When Virginia’s big-game season ends the first Saturday in January every year, I always feel a mixture of sadness and joy — the former because it will be many months before I can pursue whitetails again, the latter because it is now time to chase after squirrels, rabbits and grouse.
For example, last year on the second Saturday in January, I spent the morning doing various chores around the house, but by afternoon I was ready to revel in the outdoor experience. Bringing along a book I had wanted to read and my 20-gauge autoloader, I merely walked out the back door of my family’s Botetourt County home and headed for the 29-acre wood lot that surrounds our house.
One of my favorite places to squirrel hunt on any Old Dominion parcel in January is where a hardwood cove abuts a pine or cedar grove. At this time of year, the acorns are typically gone, and both gray and fox squirrels tend to forage in edge habitat such as this. As I entered the cove, I spooked several squirrels despite my best attempt at still-hunting.
No matter, as I knew if I settled down against a tree, activity levels would soon return to normal. About 45 minutes after I nestled against a red cedar — and after I had read some 20 pages (in between periodic scans of the woods) — I observed a fox squirrel foraging in the forest duff some 60 yards away.
For nearly a half hour, I watched the reddish orange creature feeding randomly through the woods and finally it came to within about 30 yards of my position. Setting aside the book, I put on my hearing protection muffs and waited for the squirrel to come within that 20-yard mark that almost always guarantees an easy shot. The squirrel then took a notion to climb a red oak and when the animal moved over to the side of the tree, facing me, I dropped it. Sunday for lunch, after the critter had simmered for five hours in a crock-pot, squirrel with peas, carrots, and other vegetables was a satisfying entrĂ©e.
On the third Saturday in January, it was time to pursue cottontails. Friend Paul Hinlicky of Catawba and I drove to Craig County where we took pleasure in a morning of brush busting without dogs. We kicked red cedar piles, rambled through an unkempt field, braved a briar patch, and ended up checking out an overgrown fencerow. No bunnies were seen, but we had a grand time.
On the fourth Saturday of the initial month, some friends and I headed for the mountains of Botetourt to grouse hunt. Predictably, given my legendarily slow reflexes and tendency to be always out of position when a fool hen flies, I was never even able to mount the 20 gauge when the three birds that we did find flushed. This was true even though the dogs I was following did all they could to locate and point the trio.
Partway through our expedition through second-growth forest, upland creek coves, and rhododendron and laurel-infested finger ridges, my group came across a quartet of hunters from Franklin County. Among them was Jimmy Amos, a paramedic from Rocky Mount, who proudly showed us a ruff that he had shot earlier in the day. What was very impressive was that the Franklin four were hunting sans dogs, depending on their leg locomotion and knowledge of grouse habitat to find birds. Enviously, I took pictures of the successful Amos.
Three straight weekends, three different small-game animals pursued — that’s a wonderful way to enjoy Virginia January Saturdays.
A fascinating aspect of January hunting is how Virginians go about pursuing small game. Amos told me that his basic approach is for him and his friends to move slowly through dense habitat, stopping often when they reach particularly birdy cover.
Joe Trickey, who lives and hunts in Southside Virginia, likes to spend his winter Saturdays going after bunnies.
“My dad and I find most of our rabbits in cutovers and it seems the populations can be spotty,” Trickey said. “For example, we may hunt one farm and not jump that many but go two miles down the road and find plenty of rabbits. We have a lot of predators here, and they make it hard for rabbits to survive.
“My dad, who is 65, talks a lot about the old glory days of rabbit hunting when he could easily jump 16 to 20 rabbits a day. I have hunting buddies who still do this, but it is on very exclusive private farms. My dad cares very little about eating a rabbit since he is all about hearing the dogs run, and I feel the same way. My dad is happy if he hears a good chase and we may kill one or two per day.”
Dr. Carol Croy, forest wildlife biologist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF), offers this insight not only for hunting grouse in the national forest but also on private land.
“Ruffed grouse in the Appalachians are found in two distinctive forest types: mixed mesophytic (plants that do well when receiving at least average amounts of rainfall) and oak-hickory (typically dry) forests,” Croy said. “Mixed mesophytic forests are found in regions with higher annual rainfall, the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia, far southwestern Virginia, and along the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
“These areas are often characterized as having cherry, birch and an abundance of herbaceous plants supporting insects. Oak-hickory forests are usually found in the drier regions of the Appalachians and are the dominant forest type in most of western Virginia.”
Croy relates that on mixed mesophytic sites, grouse home ranges overall tend to be smaller and more centralized around high stem density habitats, like those found in clearcuts from four to 20 years in age. On oak-hickory sites, home ranges tend to be larger overall and have a distinct seasonal shift. During the day, grouse frequent riparian areas, access roads and hollows with water. In the winter during the day, the birds especially prefer stands of rhododendron for foraging. Then to roost, grouse move upslope to ridges with mountain laurel thickets.
“If I were hunting for grouse in Virginia, I would need to know what type of forest I was hunting in, whether it is mixed mesophytic or oak hickory,” continued Croy. “That would help me to decide what my hunting strategy would be. If I were hunting in mixed mesophytic forest types, then the more traditional grouse hunting strategy of concentrating around timber cuts should be the best way to find grouse.
“But if I were in the drier oak-hickory forest type, I would focus on access roads, riparian areas and mesic (wet) hollows with rhododendron thickets, within a mile radius from either a 4- to -20-year-old (clearcut) or prescribed burned or wildfire area, that has patches of early successional habitat. The access roads, riparian areas and mesic hollows would be the best places to find grouse during the day.
“I would then switch to access roads farther upslope in the late afternoon, as grouse are traveling from their foraging areas to roost sites on the mid to upper slopes and ridgetops. Access roads mid slope would also be good to hunt first thing in the mornings, as grouse are heading down from their night roost areas to their foraging areas down slope.”