Mississippi'™s Other Hunting

Mississippi'™s Other Hunting

In our rush to the fall and winter deer woods, we too often slight less bulky quarry that can offer up truly worthy sport. Read on for our review of the Magnolia State's small-game action. (January 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

TerryJo's bark was an excited blend of whiny squeals and growls. The little feist dog was bouncing up and down off the ground as if it were a trampoline, his front feet pushing against the trunk of the tree at the top of each bounce.

"Now that's a good sign," noted Ronnie Coleman, TerryJo's owner and trainer. "He's got eyes on that squirrel. Old TerryJo doesn't get that excited all the time."

With Coleman directing us to positions around the big oak, we advanced on the tree; once we were set, he ordered TerryJo to calm down. The little dog immediately sat back on his hind legs, his eyes never leaving the treetop.

Coleman began following the dog's line of sight up the mostly leafless tree. He was looking for what had gotten TerryJo so excited.

"There it is," he said, "crouched on that sort-of-black limb. It's sort of laying flat on the limb. Follow the trunk 10 feet above the fork, then look at that limb sticking out to the right -- he's on that limb about 6 feet off the trunk."

I finally found the limb, but couldn't see a squirrel. I eased a bit to the right and got a new point of view. There it was.

"I got a shot," I said to Coleman. "Send your boy over here."

Coleman's son, 13-year-old Henry, started easing around from the other side of the tree. Smart like his dad in the ways of squirrel hunting, he moved slowly and quietly so as not to spook the squirrel and send it running through the trees. Circling back behind his dad, the teenager ended up standing at my side.

I pointed out the limb, and the young man quickly found the squirrel in the scope of his .22 rimfire rifle. I heard the safety click off; I raised my .410 shotgun to serve as a backup.

It wasn't needed. Henry Coleman's shot was perfect, hitting the squirrel just below the ear. The bushytail fell to the ground with a thud.

"Attaboy!" Ronnie Coleman hollered. "Good shot!"

TerryJo was on the squirrel in a heartbeat, standing over it to make sure that it didn't escape. The lack of movement in the squirrel satisfied the dog before any of us got to it, and TerryJo quickly went back to hunting.

Sliding the squirrel into his vest, Henry Coleman called to the dog: "Get us another one, boy! Hunt 'em up!"

Five minutes later, we could hear TerryJo's agitated, whiny yelps about 100 yards down the hardwood bottom, and we hurried down to get Henry another shot.

While most Mississippi sportsmen were out chasing bigger game that early January morning last winter, the three of us and that little feist dog were enjoying the thrill of simplicity that is the heart of small-game hunting.

Sure, deer hunting is the Magnolia State's biggest participation sport, an estimated 200,000 hunters driving the wildlife management system and creating the funding that keeps the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks afloat. But in terms of longevity of tradition, it's a Johnny-come-lately, having only emerged as the top sport in the last half-century, growing in step with the whitetail herds. Prior to that, small game played a dominant role in the shooting sports, and scenes such as what was described above were once commonplace. Nowadays, however, hunts such as the one we shared with the Colemans in southern Rankin County are becoming harder to find.

Squirrel hunting is still a significant pastime, but, for most, one limited to a month prior to deer season and another stretch in February once the last of the extended deer seasons ends. Rabbit hunting, probably the most exciting of any shooting sport, has also been relegated to a secondary role, its decline brought on perhaps as much by the decline of rabbit numbers in the mid-20th century as by the increase in deer populations that made big-game hunters out of most small game aficionados. This trend continues despite a sharp increase in rabbit numbers fueled by projects like the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program over the past two decades.

Hunting for wild bobwhites has suffered the worst. Land-use patterns over the past half-century have devastated quail habitat, and restoration projects are in their infancy. Action for these game birds is limited to northeast Mississippi and a few pockets in other areas.

While it has taken decades for these changes to occur, the events of the past 18 months have also made a serious impact on small-game biology, habitat and hunting. Mississippi's small-game project leader Dave Godwin provided an update of those events.

