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How to Hunt Snowshoe Hare with a Versatile Hunting Dog

How to Hunt Snowshoe Hare with a Versatile Hunting Dog

A snowshoe hare in thick cover.

Experimenting with ideas of hunting snowshoe hare with pointing dogs.

This is an open call to all of us who have intentionally targeted rabbits and hares with versatile hunting dogs. It goes down in the record to say that I have contacted, spoken to, and unsuccessfully asked several professional gun dog trainers about this forgotten art and came up empty-handed. Answers ranged from “Why would you do that?” to “You will regret letting your dog do that” to “Who knows?” But here is what has come of my own experiments in hunting rabbits with a pointing dog.

Why Would You Hunt Snowshoe Hare with a Versatile Hunting Dog?

Well, they were technically bred to do it, for starters. But past the history of the breeding that seems to be forgotten in the modern era there are some good reasons. One is simple: there are those of us who love rabbit meat. Growing up in an Italian-American family, Cacciatore was in fact made with rabbit, not chicken. Spend some time in the North End of Boston and you’ll discover plenty of side street establishments that offer up dishes of rabbit in all sorts of Italian fashion. A fine meat also forgotten in the modern era.

Past that it becomes all about opportunity. As ruffed grouse season closes where I live, the snowshoe hare season just keeps on going and going–months after that last upland game bird can be hunted. It is something worthwhile to do to break up that cabin fever and find an excuse to go for a walk with the dog.

Hunting Tactics for Snowshoe Hare with a Versatile Hunting Dog

I tried to read the playbook. Tried to call the experts. Turns out there seems to be neither of those things in America when it comes to hunting rabbits with a versatile breed. In my case, it’s my Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Grim, and my experience at a younger age hunting with Sicilian immigrants with friends and family in Cape Cod. But those were beagles, not pointing dogs.

In the perfect world of training a good versatile pointing dog, you want them to stop on first scent. That we all agree upon. Then some of us want a dog with the knowledge to re-position itself as necessary with running birds, old scent, and whatnot, until they arrive at the spot where it takes the hunter walking the bird up as the dog stays on point. Others want to be the ones to release the dog either by command or tapping on the head. Depends on your school of thought. Insert all arguments here on deaf ears as it all comes down to a matter of personal choice.

Grim and I fall somewhere in here. Who knows? We are both learning, but for the most part I know that when he is truly confident in the scent he will not move a single muscle unless I speak the word “release” or the bird flushes. Yes, he is only steady to flush.

This past season I found myself wandering a little further off a woodcock cover and into a snowshoe hare cover as a glimpse of fur flashed after a point Grim did not even want to release from. “Why not?” I thought. Already had two woodcock in the bag and I had only moved one grouse. And there was a ticking time clock reminding me I had to meet a friend in less than an hour.

As we penetrated the thick young wall of fir, I stuck to the old uneven tote roads that webbed through the cover in seemingly random order. Then Grim went on point not 10 yards from me. I knelt down and looked under the firs, seeing him unwavering just off the trail. I managed to get close and nothing happened. No hare, no birds. Once I got some distance ahead of Grim, he moved again. We repeated this interaction a couple more times with no success.

“I cannot walk these things up,” I thought to myself as if I were absent-minded to even think it. “We need to do this in as close a fashion to a beagle as possible.”

And so goes at least one way I managed to successfully and intentionally hunt rabbits with my pointing dog. He went on point, I quickly positioned myself in a nice shooting lane, and then said, “Release.” He broke his point on the other side of a wall of fir that I am sure I never could have gone through. Again he pointed, and again I said, “Release.” After the third try and his bell rang closer and closer, a snowshoe hare hopped out into my narrow shooting window in perfect beagle hunting fashion. Mystery solved.

Why You May Regret Hunting Snowshoe Hare with Your Versatile Hunting Dog

Yes, I may regret it for the time being, but I am still not sold that it is not worth it. Or that I am doing it right. Not to downplay those chance encounters as they are very welcomed and I do not regret all the rabbits shot over my dog by chance. I often found myself close to ideal snowshoe hare habitat right next to my favorite grouse and woodcock covers which, incidentally, often overlap. Not that young fir is the only place to find snowshoe hare, something which seems impossible to penetrate, and for the most part is void of upland birds–but it often holds that furry surprise.

