By Steve Meyer, for the Redoubt Reporter
Rabbits are back!
Well, technically, that isn’t exactly correct. They have always been around, but for the first time in quite a while there is a huntable number of snowshoe hares in the area, and it’s a prime opportunity to start a youngster out winter hunting.
A lot of folks go into hibernation in the winter here, but in some ways there is no better time to be out hunting. No bugs, less brush and leaves to peer through, no worries of spoilage, and the scenery is gorgeous. Excited kids seem immune to harsh weather, so the one downside is, once started, they will probably bug you at every opportunity to go again, no matter the weather.
Rabbits are among the most sought-after small game in the United States. Their popularity no doubt stems from their presence nearly everywhere and the normally high success rate when hunted. In Alaska, with the cycles the snowshoe hare population goes through, they are not always as readily available, and down years do make for tough hunting. But a little effort and scouting around will almost always produce some action, which makes it great for kids.
In years past, holiday traditions often included hunting on Thanksgiving and Christmas. One does not have to venture far to find rabbits, in fact they tend to be near roads, trails, two-tracks, survey breaks and the like, due to availability of food. A rabbit’s diet consists largely of the same things moose eat. They are browsers and new-growth birch, aspen and the like are staple foods for them. Areas that have new growth with nearby tangles of cover, deadfalls and heavy brush are favorite places for them.
Hunting can be good in the Swanson River and Tustumena Lake area, as well as trails in Cooper Landing and pipeline and survey trails throughout the peninsula. Look for a lot of rabbit sign — tracks, droppings and browse lines. The best time to determine a population level in a given area is about 24 hours after a snow. In that amount of time, areas that hold a lot of rabbits will be covered up in fresh tracks. A track here and there indicates there is one rabbit, but hunting success will be much better if you hunt areas that have lots of sign.
Rabbits do most of their movement and feeding before dawn and at dusk. These are prime times for hunting, but because of limited daylight, the window of opportunity is short. That means going into the brush and spotting them where they live. It’s tough to do, since their white fur makes them difficult, at best, to see, and for the inexperienced hunter, nearly impossible unless they move. One way to spot them is moving through brushy areas with a lot of sign and watching as far ahead as you can. They will hear you coming and move out ahead of you.
If you can spot that movement and determine a direction, oftentimes you can spot them sitting under a deadfall or in some low cover. When they move out ahead of you they usually don’t move fast or go very far unless they have had a lot of pressure. Several hunters moving through an area abreast can be an effective way to flush and spot rabbits.
If you go, make sure where you go is legal. Be cautious of private property and if you are going to be hunting along the road system, go beyond the place you intend to enter the brush and make sure other hunters haven’t went around the next corner and entered the same area.
With kids entering the hunting field with loaded firearms the adult in charge should be hypervigilant, at least until further teaching and demonstration of safe methods can be shown and learned. This often means staying very close to them until they have proven their level of responsibility.
When hunting with others and working areas together, special consideration must be taken to know where other people are at. In the excitement of the hunt, kids — and for that matter, adults — may forget about details, like where they are in relation to others.
Much is made about tularemia, a bacterium that rabbits host and, if contracted by humans through open cuts or contact with infected organs or tissues, can cause illness. This concern is real but it is extremely unlikely when hunting rabbits in the winter. The parasite does not survive the cold weather, and from October to April it is extremely unlikely to see evidence of it. The evidence would be rabbits that seem slow and lethargic, swelling of the liver and spleen and white spots on internal organs. In 38 years of hunting rabbits on the peninsula I have never seen this evidence.
On the other hand, there are the fleas. Some “experts” will tell you there are no fleas on rabbits in the winter here. They say the cold kills them off and that there may be lice, but not fleas. All I can tell you is virtually every rabbit I have ever shot has little black bugs that jump really well and are hard to kill. My experience with fleas tells me they look like fleas, they act like fleas and they have flea characteristics. I think they are fleas, but whatever they might be, it’s best not to put a warm rabbit in the car or the backpack, lest you want the experience of little black bugs crawling around your scalp.
Leave the rabbits out until they are cold or skin and clean them in the field, which is the preferred method anyway. Just don’t leave rabbit entrails and hides in sight of roads or campgrounds, parking lots, etc. It is illegal, not to mention distasteful.
Rabbits are very good table fare. A lot of people liken the taste to chicken, but it seems like everything that we can’t really describe ends up “tasting like chicken.” The meat is mild, and while these Alaska hares are big, they are deceptively so in terms of edible meat. The hind legs and backstrap provide a fair amount of meat. The front legs and ribs, by the time they are cooked, provide virtually no meat. It takes about four rabbits to make a decent meal for a couple of people.
Just remember, it is feast or famine with rabbits here, and you want to take advantage of the up cycle while you can. The cycle is said to be seven years, and next year should be maybe a little better, but after that it will no doubt start down again and they will be tough to find.
Steve Meyer has been a central peninsula resident since 1971 and is an avid hunter, fisherman and trapper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.