Bruce Oswald gives us some handy tips on hare hunting on public land.
Is there anything more exciting than stalking a hare in a forested area? For me, it is a close-run thing when I compare stalking hare with stalking sambar in forested areas. I know it is like comparing apples and oranges but in many ways the challenges are the same: I am stalking a hypervigilant animal that has all its survival skills hardwired to avoid a predator.
The Australian hare (Lepus europaeus) was introduced in Tasmania in the late 1830s. On the mainland, the first established colony of hares was in the Westernport area of Victoria and is supposed to have occurred around 1862. By the early 1900s they had made their way to Queensland. This spread over a 40-year period is one example of how resilient and adaptable hares are. They resilience and adaptability is why you can often find them in even ‘lizard country’ (i.e. the driest and poorly vegetated State forests).
There is plenty of information on the web about hares, so I will not waste words describing them here. What I will say, and it is related to stalking them, is that they are different to rabbits. Hares do not live in warrens – they live above ground in shallow depressions of ground called a ‘form’. They are also solitary animals though I have met four or five hares in a group running around in the early morning. While rabbits prefer very open and sandy country, hares will live quite happily in forested areas. Having said this, I usually find them close to fringe country rather than deep in the forest.
There are four things I keep in mind if I am in hare country. First, hare droppings pile up on the ground in one spot in the same way as rabbit droppings do. The difference however is that hare droppings are bigger, and the droppings are not around burrows or warrens. I am therefore always on the lookout for their droppings as that is I when I know it is ‘game on.’ Second, choose the right caliber of gun. Ideally one would have a combination gun: one barrel a .410 or 20 gauge and the other a .22. Such a combination permits you to shoot at a bolting hare as well as a feeding hare. I must rely on my .22 Blazer as that is all I usually carry when stalking small game. Carrying the .22 has meant however that I don’t shoot at running hares as I am not convinced that my shot would be ethical. On ammo, I have only used hollow points that have at least 40grns. These are tough animals, so I have not used subsonic ammunition on them. Third, is camouflage and keeping movement and sound down to a minimum. I wear my best camouflage and stalk as silently as possible. Fourth, a good set of binoculars to glass with. This is essential in forested areas as you are trying to pick up shades of difference in the undergrowth. Picking up a hare without it moving in the bush is difficult. Remember they are generally solitary animals so you are sometimes looking for the equivalent of a needle in a hay stack.
While it is true that hunting hare in paddocks can be fun, hunting them in forested areas, even lizard country, adds an extra dimension of challenge. First, they are so well camouflaged in the bush that it is difficult to see them. This is especially the case because they will freeze if they feel threatened. I don’t know how many times I have jumped in fright as a hare has bolted from under my feet because of the combination of freezing and camouflage has meant that I have not seen it. I have often wondered why on some occasions I can walk up to a hare before it bolts and on other occasions it is off and running by the time I get to about 20 meters from it. I have no answer, but it is one facet of stalking them that is challenging. Hence, if you can pick them up early by glassing them you set yourself up for success to take a rifle shot.
Another factor that makes hunting hares exciting in forested areas is that, if they are not frozen to avoid detection, they are always on the move. Their movements along a game trail, or an open part of the forest, reminds of the song from the Rocky Horror Show: ‘it is a jump to the left and then a step to the right’. I have seen them jump mid-stride when running at full speed and I have read that one of the reasons for doing so is to throw whatever is chasing them off the scent track. They will stop to browse and that is when you must be ready to take the shot. You might have the opportunity to take a stable position, or often as not, you will need to fire off-hand.
Some of the hares I have shot have been on game trails. They, like most animals, seem to prefer to move along predetermined tracks that makes traversing ground easier for them. Hence, I pay attention to glassing along game trails in the hope that I spot one. Let me digress here for a moment to describe one occasion of watching a hare being stalked by a fox. It was quite a mesmerizing affair as the hare bolted once it was aware of the danger. The fox tried to give chase but the hare by weaving in and out of the bush won the day. I had my .22 with me but could not bring myself to take the shot on either animal as I felt they both deserved to live another day for the show they put on for me.
I have only seen hare feeding in early mornings or late evenings – usually just before last light. On a frosty morning, I have always managed to find them out in the sun trying to warm up. Hence my stalks are set up for that time. Glassing the sunny spots on frosty days does assist in being successful.
After taking the shot, keep an eye on the hare. They are tough animals and can run some distance even with a heart/lung shot. I have shot a hare in the heart/lung area and seen it run for some meters before collapsing. In forested areas it will be difficult to find the hare if it runs after the shot, so you might need to do a follow up shot quickly.
Once shot I keep the pelt, and have it tanned. Hare pelt is wonderfully soft, and it looks beautiful with the mixture of grey, white, and black. Make sure that you turn the ears for salting otherwise you will suffer hair slippage.
As for cooking hare meat, most people I have spoken to tell me it is rubbish! I disagree, because in my way it is all about how you cook it and what you serve it with. For example, I take the backstraps and slice them thinly for frying. I then serve them on a platter with some soft cheese and crackers. The combination of game, soft cheese and a dry Riesling complement each other perfectly.
So here are my top five hints about stalking hares:
If possible have a combination gun. Otherwise, use a .22 for the challenge.
Stalk early morning and late evening. This is the time they are most active.
Camouflage yourself well.
Glass and glass some more. If you have seen fresh sign, a hare is around.
Be ready to shoot as soon as the hare pauses. This might mean being prepared to shoot off the shoulder.