BANGOR, Maine — The forest on the outskirts of the state’s third-largest city was dead quiet as large, feathery, wet snowflakes fell lazily, enveloping us in that comforting silence you only seem to find in special, wooded spaces.
Then, distantly, the sound we had been waiting to hear echoed through the trees: two voices, instantly identifiable, letting us know our wait soon would be over.
A beagle named Chum, assertive and loud, began to bay. A moment later, his hunting partner, Scrap, joined in with a softer, more raspy howl but just as eager to run.
The hounds found a snowshoe hare. The hunt was on.
Jim Fahey, an off-duty Maine game warden, agreed to take me and BDN visuals editor Brian Feulner on a snowshoe hare hunt and left us on a trail before leading his beagles into a spot he knew might harbor hares.
Dense thickets dominated one side of the clearing. “That’s what I’d call a hiding cover,” Fahey told us. On the other side, up a gradual hill, was a more recently cut stand of trees filled with raspberry and blackberry stalks: hare chow.
“When you have a food source next to a hiding cover, that makes a pretty good combination,” Fahey said.
And he’s right.
Before long, a potential target appears, albeit briefly. A blur of high-speed hare, off-white and in a hurry, vaults across the trail and vanishes into the woods on the other side.
A minute and a half later, Chum and Scrap show up, still baying, still working, still eager to find the source of the scent they’ve been tracking. The short-legged dogs struggle through deep snow, their snouts disappearing into the footprints the hurried hare left behind.
The dogs don’t notice us and continue their pursuit. They’ve got work to do. And they’ll be back. You can count on that.
“Contrary to what people may think who hear that the dogs brought the rabbits back, they don’t,” Fahey explained earlier. “The dogs don’t do that. They are not collies or herders. They can only track and trail the rabbit by scent — occasionally by sight, but seldom.”
Instead, hare hunters rely on the predictability of the hare itself. The beagles invaded its home territory. After fleeing, the hare is likely to return to the cover it was in before. That makes hunting more predictable, if no less challenging.
“The hare tends to do the circling in its home range, and as the dogs follow, it reveals where the rabbit’s been. And you can kind of predict where it’s going, based on the track it’s taken [already],” Fahey said. “It’s all about setting up an ambush while the dogs track and trail. They’re barking, which of course reveals where the chase starts, and you can predict what’s going to happen next.”
Here’s what happens next: Fahey listens to the dogs — a barking beagle is on a track, while a silent one is seeking scent — and determines which way the hare is running.
Then he scrambles, sprinting silently in monstrous Iverson snowshoes that keep him above 3 feet of powder to a likely spot, where he tromps down the snow, tells shooters where they might see the hare and begins peering into the underbrush.
Several times, the hare darted across the trail. Fewer times, all three of us saw our potential target at the same time. Only once did anyone get a shot off at our speedy target.
Of course, filling a tag or shooting game is only part of the equation. Watching Chum and Scrap work was the highlight of the trip. And Fahey said the beagles weren’t offended because nobody cashed in after their hard work.
“They’re very forgiving that way,” Fahey said. “They keep their nose down and go right back to work.”
And misses are part of the game, Fahey told us. At times, he has made difficult shots on running hare look easy. Just as often, he said, he has made easy shots look impossible.
That’s just the way it goes, when you spend 30 years pursuing hares behind loyal dogs — even if those first dogs weren’t even yours.
“In the mid-1980s, when I was in high school, John Stubbs was the baseball coach [at Bangor High]. John’s family, he and his father, had always had hunting dogs,” Fahey said, explaining how he came to love the activity.
“By the time I was a senior or a freshman in college, he’d let me come borrow the dog, just like a library book,” he said.
In the late 1990s, Fahey bought a beagle of his own. That dog, an accomplished hunter named Guy, was his constant companion in the woods until its death last year.
“He was a good cold-weather dog,” Fahey said. “He wasn’t the prettiest beagle. He wouldn’t have won the Westminster Dog Show or anything like that — he had kind of crooked legs and kind of a pointy nose. But hey, what the heck? He could run a rabbit, and he could do it in cold weather.”
Now, the heavy sniffing is done by Chum and Scrap, low-riding hare hounds that have proven up to the task.
“Chum is a little younger, a little faster and right now, weight-wise, he’s a little lighter,” Fahey said.
That makes Scrap older, slower and fatter. But that’s OK with his owner. When it comes to the key trait his beagles must have, Scrap stands alone.
“Scrap, I would give credit for having the better nose of the two,” Fahey said. “Chum can do it. He’s done it in the cold weather. But on a real cold day, when [there’s] extra breeze or crusty conditions, there are times when Scrap will open and bark on scent that Chum doesn’t even process yet.”
The two work as a pair, and team up to find the hares. Sometimes, Chum’s barking signaled the beginning of another pursuit. Other times, Scrap’s raspy, quieter voice would announce the discovery of fresh scent.
Then the hunters would scramble to a new spot, set up and wait.
After three hours in the woods, Fahey declared the hunt a success, even though nobody left with the makings of a stew.
“I like [hare hunting] because every hunt has the potential to be its own little adventure,” he said. “No two hunts tend to be the same.”
Fahey said those hunts, which have been less frequent this winter because of deep, powdery snow that makes it impossible for the short-legged beagles to make their way through the woods, are all special.
“I would always say, no matter what happens with the hunt, you can almost be guaranteed of fresh air and exercise,” he said. “And that’s pretty good on a winter day in Maine.”