This was the year I decided to intentionally spend some time hunting hare rather than just chance encounters while out bird hunting. While I spent the next couple weeks deep in logging country of northern New England, I broke up our pursuit of grouse with snowshoe hare. For the most part, the American woodcock were nowhere to be found.

Then a migration of my favorite birds–those timberdoodles–came pilling into our covers. This is where the cracks began to show. The first day Grim was somewhat steady. In fact, at one point he held for a solid 10 minutes as a couple hunters closed their way in further away. Three birds got up and one fell. But by the end of that day, Grim decided he was going to start getting the woodcock for himself.

Now let me rewind. Grim is three and each year we have a healthy day of “Dad, I’m going to flush the birds myself!” and me being like “No, you will not!” followed by picking him up and dropping him back at the original point. He hates being picked up and you can watch him relearn his pointing instincts in the film First Season. Mark Fouts of the Ruffed Grouse Society was the first person to teach me this trick. And it worked like a charm, often only taking a few broken points a season to work it out.

But this time, this year was bad. With flights of birds upon us, we scored 18 points on woodcock including multiple birds on sets that day. Grim broke on 17 of them. And on 17 of them I never fired a shot, picking him up and re-positioning him and trying again and again. On the 18th point with a couple hours of light left, he finally held for me to walk the point out and the bird fell on my first shot.

There was a filmmaker with me that day; yes, most of those breaks and corrections are now archived in useless Project Upland footage. Maybe not useless, but we do not need to see it that many times (at least I would rather not). As I put the bird in my pack he said, “Well, it worked out. Let’s find some more!”

There is something to be said about ending on a high note. Not just in bird dog training but in all parts of life, just ask the directors of Game of Thrones. We turned back and headed to the truck. The day was done. My sanity could not handle another break after that long day.

You must be asking yourself: Why does this snowshoe hare article include a book about woodcock breaks? Maybe it’s just my brain going back to the words of the trainers who said I would regret my rabbit adventures. But I seemed to want to lend credence to that disastrous run of breaking on these furry critters and my reckless “release” after “release” with no real structure to a normal bird interaction. For now he’s steady to flush again, and as we start chasing woodcock south I feel confident it was just a stubborn dog on a bad day. But I don’t feel like I will not pursue rabbits in the same fashion again. In fact for the sake of knowledge and learning, I feel I’m obligated to try the experiment a few more times to see if Grim’s novel experiences with hunting fur carry over to unsteady behavior when switching back to birds.

For those of you in the audience who intentionally pursue rabbit and hare with versatile hunting dogs, we would love to hear your tactics and begin to build a new archive of hunting rabbits with pointing dogs in North America.

View Comments (12)
  • I have no issues with rabbit hunting with my “bird dogs”. Same goes for squirrels. Where I am from if you are only going to be a purist bird hunter you are either going to spend a lot of money on released birds or take your gun for a lot of long walks and not need to swab out the barrel. Most of my rabbit hunting was simply ones that held tight for the point and I got in front and “flushed” it. I had one cautious female Brit that work the track slow after I released her, never getting close enough to establish point again, while I stood still and waited for it to come around, just like with beagle. Our rabbit population is low enough now opportunities are pretty rare anymore.

  • Can’t wait to see the update! My small munsterlander and I were hiking the grouse woods yesterday in MN in fresh show cover, and there were rabbit tracks everywhere. Now, had we seen some grouse to distract me I would’ve let it go, but all the tracks seemed to be taunting me. I tried to find some articles about using a versatile dog to find rabbits but came up empty. Looking forward to reading more, A.J.!

  • Never!! We don’t have snowshoe hares in Arizona, but we have both bunnies (cotton tails) and jack rabbits. I learned on my first GSP years ago, that the breed loves to chase rabbits and that they do not distinguish between bunnies and jacks. I also learned that bunnies will run out there a short distance and then try to circle back toward their starting point. Jacks, however, will run over the horizon. GSPs chasing rabbits will follow without regard for proximity to their master.

    I hunt quail in Arizona and chukar/huns in Idaho and Eastern Oregon. I learned that chasing after a GSP that has taken off after a jack is not a pleasant break from the bird hunting routine. Consequently, I had to convince my first bird dog, and all subsequent GSPs, that rabbits of all varieties can literally shoot lightning bolts out of their rears (thanks to the marvels of electric training collars) and should be strictly avoided. This same approach is used to discourage interest in rattlesnakes, javilina, porcupines, and other animals not on the approved list of quarry.

