Chasing Snowshoes

May 2012, The Rabbit Hunter Magazine Cover  Having a limited amount of snow to run cottontails near my home in central Michigan this past season, I decided to take the opportunity to head out of town for an exciting day trip to the northern half of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I would be targeting snowshoe hares. As I could not find anyone to make the trip with me, it would just be my seven year old beagle Blade and myself. This was a fairly long drive and some pretty big country to try and hunt by one’s self, but to me well worth it.  There is simply nothing like hearing the echo of a hound’s voice bouncing off the cedars as he runs through the swamps.  This is a totally different experience than hunting the smaller wood lots for cottontails, which is what I enjoy doing most weekends throughout the winter.

I had taken another trip north a month earlier in December.  Again it had been just Blade and me. The dog had run extremely well, but we had no success in regards to rabbits in the game bag. We hunted for eight hours that day and Blade was running for at least six of that on two different rabbits. For the life of me, however, I could not connect. Only twice did I even catch glimpses of the rabbits. I’ve said it before, if you like killing rabbits, stick to cottontails, if you like running rabbits try out the snowshoe hares. It’s a whole different ballgame. I’m sure I would do much better and the runs would be shorter if I had more guys to go with me. Don’t get me wrong, I have run snowshoes in just the right areas where the rabbit’s circles are limited by the terrain and available cover. These chases tend to more closely resemble a cottontail’s.
In these perfect circumstances, I have been able to harvest a limit of rabbits without too much difficulty. This is by no means the norm, however, especially when hunting the larger tracts of land where snowshoes are many times found. The lighter game bags I tend to experience when hunting snowshoes by myself, are no big deal. For the most part I simply enjoy listening to my dog run. I would, however, attempt to redeem myself on this current trip and hopefully kill at least one rabbit.

The day was promising to be perfect as far as the conditions went.  No wind, a high of 33 degrees, sunny and a fresh inch of snow on the ground. This was on top of the five inches already present. There were tracks everywhere and it took Blade no more than ten minutes to have a rabbit up and going. You could tell the scenting conditions were excellent as he was really moving this rabbit. After 30 minutes or so I decided to move as Blade was taking the rabbit out of hearing.

On my previous trip a month earlier the scenting conditions were not nearly as good and the rabbits seemed to make much smaller loops. This was probably due to the much slower pace that Blade had to maintain to keep on the track.  My new location seemed promising, but after having the rabbit cut me wide twice, I decided to move positions once again. By now we were about an hour and a half into the run. I found a small opening where the hare had ran through twice before. I patiently waited hoping he would pass by for a third time.  As another hour went by I was again thinking of moving when suddenly the race changed direction. I could tell by Blade’s howl that the rabbit was finally coming my way. His bawl voice was getting louder and louder. It seemed like he was almost on top of me as I peered into the cedars, hoping to catch a glimpse of movement.  Just then I saw the rabbit, like a silent white ghost making his way across the snow. I quickly raised my gun. He picked up my movement and put it into high gear, trying to race back into the safety of the cedars. I fired two quick shots just as he disappeared. I was doubtful that I had hit him, but to my surprise when I walked over to where I had shot, he was laying dead about ten yards up the trail. I was ecstatic. There is definitely a sense of accomplishment after managing to connect on a rabbit after what was approaching a three hour run. I thanked God for the harvest and proceeded to wait for Blade to cover the last fifty yards of track.

When he arrived I praised him for a job well done. I field dressed the rabbit and then took a five minute break to regroup, sit back and just take in the scenery. The solitude back in those swamps is amazing. You feel as if you are the only person on earth. This solitude does make it important to always carry a compass and/or a GPS.  If you do happen to get turned around in these dense expanses of swamp without a compass, good luck finding your way out. It certainly is not like hunting the back 40 behind the house.

After giving Blade a few moments to catch his breath, we continued on looking for more fresh sign. It is a little more difficult with snowshoes, as they leave a lot of tracks over a much greater area than do cottontails. Finally, after about thirty minutes of searching, Blade hit a hot track.  The chase was on.  This rabbit decided to immediately head for the next county. I tried my best to stay within hearing distance. About 40 minutes in, it sounded as if the hare was at last coming back. I found an opening and waited. Within 20 minutes, the race was coming straight at me. It didn’t take long to see the large snowshoe hopping my way. He saw me raise my gun and tried to run, but there was no heavy cover nearby to escape to. I fired two shots and he lay still on the fresh blanket of white snow. Another excellent run and this time it only lasted about an hour. This was much better than the previous three hour marathon I had experienced earlier. Once again I thanked God for an excellent run and waited for Blade to arrive. Two snowshoes in the bag. I couldn’t believe my luck, especially after my last trip where I had hunted all day and could not manage to harvest even one.

