heading another mile into what I will refer to as hare heaven due to the dense habitat (and hare trails). Our guides knew their stuff, thatís for sure.
It was when the guides were unloading their pooches that I spotted ďLolaĒ right away, as she was a real standout in the pack of four beagles. This is because Lola, although fully grown, only weighed 12 pounds, which mostly entailed big ears and an even bigger bark. She would be for a fact the hardest hound to get to quit hunting at the end of the day and truly held her own when the going got rough.
The mile hike in was definitely interesting due to the crusty snow that didnít require snowshoes, but on occasion you could drop into a low spot that left you scrambling for leverage. Then there was the dead tree leaning across in the way of our objective. At six foot six (at least) and wearing size 16 boots, this was just a hop over for Hildebrand, but I didnít have his ground clearance. I also seemed to have too much ground clearance (or bulk) to go under the leaning obstacle either. After I pondered it a moment, I went around it all by plowing a new path through the brush. I guess alternate routes come with the wisdom of age.
I knew at the beginning of our hunt (and so did the guides) that the crusty snow wasnít going to offer the best scenting conditions for the beagles. Just the same, the happy little hounds were soon baying a chorus through a gorgeous piece of hare ground. The only problem was that due to the type of snow, the hare would eventually give the beagles the slip, and matters would suddenly fall silent. Then the beagle choir would erupt again when the dogs hit yet another scent trail.
Unlike cottontail rabbits that are born hairless and with eyes closed, snowshoe hares (also called varying hares) are born fully furred, with eyes open, and ready to start hopping around shortly thereafter. In four weeks they are fully weaned and on their own because their mother probably has just had another litter. In the fall snowshoes turn from brown to white, and in the spring they go from white back to brown again. During the transition of their color change they will have a mottled appearance, but I have noticed even in their full winter whites, they often have a slight mottling to their color which I feel, helps with their camouflage effect (their fur is actually only white on the outer side and is dark gray near the skin). The tips of there ears are always black.
I can remember on my first hare hunt up north many years ago when I went expecting a snowshoe hare that would probably be twice as big as a Thumb cottontail, but was in for a surprise because they are about the same size. While the hares I have bagged might be a tad more gangly in their framework than a typical cottontail, they weigh about the same and taste just as good (Iíve heard it said that snowshoes have a stronger flavor, but I havenít noticed such in my favorite recipes). One thing I like about snowshoe hares is that they tend not to go to ground as quickly as cottontails when being pursued by hounds and keep circling around as if they are enjoying a good run. They are however a bit harder to see than a cottontail in a snowy environment where they remind me of ghostly figures slipping quietly through the brush.
On this hunt there were no hares taken or shots fired, but it was a beautiful day to be in the woods listening to beagles baying to their heartís content. My heart was content as well.
At the end of our hunt we were asked by our guides to nab any beagles in our near vicinity. This is when little Lola decided to pursue a country-covering hare in the opposite direction of our trucks parked a mile away. Jay Van Houten was able to coax in a pair of beagles and smooze them (which being beagles, they got right into) until the leashes showed up. It was during this timeframe I could hear ďHawthornĒ coming my way. A big black and white male, Hawthorn sounds like a loud vacuum cleaner that gets plugged up occasionally when he is looking for scent. As the pooch came alongside of me I leaned over and petted him, and then I began rubbing his ears, and Hawthorn immediately dropped prostrate and began making a loud sound that was a cross between snoring and groaning. He was truly into ear rubbing and bonded to me on the spot.
It is really hard not to love beagles.
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