    I like to hunt bunnies and they are great eating. If there were no jack rabbits, I’d consider shooting some of the bunnies we typically encounter. However, if you shoot something in front of your bird dog, in their mind you’ve just added that species to the approved quarry list.

  • I shoot incidental cotton tails over my shorthairs when I get the chance. They will retrieve it then get right back to the birds. Here in Washington state, rabbit season lasts another two months after all upland species close. I would be very interested in training my dogs to track rabbits, considering adding a pair of beagles to the pack

  • Glad you wrote this. I have encountered similar reactions from others when asking about hunting rabbits with my small munsterlanders. I run my dogs through the german (jghv) tests, and rabbits are a part of the track and drag testing. But even in that crowd I don’t find too many folks that actually hunt rabbits with their dogs. I enjoy doing it, and it has been trial and error. I have found that, rather than continuing to release the dog, I leave her on point, I circle the dog, walking around to about 25-50 yards in front of the point, continuing to reposition and then standing still for a while. I find the rabbits eventually tend to run if you wait. If, on the other hand they have already run, the dog eventually relocates as if tracking a running bird. I also find that the rabbit often will break while the dog is on a track but before the dog reaches the scent cone and a point. On those, I will take a shot on the wild flush if safe — the dog gets a retrieve, and possible a wounded rabbit chase as well. For me, a dog pointing a rabbit or hare, or chasing same, while bird hunting is an occasional distraction, but worth it for those days when we choose to hunt rabbits or a mixed bag. Thanks again for the article and for Project Upland.

  • I also hunt snowshoe hare with my Griffon to extend my hunting season in Nova Scotia. Like you I could find no information about how the hunt should go. I got lucky and found a study done by a professor from the university of British Columbia on how a snowshoe hare reacts when a predator approaches. They collared wild hare and released them. Knowing where the rabbit had created its form (daytime hangout) they approached the form with a dog on a leash. When the rabbit sensed the dog it left the form and went between 10 and 20 yards and ducked into the best cover it could find after 10 yards. Your dog points the scent from the form, if snow is on the ground you know which direction the rabbit went. At this point you know the rabbit is in that direction at least 10 yards away but not more than 20 yards. Leave the dog on whoa at the form and proceed very slowly in the direction the rabbit took looking ahead for a sitting rabbit. Second option is if you have friends along, leave the dog on point at the form have your friends go 20 yards to the side of the form and 50 yard ahead in the direction the rabbit took, once the friends are in position you walk up the rabbit and somebody on either side will hopefully get a shot when you push the rabbit along. In both cases let the dog make the retrieve that is his reward.

  • Well I’m a lot further south than any snow shoe will ever be, but we hunt swamp rabbits and snipe simultaneously with a boykin and a wachtelhund in the marshes just east of New Orleans. I think spaniels/flushers are a better fit for this task in large tracks of thick cover than pointers are. We have a ton of wild pigs where we hunt and frequently areas torn up by hog rootings are prime sniping grounds but it also means I sure don’t let my dogs try and “circle” rabbits like beagles. My dogs work rabbits the way they do a running bird, frequently a good bit of circling and stopping and waiting for me to catch up ensues before they get the rabbit to break cover. other times the rabbit leaves sight unseen and we just move along to the next quarry. When I suspect the dogs are on a rabbit I will try to anticipate the escape path to the nearest brush/briar thicket and guard it. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. I will say that the reaction of a rabbit to a single quiet dog working its trail isn’t the same as the response to a bawling pack of beagles they tend to creep along till the dog is on them then burst out at maximum speed. In the terrain we hunt the dogs rarely see the rabbits so we don’t get sight chases and most shots are safe unless the rabbit runs from dog A straight to dog B (grrrr). If you are going to hunt bunnies past the bird season remember to give a lot of praise for bird contacts to make up for the lack of shooting and retrieves. I have the same issue with rails since the rail season ends 2 months before rabbit and snipe end. the dogs keep jumping them and I always take a minute to love up the dog after the flush so they know we DO want them to keep hunting them (then again they don’t give up on squirrels and possums around my house and we never shoot those). Dogs can figure out a lot but every layer you add means you need to add a layer of patience as well. My wachtel has done everything for me from blood trailing to retrieving ducks to dispatching vermin to classic upland flushing to literally herding coots out of phragmites for me and creeping ducks at heel. But she does occasionally get her wires crossed about the task at hand or decides that its pointless to guard decoys under empty skies when there are rails calling 50 feet from the blind. If absolute control of your dog is imperative for you then train your dog meticulously as an upland bird dog, if you can sacrifice a little style for fun and meat gathering efficiency than make sure you have good basic obedience on board and let the dog try new things. If you are really serious about bunny training look for a rabbit pen in your area through any local beagle club. These are small acreage enclosure stocked with bunnies for dog training.