At this point I decided that we would head back to the truck and try another area that had been productive in the past. In hindsight I wish I had just stayed where I was, as my success rate was about to drop drastically.
This new area was much thicker. I mean really thick!  It only took Blade about fifteen minutes to get a rabbit started. I thought the last rabbit had run far, but that was nothing compared to this one. He took the dog out of hearing within minutes. He just headed straight away.  I tried my best to keep within hearing distance, but the cover was so thick it was difficult.  About an hour into the run, it sounded like they may be coming back my way. I waited patiently and had I been about fifteen yards further to my right I probably would have ended the run right there. Instead, from my vantage point, I only managed to catch a fleeting glimpse of this hare. I fired a quick shot in his direction, but most of the shot was absorbed by brush. At this point the rabbit really started making huge runs.  He would head straight north, taking the dog out of hearing and then come back and head straight south, taking the dog out of hearing. This went on for over three hours. I eventually started to notice that the sun was beginning to set low in the sky, an indication that I needed to get going soon. I knew trying to round my dog up in this cover was going to be a chore.  The last thing I wanted to do was be in that cedar swamp after dark chasing a dog around, even though I do carry a flashlight on me just for that contingency.

For the next hour I ran through that jungle of cedars trying to intercept Blade. The scenting conditions were so good it seemed he never had to slow down to work a check. As I mentioned earlier this may have been part of the reason why the circles were so large today, as Blade was really able to push these rabbits.  I could not gain any ground on him. He was constantly maintaining 200 yards of distance from me. Finally, the hare did some kind of tricky move, which forced Blade to slow down just enough. I took advantage of this and got within 75 yards of him. I began calling like crazy, hoping that he might come my way to see what all the commotion was about. I’m not sure if anyone has tried to call a hound off a rabbit when they are hot on his trail, but it is no easy task; some may say impossible. By the time it was said and done I had just about lost my voice. When not in the middle of a run he comes back as easy as can be, not the case when he is running.  I really can’t blame him I guess. That is what he was bred to do. He was not too happy that I had finally got a hold of him. For the next 100 yards or so I had to keep him right alongside me, as he kept trying to sneak back to the track.

After what seemed like forever, we were just about to the edge of the swamp and close to my truck when Blade cut another fresh track.  He was off like a bullet with me in hot pursuit. I didn’t want to end up back in where I had just come from. Luckily I was able to catch him before it was too late.  I praised him for doing well and just to be on the safe side I carried him the rest of the way out of the cedars.
Blade had done excellent. He slept all the way home sitting on the passenger seat next to me. I figured he had run close to eight hours and who knows how many miles. As a bonus we had harvested two rabbits. He is seven this year so we’ll see how much longer he can do that.  I have a new puppy that I just purchased recently, so hopefully, Blade can show him the ropes this next season.

If anyone has the chance to try and run snowshoes with their hounds, I would highly recommend it. It is something a little different from the typical cottontail runs. Not that those aren’t a lot of fun! As I said, that is what I spend most of my time doing.  I have heard some people say that a dog trained on cottontails will have trouble running snowshoes or vice-versa. I have tried it both ways. The best dog I ever owned had spent the first year of his life running nothing but snowshoes. Once I purchased him I ran nothing but cottontails with him and he had no issues at all. He was an awesome jump and tracking dog. I don’t care the conditions once he got on a rabbit you either killed it or it went to a hole; that dog just never lost anything. He was amazing! Now this current dog, Blade, was raised completely running cottontails. I never even ran him on a snowshoe until he was five years old. He is not nearly the dog that my previous dog was, but I did not notice any issue with transitioning him from cottontails to snowshoes. It may have taken him a minute to realize that the hare was making some larger leaps, but that was it. I killed a snowshoe over him in his first attempt.  I think the hardest thing going from cottontails to snowshoes, had to do with how much larger their loops are.  Blade could not care less, as he just loves the chase, but I know I do start to get a little nervous when he gets out there to where I can just barely hear him. If I were to really get into running snowshoes all the time I may want to invest in some sort of tracking collar.

As it is now, I just make sure to check the weather forecast and try to avoid really windy days where it would be very difficult to hear the dog over long distances. Besides that little aspect of it, it is nothing but fun! Until next time, happy hunting!

By Matt Jerome, Midland, Michigan

jerome_matt_chasing_snowshoes PDF