SQUIRRELS

The first five years of the new century saw Mississippi sportsmen enjoying a notably profitable run of squirrel hunting. "We've had several years of good to excellent mast production, along with mild winters," Godwin said in reference to the acorn crop. "I think most areas of the state had seen the benefits of that with outstanding squirrel production and hunting opportunities."

All that changed in August 2005, when, in the middle of another fruitful year of acorn production, Hurricane Katrina blew through, wiping out not only the mast crop in most areas of the state but also thousands of acres of hardwood trees in south Mississippi.

"We had a catastrophic loss of hardwoods in the lower third of the state," Godwin reported. "Some of our larger stands of hardwoods, like Old River Wildlife Management Area in Pearl River County, suffered as much as an 80 percent loss of trees. You're looking at devastation that could impact squirrel hunting for several decades down there.

"District 6 took a catastrophic hit, but the storm also impacted the rest of the state," Godwin noted with regard to the southeast portion of Mississippi. "Obviously, we're not talking long-term impact in other areas like we are in the southeastern corner."

Katrina's sustained winds were still pushing 100 miles an hour when it reached Jackson, and were well above 50 when it reached the Tupelo area. "In addition to the direct impact of tree loss in the southern half of the state, the hurricane caused some indirect impact on squirrels, and at this point we don't have a handle on

just how far north it will be felt," Godwin said. "There was a loss of acorn mast as far north as District 1. There were also substantial losses of nests being blown out of trees and weaker den trees being blown down. I know from talking to landowners and hunters that they were finding squirrel mortality for months after the storm.

"But I think that kind of damage will be limited to the southern half of the state. In north Mississippi, even though there was a huge loss of mast, you have to remember that we were coming off those years of good acorn crops. Squirrels were plentiful and in good health. I don't think we're going to see a big impact on squirrel hunting opportunities in the northern half of the state."

Those looking for public lands to hunt should be investigating wildlife management areas in the south Delta, which, being on the western side of the state, dodged most of Katrina's wrath as the storm moved from southwest to northeast Mississippi.

Twin Oaks WMA near Rolling Fork and Mahannah WMA are first-tier choices, but they offering limited opportunities, since no squirrel hunting is allowed during any open deer season. Note that at Twin Oaks, probably the top public tract in terms of bushytail action, squirrel dogs are allowed.

"We have hunted there several times in the early seasons without dogs, and have been able to limit out most of the time," remarked Coleman. "But once the deer seasons are over and the leaves are off the trees, that's when we load up TerryJo and really get down to business. I have always been surprised that we don't see that many hunters, especially in February after deer season's over.

"I kind of hate to publicize Twin Oaks, but this year, knowing that so many south Mississippi squirrel hunters are going to be needing places to hunt, I don't mind. If they need a place to hunt, that's the first place I'd recommend they start looking."

Maps, regulations and other information on Twin Oaks and other Delta WMAs are available online at www. mdwfp.com. Follow prompts through Wildlife to Wildlife Management Areas; then, click on District 3.

RABBITS

As devastating as Katrina was to squirrel hunting, Godwin observed, it was beneficial to rabbits. "You hate to say anything like there being an upside to an event like Katrina, but it will be good for rabbit hunting in south Mississippi for years to come," he said. "South Mississippi already had fair rabbit hunting, but it's likely that rabbit populations will explode in the coming years. We are going to see a dramatic increase in rabbit habitat-- or what we call 'rabbitat.'

"Katrina cut huge swaths in the forest canopies. That created an immediate increase in rabbit habitat with so many brushpiles, and it will continue to produce even better habitat as sunlight hits the forest floor and we see a tremendous increase in briars and bramble. We're talking hundreds of thousands of acres."

As adept as rabbits are at speedy reproduction, it won't take long for their numbers to swell enormously. And, Godwin asserted, it will happen -- there's no maybe to it. "It's a proven fact that hurricane destruction is good for rabbits," he stated. "I have talked with biologists in other states that have sustained similar destruction in forests. In South and North Carolina, they had that kind of catastrophic forest loss after Hurricane Hugo cut a crescent-shaped swatch through that area. The biologists there said they saw an immediate increase in rabbitat and, subsequently, in rabbit populations."