  • I find it astounding that so few hunters who run versatile pointers ever take full advantage of the breeds versatility. Reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with a Deustche Drathaar breeder

    “Do you hunt waterfowl with your dogs?”

    “ oh they’re great in the water, they’re coat protects them in freezing temperatures.”
    “ but do you hunt ducks or geese with them?”
    “No, too busy with the trials.”

    “Do you hunt rabbits with your DDs?”
    “ no it distracts them from birds”

    Sound of me slapping my forehead

    To own a versatile breed is to want to utilize it to its full potential, to literally have a dog for all seasons.

    My Deustche Langhaar retrieves doves in early September, hunts pheasants and woodcock in October, sits next to me in a ground blind during deer season , ready to blood track if need be. chases rabbits through the winter and even does the odd night coon hunt.
    If I wanted a specialist, I’d get an English setter. I truly believe the continental versatile pointers are the hunting dog for the modern hunter. Use them to their full purpose.

  • I am not an experienced hunter but from a dog training perspective if the dog is waiting for cues, and self satisfaction is being prevented the dog will continue to hold point regardless of species. Where it can fall apart is if the dog is able to chase after breaking, retrieve or no retrieve.

    I look forward to your experiment continuing,

  • My Brittany growing up would point quail, pheasant, doves and Rabbits. Not knowing if a point would end up running or flying and carrying a single shot 20 was too much fun.

  • I have lived in Alaska for the last five years and my two brittanys and I have totaled 309 snowshoe hares in that time. Before Alaska, they hunted in Missouri, Tennessee and Ohio for quail, pheasants, woodcock, cottontails, squirrels and ducks so they did not “grow up” on hares.

    They will point a hare IF they smell the hare before it moves, but that is a very rare occurrence. Usually hares are bounding in short bursts about 20-30 yards ahead of the dogs without the dogs seeing them. One dog is a big runner who does 100-150 yard cloverleafs around me, yipping when she is pushing a hare. Alerted by the yipping, I run to try to intersect where I think the hare will emerge for a shot. The other brit works the close game around me and ferrets them out of near cover. Between the two, they often create a pincher effect that catches a hare in between, forcing the hare to make bad decisions. Hares are very focused on dogs and sometimes run right into humans for easy shots, but often I run alongside the dogs with them in the brush and me on a trail or frozen river, always maneuvering to maximize shot angles for when they push one. This is very active hunting and nothing like classic cottontails and beagles where the cottontail slowly circles. Hares bolt with a lot of quick, sneaky double-backs, sometimes right by a dog. You have to watch carefully. I have trained them to cast into brush of my choosing and “clear” it before moving on. This is very effective.

    Overall, running hares with them keeps us active September through the end of April, longer than any other season for small game I know of for dogs and I can’t imagine cheating them out of all that activity out of fear for “ruining” them for birds. Just let them hunt!

  • I hunt hares in Alaska with my DD using a couple tactics. If I know there are hares in thick linear cover I’ll down my dog at one end and sneak around to the other end or 100 yards (whichever happens firsts). Then release the dog and he’ll drive the hares past me. I’ll repeat the down stay and do little drives.

    Other times when just moving through cover he’ll point hares if he can pin them down before they jump the first time. If he bumps them and he sees them stop up ahead he’ll slowly stalk/reposition. This change in body language allows me to get ahead and try for a shot. Other times he’ll run them and is loud on sight and a lot of times the hare will circle back for a shot.

    It’s a fun and active hunting style and a nice way to get out when the mountain conditions are poor for ptarmigan.

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