written and photos provided by Joe Jackson
It’s hard to imagine a winter day spent more pleasantly than stalking through Alaska’s taiga hunting the snowshoe hare. There’s not a better reason to explore the reaches of our well-forested state, and there’s not an animal that’s better-suited to live there.
Some days you find them, some days you don’t. To me this dichotomy represents the greatest draw of hunting hares: They’re routinely elusive but occasionally attainable, at once an animal that children’s hunting dreams are made of yet still wholly capable of making even the wisest feel like an idiot.
I hunt hares exclusively with a rimfire rifle equipped with open sights. Yes, beagles and shotguns and loyal compatriots would probably be more effective, but I prefer to give the hare his refuges of invisibility and speed. If I can bag him in spite of those advantages, I like to think I’ve surmounted some pinnacle of woodsmanship and truly deserve the added weight in my vest. Or maybe I’m just full of it. In any case, my gear list includes a Rossi Model 62 SAC (my very first firearm, actually, with which I bagged my first cottontail with at the tender age of eight), a handful of .22 Long Rifle bullets, a game vest, a good pair of snowshoes, a layering of cold-weather clothing, a thermos of coffee, some snacks, a bottle of pet flea-and-tick spray, and a couple of eight-gallon trash bags. More on this list later. How you do it falls second to where you do it.
An entire valley of prime hare territory. This is boreal at its finest, transected by a small beaver stream and dotted with swamps. The in-between is full of spruce trees, deciduous growth, and snowshoe hares.
We are blessed as Alaskans in that most of our state is prime hare territory—they prefer boreal forest and over half of the Last Frontier is composed of just that. I’ve found my best success in areas of mid-growth, white- and black spruce with an understory of willows, alders, and the occasional aspen and birch tree. It takes only a glance at hare life history to see why these areas are productive: Hares are nocturnal and favor the soft buds and stems of young deciduous species in their nighttime feasts, leaving their daytime haunts of the sheltered eaves beneath nearby conifers. Anywhere these trees coexist is a solid bet, and especially so if they are near swampy areas. In theory, finding these areas is simple; in practice, it requires a bit of gas and boot leather.
One strategy I use for locating my larger hunting areas (what I call macrohabitats) happens incidentally during my fall fishing seasons. As I’m driving up and down Alaska’s highways in pursuit of trout and grayling, I take note of places I either see hares or where the habitat looks like it could support a decent number. Then I check out the place on Google Maps, determine who owns the land, obtain necessary permissions, and scout it with a rifle once the snow falls, usually after the first of November. Some places turn out to be duds; others become gems.
The long sunrises of winter make for some glorious mornings spent chasing hares.
I try to always have at least four such options of places to hunt in a given direction (say, out the Parks Highway), all relatively close to one another. These areas should be variable in snow depth and cover type. One might be open country with a heavy layer of snow, another might be tight forest where the thick canopy limits snowfall to a couple of inches. Having multiple options serves as insurance; if one spot is so inundated with snow and the ambient temperature is such that every step requires wading up to my waist, it’s better to head someplace else. I also like to rotate my spots so that I’m always leaving some hares for seed, especially in low years. I usually don’t harvest more than five or six from a given area per season. That might seem especially conservative when you consider that Alaska has no official limit on these animals, but I like to think I’m doing something right because regardless of the year—be it boom or bust in the hare cycle—I always seem to find some. I’d encourage you to impose some personal limits, as well.
A hat trick of hares. It’s not often that things work out so nicely, but sometimes the conditions are just so, and you get that once-in-a-season kind of hunt. I had to call it quits early that day; three is my daily, self-imposed limit.
Assuming you’ve located a handful of places to hunt, it’s time to start considering how you’ll move through them and where, specifically, you’ll target. This is what I refer to as the microhabitat. Generally, I hunt around food sources near daybreak, these being primarily willow patches. Willows are early-successional tree species—they are among the first to emerge after a disturbance to the ecosystem—and as such, areas of past wildfires, floods, and road construction are all great candidates for a hare buffet. Once the day is underway, though, I basically just zig-zag my way through the forest, putting on between two and four miles per hunt and stopping every hundred feet or so to look for “wabbits,” as Mr. Fudd would so eloquently say. Some hunters swear by the dawn and dusk hours, but I’ve actually determined that I shoot the majority of my hares between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. throughout the winter. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of intercepting them before and after their nightly bonanzas, but more of hunting slowly enough and in the right places to catch them whiling away the afternoons.
Sometimes even old tracks can lead to productive hare haunts.
Once they’re done feeding for the night, hares will typically hunker down in a spot where they’ve got head cover and a view of things. They also become about as active as a cinderblock, which makes seeing their immobile white-on-white a tall task indeed. You’ll hear the old trick of looking for their eye more than anything else, and it’s a good one. There are a lot of snow patches that look like the body of a hare, but very few things in the forest can imitate the glossy luster of an eyeball. I’ve also taken to looking for the tips of their ears.
