Monday, February 09, 2009

Choir Bells From A Cedar Swamp


The sounds came drifting through the cedar swamp like choir bells on Sunday morning. Three golden-tongued beagles were hot on the trail of a snowshoe hare, and the white swamp ghost was giving them a hard run on that winter day.

We’d walked into the swamp before the snow got all crusty, and although snowshoe hare numbers are down in the northern Lower Peninsula, we found several tracks. The dogs snuffled deep of hare scent in each track, and with a bellow that seemed to shake snow off the thick cover, away they went.

The chase was underway, and this hunt was more to listen to the deep bawls, the tenor yodeling bark of another hound and the steady chop of our strike dog. The cold trailer led the other hounds for 200 yards, and a minute later the beagles picked up the intensity of their barking.

A hare was up and running, and the hounds passed within 50 yards of me but the snow made that hare impossible to see. The cedars were heavily laden with snow, and seeing a white-on-white hare moving through the snow can be exceptionally difficult.

I moved over that way, cut the tracks, and stood by with a double-barrel Lefever 20 gauge. The other hunters were not in position yet, and the hare avoided any human contact. Ten minutes later the bawls and chops had turned and were heading back my way once more, and I knew the dogs could be sight running the hare or be 500 yards behind.

The hare blasted through a narrow opening 20 yards away, stopped behind a cedar to look back, and there wasn’t enough of the animal visible to shoot at. The hare wheeled, and disappeared following his original circle. Minutes later a shotgun coughed once 300 yards away through the swamp, and then the hounds fell silent.

We’d bagged one of the hares, and we’d already determined that no more than two hares would be taken from this spot. The hounds cast about for five minutes in search of another hare track, and then they jumped another snowie that had been pushed into moving from one area to another by all of the commotion.

Away went the hounds, inhaling snowshoe hare scent like a Hoover vacuum sucking up dirt. We stood, quietly talking as the hare led the dogs on a long oval loop, and a short time later we could hear the bell-like sounds of hound music heading our way.

We hurried to take our positions, and this hare sneaked past all of us, and then the white hare seemed to lengthen his stride. He took the hounds out of hearing, and 20 minutes later we were trying to cut the last set of tracks that had circled past us, and took up our positions once again.

Hare hunting is usually done in tight quarters where visibility often is measured in feet rather than yards, and we try to find a place where we can see for 10 to 20 yards. I was closest to it, and the dogs were still 200 yards away when I barely saw puffs of snow flying into the air.

The satchel-footed hare was by me and heading toward another hunter. I whistled loudly to alert the sportsman, but this hare was past him before he could raise his shotgun. The beagles dashed by, looking sideways as if to ask why I didn’t shoot, and they too disappeared through the snow beneath the cedars.

Again, the snowshoe hare managed to elude us, and his circle again took the hounds out of hearing. It wasn’t long before we could hear the chops and yelps of the hounds heading our way. I moved 30 yards, took up a different position as I’m certain the others were doing, and waited patiently.

The dogs seemed to be within 50 yards when the hare burst out around a low-growing cedar just 10 yards away. He stopped, turned to look back at the trailing hounds, and one shot ended that chase.

We caught up the dogs, put them on leashes, and decided to try another location. We try not to hunt the same snowshoe hare area twice in a year.

The second location showed a few tracks but nothing was fresh. The dogs couldn’t pull enough scent from the track for them to follow, and we decided that two hours of listening to a mix of happy yelps of 13-inch beagles is just about as good as a winter day can get.

We ended the day with two snowshoe hares, and countless memories of the happy sounds of a small beagle pack and the mad dashes of snowshoe hares. This is a pastime where, if a hunter desires, the hares can be passed up in favor of listening to continuous hound music.

To me, even though I did shoot a hare, the sounds of winter silence are best broken only by dog music. It reaches right down into my soul, and gives me ample reason to be standing knee-deep in a cedar swamp on a cold winter day.

It gives me something wonderful to look forward to each winter. A white hare on white snow can be tricky to spot, but if the truth be known, hound music and feeling snow fall down our neck is why we hunt these animals. Taking one or two snowies is important for the hounds, and in many ways, it helps seal our fate for future hunts.

Posted by Dave Richey on 02/09 at 08:20 PM
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