Outdoors photo

Rabbits, and especially snowshoe hares, provide a unique challenge while hunting Pennsylvania’s winter landscape.

Photo by Charlie Burchfield

There were times the dogs were not seen, but they sure could be heard. The sound of beagles on the hot trail of a rabbit or hare is the sweet sound every beagle owner loves to hear. It’s part of the hunt that builds anticipation and excitement regardless of the outcome.

While hunting with hounds is generally done in the early fall, hunting in the late season is just as much fun, and maybe it offers even more.

Some hunters feel that small game hunting isn’t what it once was. That may be true to an extent. Yet, for those who actively participate in this style of hunting, they’ll admit otherwise.

One good example occurred last year at the January meeting of the PA Game Commission. Two dedicated rabbit hunters publicly thanked the PGC for the Youth Mentored Rabbit hunt conducted in the early season and for the late rabbit season.

These men conduct rabbit hunts using hounds and found it to be an ideal style of hunting to introduce youngsters to the field sports.

The late season provides some great hunting, but you’d best know what you’re doing during the winter months.

Rabbit hunting is far from being a lost art, or for that matter non-existent. Fact is, the rabbits are out there, but what it takes is at least a dog and time spent in the field.

When there is snow on the ground, the habitat is compressed. Areas that were productive during the fall may have lost their luster during the winter months. That’s when a shift to more suitable habitat needs to be considered.

In the late season key areas of rabbit habitat men find productive are within areas of pines where there is ground cover. Honeysuckle thickets, edges of clear cuts, or patches of briar cane that also contain a mix of multiflora rose, provide a good starting point. Just look for an area that is the thickest, nastiest cover around.

Additional areas to locate rabbits and hares are along the edges of recent clear cuts. Here the crowns of cut timber that have been left behind offers some great hunting, because many of the treetops that remain are placed in piles to protect regenerating seedlings from browsing by deer. The brush piles offer great cover for rabbits.

Keep in mind that when hunting in the late season, ideal snow conditions should be at six inches of snow cover or less. The type of snow on the ground is another consideration. Wet snow allows the scent of the rabbit to remain on the ground. When there is a crust on the snow, the scent tends to dissipate and leaves little for the dog’s nose to pick up. But there are additional snow conditions to be considered.

When hunting rabbits in the late season, keep bankers’ hours. Traditionally hunters like to be out at first light and hunt all day. And that’s okay during the early season, but the opposite is true during winter. Here’s why.

In the late season daytime temperatures are generally cold. Under these conditions dogs have a difficult time picking up the scent of a track left behind. Besides, the rabbits are not generally out during the coldest times of the day. For the most part, the best time to hunt rabbits in the late season is from about 2 p.m. until the end of the day.

The reason for this is because it will generally warm up during this time and the rabbits are generally on the move and feeding. With warmer temperatures the snow cover is often soft and moist and will hold the scent for dogs to pick up. However in the morning when temperatures are cooler, the dogs tend to cold trail more often.

Another consideration is overall weather conditions. If there are several days of consistent weather, the rabbits usually get into a pattern. When temperatures are extremely cold one day then warm the next, gauging the best times to hunt can be difficult to predict when the rabbits will be out feeding.

If weather patterns are as hard to predict as they are in the winter season, hunt whenever you can.

After all, you never know when you’ll have an exceptional day, especially if you’re hunting with a good dog.

Across the north central region timber is being removed on a consistent basis on State Game Lands and State Forest Lands. These areas will provide a good starting point for a late season hunt.

One sure way to locate some great rabbit and hare habitat can be obtained at any of the various State Forest Offices. The folks there will be glad to point out areas where recent timber harvests have been conducted and where regenerating habitat can be found.

The “late” rabbit season begins on Dec. 26 and runs through Feb. 28, 2018, with a daily limit of four rabbits.

Snowshoe hare season opens on Dec. 26, but offers a reduced length of season and closes on Jan. 1. The daily limit for snowshoe hares is one.

The challenges of a late season rabbit or hare hunt provide one of the best ways to close out the old year and bring in the new.

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Charlie Burchfield is an active member and past president of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association, an active member of the Professional Outdoor Media Association, Outdoor Writers Assoc. of America and the Mason-Dixon Outdoor Writers. Gateway Outdoors e-mail is GWOutdoors@comcast.net

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