Another trick that began for my own comfort but has proven effective is taking frequent coffee breaks. A hot thermos of coffee is added weight, I know, especially when you’re trudging through miles of snow, but it’s worth every ounce as far as I’m concerned. Not only does the hot beverage serve to invigorate on even the coldest of mornings, but it forces you to stop and take stock of things. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been sipping away and have noticed, just smack out of the blue, a hare sitting granite-still within shooting distance. I highly doubt I would have seen them otherwise.
Sometimes you’ll hear hares before you see them. They can move moss-quiet through the forest, but if you’re close enough, their footfalls sound like timpano strikes. This, of course, means you’ve spooked them, but hares usually don’t run far before they stop again. Remember, their advantage is in camouflage, and that advantage is ruined the moment they start moving. Another way to hunt them is after a fresh snow. Just two or three hares can produce enough tracks in one night to make it appear as though a rabbit’s March on Washington has taken place. A fresh snow allows you to separate the new from the old, though, and, in my opinion, following minutes-old hare tracks is among the most exhilarating of outdoor pursuits. In cases like these, you’ll want to follow alongside the tracks rather than on top of them (in case you lose them and have to double back), and a pair of binoculars can make spotting the hare as he dashes ahead of you much easier.
Shot placement is best right at the base of the skull. Most plinks will occur at a range of maybe 30- to 50 feet, but I think it’s safe to be comfortable and accurate with your gun up to thirty or fifty yards. These types of long shots are rare, but they can occasionally be the only way to bag spooky hares in open country. They’re also, when executed with open-sights, one of the greater triumphs known to marksmen.
A look at some extremely productive hare forest. Note the growth of young willows and birch below the towering white spruce.
Returning to our gear list, I recommend the sturdiest set of snowshoes you can afford. These can make or break a hunt depending on snow depth. I like Atlas as a brand because I give them a thorough beating on most winter weekends and they take it without complaints. The Montane model, in particular, has a durable strapping system that’s easy to operate even when your fingers are numb. Wrap yourself in whatever layers of wool socks, thermal underwear, and flannel-lined Carhartts that you care to, and either wear a game vest or a daypack to carry snacks, extra bullets, emergency fire-making kit, GPS, and, yes, the coffee.
The requisites for a good hare hunt: a tough pair of snowshoes, and a snappy little rimfire rifle that you’ve practiced with a bit.
I also carry flea-and-tick spray and a handful of eight-gallon garbage bags. Hares are loaded with fleas even when it’s obscenely cold. Rather than let these little buggers wander freely in my vest, I’ve taken to spraying the hare down, tying it in a garbage bag, and carrying it that way. Hours later, when you go to clean your harvest, all of the fleas are deader than doornails and you don’t have to worry about them. This “resting” period is also better for the meat.
Speaking of meat, Rick Merizon of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a good video on their website about how to clean a hare carcass. They actually yield a surprising quantity of meat for such a small animal, and all of it is wild, all-natural, and velvety when braised over low heat. I’m a big fan of hare, leek, and potato soup, tequila-lime hare tacos, braised hare with mustard sauce, hare curry, and bacon-wrapped hare. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with cooking them, I’d just recommend you soak the meat in saltwater for at least eight hours beforehand to draw out blood.
I hear of so many hunters getting their cuts of meat and ignoring the rest of the hare. It’s not only a shame, it’s a complete waste. Hare pelts make for some great fly-tying material (smolt and flesh flies are particularly bolstered with the supple white fibers), and hare’s foot is one of the most coveted elements in many dry- and emerger patterns. I skin hares open-style, and I peg the hides out in an oval on cardboard using thumbtacks. Borax can aid the drying process, but it’s such thin leather it usually doesn’t take long in a well-ventilated area. As for the feet, I usually split them at each toe and dry them in a box of borax. Not only does the splitting make them dry more thoroughly, but it makes it easier to clip hair from them once it comes time to spin up flies.
Hare is some of the most versatile game meat we have. In some European countries it is (rightly) considered a delicacy. Pictured here is some hare braised with white wine and garlic and served over peas. Delicious.
The more I think about the snowshoe hare, the more I’m plumb impressed by how well they scrape out a living in Alaska’s harsh forests. I mean, think about it. This is a prey species that knows he is the toast of the town for every predator—be it ground- or air-stalking—within a hundred miles, and they go about thwarting these enemies with simple yet superb effectiveness.
You’ll hear myths from just about every culture about the snowshoe hare: the hare that stole fire in Native American tales, the hare that tricked a lion into eating his own reflection out of India, or the wronged Cornish maiden who turned into a hare and haunted her betrayer for the entirety of his life. It’s an animal steeped in folklore, perhaps a touch of the supernatural, and it only takes a few hours of chasing them to see why. If their tracks abruptly stop in the forest, as though the hare simply launched himself to space, or the animal itself just seems to disappear into thin air, don’t be surprised. That’s just what the snowshoe hare does.
Chase them enough, though, and sometimes you get lucky.
Joe Jackson’s years are defined by grayling when the sun is out and snowshoe hares when it disappears. Thankfully, the hobbies somewhat lend themselves to one another.