It was balmy, almost spring-like in the low country of West Virginia. But at 4,500 feet elevation in the rugged Allegheny Mountains a foot of snow covered the ground. Winds gusting to 40 mph barreled across the ridges and a chilling mixture of sleet and snow pelted our bodies.
Snowshoe hare sign was abundant, though, and soon Bob Beahm’s skilled beagles were hot on the trail of a bounding white rabbit. We spread out in the dense red spruce forest, waiting silently and watching for the hare to circle.
Luck was on my side this day and eventually I spotted him, padding cautiously through the woods beneath the green spruce boughs. He looked larger than his three to four pounds as he hopped through the forest on his outsized feet.
Taking aim nervously with the side-by-side, I squeezed the trigger and was soon feeling the soft fur and admiring the beauty of our first snowshoe hare of the day.
High on the peaks of West Virginia’s tallest mountains, in the Monongahela National Forest, another world awaits the outdoors adventurer. The climate here at elevations above 4,000 feet is rated identical to that found along the United States-Canadian border in the northern Adirondack Plateau of upper New York.
In summer, hiking, trout fishing and collecting wild huckleberries are popular pastimes in this land, which seems like a piece of northern Canada miraculously transplanted to the Mountain State.
In the winter, the highest peaks are locked in with heavy snow. Ten feet per year is average, and drifts that can bury a truck are commonplace.
This is the time of the snowshoe hare. Normally thought of as a game animal of the Midwest, Canada and New England, the snowshoe thrives in the highest peaks of West Virginia’s mountains. And it’s here that Bob Beahm and a small group of hare hunters pursue their white quarry.
Formerly an elementary school principal, Beahm gave that job up to devote himself to selling hunting equipment and guiding trout fishermen and snowshoe hare and woodcock hunters. He has been pursuing them for over four decades and has lost none of his enthusiasm in that time.
Hunting starts in fall, but some of the best sport actually takes place late in the season, in December, January and February.
Plant life in the Monongahela is typical of the far North. There are vast stands of red spruce, and that provides ample cover for the hares along with rhododendron, laurel and high bush cranberry.
Getting into these high elevations with spruce cover in the public hunting lands of the Monongahela is the first step towards bagging a snowshoe. The second is locating fresh tracks.
Hares tend to beat down regular “runways” and if you find those, you know you’ve struck pay dirt. Keep hunting that area and search for even fresher individual feeding tracks, then get ready.
You can hunt hares three ways. The first is to simply slip through their habitat, either alone or with a friend, moving very slowly. Try to spot the animals ahead of time and shoot them before they move.
The second method is to put on a group push or jump hunt them. Spread out 30- to 50 yards apart and work through prime areas with lots of fresh sign. Keep in contact through occasional calls or whistles.
If you kick up a hare, alert others to where it’s headed. Station one or two hunters where it jumped up and have another person follow the hare’s tracks. Often it will circle back past the waiting hunters near its original location.
This is essentially the same tactic used for the third and best approach of all. Only in this case, dogs join in and do the chasing, singing a merry tune as they go. Both beagles and bassets can be used.
Once the hounds locate a hare, the party spreads out in a line or arc covering the areas where the snowshoe jumped and 50- to 75 yards in either direction. Also have a hunter cover any nearby established runways.
Listen carefully for the hounds drawing closer and watch intensely. Sometimes you won’t see one, but two or three hares headed your way! Patience and silence are essential at this point, or the quarry may flare and take an even wider circle.
Hares aren’t hard to bring down, and a few experts, such as Beahm, even hunt them with .410’s, taking only head shots. I prefer the coverage of a thicker pattern and use a 16- or 20-gauge, but a 12-gauge is not out of place either. Size 4, 5 or 6 shot will work, with an improved cylinder or modified choke.
For more information on hunting in the Mountain State and accommodations, contact the West Virginia Division of Tourism, 800/CALL-WVA or www.callwva.com. For guided hunts, Bob Beahm can be reached at 304-636-6294. He also guides for grouse and woodcock earlier in the fall.
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