Katrina, however, was much more destructive than was Hugo, the 2005 storm hitting a large area in south Mississippi in which lie some of the state's largest WMAs. Public hunting opportunities should abound for rabbit men for decades to come at places like Old River, Leaf River and Chickasawhay WMAs.

As for the rest of Mississippi, Godwin offered, rabbits continue to thrive, buoyed up by the benefits of the CRP and WRP programs. "The planting of pine plantations on private lands over the past 15 to 20 years had a great impact on rabbits in most of Mississippi," he said, "and even now that we're seeing those tracts mature, we're still seeing a lot of habitat retention. The cover that young plantations provide is hard to beat. In those first five years, rabbits explode.

"But even after the pines begin maturing, and you see the loss of the thick growth, there is still the opportunity to manage the habitat. Those programs, CRP and WRP, allow a lot of flexibility in land management for wildlife. I think this is a good time for us to plug our private lands management assistance program. We can help landowners design programs to reach their goals, whether it be for rabbits, deer or even quail. We've been very successful with many landowners."

Tommy Gordon of Canton is one of many rabbit hunters to have rediscovered the sport in recent years. "God bless CRP and what it's done for rabbits," he said. "I have been fortunate to have access to a lot of private lands where pine plantings have been substantial over the past 10 to 15 years. I grew up rabbit hunting in the 1950s and '60s, but gave it up in the '80s when all the rabbits were gone. I got rid of all my dogs.

"Then, about 15 years ago, I started noticing how quickly rabbits were coming back, and I rebuilt my kennel. Rabbit hunting has been better since 1990 than it was back in the '50s and '60s. We need to make sure that it is sustained. We don't need to see another slump in rabbits like we did in the '70s and '80s."

Mississippi's premier public rabbit hunting area is Lake George WMA in the south Delta. Its rabbit season, which coincides with the state season, ends Feb. 28. For more information, visit www.mdwfp.com.

QUAIL

Katrina's effect on south Mississippi's quail hunting could go either way, depending on land management decisions. "It has created the opportunity to seen a substantial increase in quail habitat," Godwin offered. "Unlike rabbits that seek thick briars and bramble, quail need grasslands, and just enough cover for nesting. The open forest floors could be turned into good quail habitat by incorporating burns on an annual or biannual program. Controlled burns keep the new growth under control. The potential is there -- but you have to get fire in there."

Quail are sorely missed in most areas of Mississippi, including the southeast. About the only true wild-bird hunting remaining in the state is found in the northeast.

"I'm afraid that is true," Godwin noted, "but I think we are seeing some expansion into other areas like the Delta as more people make land management decisions to help rebuild quail. What makes the northeast so good is that we still have the patchwork-like land management that is so beneficial to quail. You see more small agricultural, like 15-acre soybean fields, instead of the huge tracts of fields and forests that you see in the Delta and in south Mississippi. If you fly over the northeast or see aerial photographs, the patchwork pattern is clear.

"The good news is that 2005 was a very good year for quail reproduction. We had a good hatch reported on public and private lands where it was monitored. The bad news is that it was just the opposite in 2006. We had drought-like conditions in most areas of the state, and that is devastating to quail. I'm afraid we had a poor hatch, and that's a setback. That is one of the worst things that can happen."

But that loss is a short-term phenomenon, and in Godwin's view, there's hope for quail -- at least, more hope than the state has seen in decades. "We've seen a lot of new emphasis placed on quail habitat management through WRP and CRP programs," he remarked. "That has had a positive impact on quail in many pockets of the state."

True, it's not a statewide trend, and, yes, the pockets do tend to be small -- but it's at least a start. Successes reported in those areas could lead to more lands being managed for birds.

"As CRP pines continue to mature, there is opportunity to move in and manage lands for quail," Godwin said. "As they are thinned, there is potential to create what bobwhites need to thrive."

Few public land quail hunting opportunities exist in Mississippi, and officials fear to overpublicize those that do.

For more information on private land management assistance for quail, contact the nearest district office of the MDWFP. Either visit MDFWP.com for those locations or phone the main headquarters in Jackson at (601) 432-2400.

Find more about Mississippi fishing and hunting at: MississippiGameandFish.com

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