Photo by Polly Dean.
Alabama is blessed with many other hunting opportunities in addition to those for deer and turkeys. Although the big-game species like deer and turkeys receive a lion’s share of the attention, the Cotton State’s small-game hunting is excellent and for the most part underutilized.
Although budding hunters now often jump right into spending time in the deer and turkey woods, this hasn’t always been the case. Before the resounding successes in re-establishing and rebuilding deer and turkey populations, small-game species like rabbits, squirrels and quail were what most hunters went afield in search of. Small-game hunting wasn’t just a sport, but also a way to put food on the table. Many hunters kept a few hounds or bird dogs, and many winter afternoons were spent with friends and families stomping through the brush with scattergun at the ready, watching the dogs work a hot scent.
In those days, many people could and did hunt right out their back door. For youngsters just starting to bloom into avid hunters, even the few hours of weak winter light following the school day offered the opportunity to turn the dogs loose for a quick hunt before supper and homework had to be attended to.
As times and attitudes have changed over the years, those opportunities have become more limited. However, there still is no better way to introduce youngsters to the sport of hunting than by pursuing small game. Unlike big-game hunting, a large time investment isn’t required to ensure success, shooting opportunities abound, and the woodsmanship skills learned pursuing small game can be utilized throughout a lifetime spent in the woods.
Let’s take a look at how Alabama small-game species are doing and some of the best places to hunt them this season. Depending on your quarry and with a little asking around, small-game hunting can be found nearly anywhere, but to keep things simple, the focus will be on public-land hunting opportunities.
There are 36 wildlife management areas across the state containing more than 760,924 acres. The WMAs are operated by the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and provide valuable public access for hunting and other recreational activities. Hunting, fishing, camping and other permitted uses vary from area to area. Be sure to double-check the regulations for any last-minute changes before planning your Alabama WMA hunting trip.
Rabbits are one of the most popular small-game species and offer great hunting opportunities. Serious rabbit hunters head afield with a pack of beagles to help flush the critters from the thick cover and bring them around for a shot. But some success can be had just walking them up yourself, if you are willing to plow through the thickest briar patch you can find. Use a stop-and-go gait that will test the nerves of even the most well hidden rabbit.
Quick reflexes are a must to get off a shot at a rabbit suddenly exploding from thick cover on afterburners and looking for a safer place to hide.
The Eastern cottontail rabbit is found throughout most of Alabama. Swamp rabbits, marsh rabbits and the New England cottontail are also found in Alabama, but the Eastern cottontail is the most abundant and widely distributed. Its adaptability to a variety of habitats and high reproductive capability makes it an important game species in Alabama.
As veteran hunters already know, the rabbit is primarily known as an “edge” species. An edge species prefers the area where two or more different habitat types meet, for example, where field meets forest.
The typical cottontail spends its entire life within an area of about 10 acres. Brushy fencerows and thickets, hayfields, wetland edges, young pine stands, thinned mature pine stands, and ditch banks are all prime rabbit habitats. Good cover may be the greatest single factor that can affect rabbit populations, since a rabbit on open ground is an easy dinner for predators. Also, cover also meets the essentials of feeding, nesting and protection from cold winter weather.
The answer to the question of the best public hunting land for rabbits is relatively simple. Virtually all WMAs offer at least some opportunity. Since rabbits prefer early succession habitat, getting in touch with the local experts can point you to these regions on the WMAs. Contact the regional DWFF office and ask which WMAs in your area they recommend based on current management strategies. Areas dominated by mature stands of timber are going to be lower on the list, while areas that have more early-succession habitat are going to be the best hunting.
Squirrels are probably the most common game species in Alabama. If you can reach down, pick up a stick and throw it in a forested area, chances are you could hit a squirrel tree. Anywhere there are trees, there are squirrels, whether that is a downtown park or the most rugged portion of the Sipsey Wilderness Area.
Two species of squirrels in Alabama are of interest to hunters. The gray squirrel is the most common. It is a medium-sized squirrel covered with gray hairs that are white at the tips. Its back and neck are a darker gray with a white or lighter gray along the belly. The tail is long, flat and bushy.
The gray squirrel prefers oak and hickory forests, often mixed with pines and other hardwoods. They commonly eat acorns, hickory nuts, pine seeds and fruits.
Gray squirrels spend most of their time in the relative safety of the treetops unless gathering food or engaging in mating chases, especially in the early morning and late evening when they are most active.
Another squirrel species of interest to Alabama hunters is the fox squirrel. A little larger than grays, the fox squirrel weighs approximately 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. The color of their coats varies, but is usually some variation on rusty yellow with gray along the back and neck. The belly is mostly a pale yellow to orange and the feet and nose are a yellowish-brown to rusty orange. In some areas of the state, this species can be black or silver.
The fox squirrel prefers upland forests of predominately open stands of oak, hickory and mixtures of pine and hardwoods. Interestingly, fox squirrels are less agile climbers than gray squirrels and spend much more time on the ground, especially during their prime activity times of midmorning and midday to late afternoo
The key factor to hunting success is mast. Finding a good stand of producing hickory or oak trees can make for a limit of squirrels without ever leaving your spot.
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