Cotton State Small-Game Options

When it comes to hunting small game, the Yellowhammer State offers a lot of variety. Join the author in exploring the action. (January 2006)

The author stays true to his heritage as the son of a beagle man. It was in Macon County that Handley bagged the two cottontails seen here.
Photo by John E. Phillips

While cleaning out a cedar chest the other day in preparation for a yard sale, I was astounded at the dozens of loose shotgun shells I'd accumulated -- both high- and low-brass in a rainbow of colors, long forgotten like the small game I used to hunt with them.

I was the son of a rabbit hunter, accustomed to the sour smell of beagles in a dog box. One of my fondest memories of my granddaddy was sitting on a tailgate after a chase, stroking one of the tri-colored dogs while watching him carve the skin off a turnip he'd plucked from a roadside garden.

"Here, try this," he handed the white chunk to me.

Granddaddy was a man of few words. It seems all he wanted in life was to play the occasional game of canasta and have supper on the table at a predictable time. His plate always had a big raw onion on it, so knowing his tastes, I wasn't eager to try my first turnip. But I took a nibble.

It was good.

Such memories are created from chasing small game.

Later on, when I could actually shoot a hand-me-down 16-gauge double-barrel shotgun, I was a died-in-the-wool squirrel hunter. There was no joy greater than shooting a squirrel, skinning and then frying it.

Quail weren't exactly plentiful in the early 1970s, but there were far more than there are today. Daddy never owned a bird dog, and I never could react fast enough to shoot one on the fly whenever a covey busted up in front of me. But if one of those birds happened to land within sight, I'd happily add it to my bag of bushytails.

My first real quail hunt came many years later at the invitation of Raymond McClendon, owner of Rockfence Station near Lafayette. That's when my priorities changed. There was no joy greater than shooting quail, skinning and then frying them.

As I stacked those weathered shotgun shells in a shoebox, this barrage of memories swept over me like a tsunami. I'd somehow lost my infatuation with hunting small game -- the thrills of trying to figure out just how far the rabbit is ahead of the beagles; collecting a limit of squirrels and dreaming of making crappie jigs with their always-saved tails; and seeing a brace of pointers lock up as if they'd spied Medusa.

But, why just settle for memories? There's never been a time when rabbits and squirrels were more plentiful than they are today. And thanks to the state's numerous shooting preserves, the tradition of upland bird hunting is still alive and, compared to other hunts, very affordable.

Let's take a closer look at some of the opportunities for rediscovering small game in the Cotton State.

Quail

Down, But Not Out

Charles Kelley knows what it's like to walk around with a metaphorical bull's eye taped to his back. The former longtime director of Alabama's Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries fought constantly to ensure both the future of hunting and huntable populations of wild game, even if it meant making enemies.

His legacy -- other than outlasting numerous governors and conservation commissioners -- is a deer herd second in size only to Texas's and a wild turkey population that affords Alabamians a liberal bag limit and a spring season that is among the longest in the nation. When Kelley took the helm, both deer and turkeys were scarce.

Even today, six years after he stopped the daily commute to Montgomery, Kelley watches over our natural resources from the sidelines. He's quick to criticize regulations he feels aren't beneficial to wildlife, as well as those that fly in the face of common sense.

But his one true regret, shared by cohorts past and present throughout the Southeast, is the inability to influence the plummeting number of quail.

Biologists have documented a steady decline in bobwhites since the mid-1960s, though the drop started much earlier. For every five coveys we had back in 1966, there might be one left. It's hard for us baby-boomers to imagine, but some kids in Alabama have never heard the whistle of a male bobwhite.

You can blame a nearly universal change in land use for the loss of wild quail. Hunters have not shot them to near extinction. It is more like we have neglected them to that point. The habitat simply no longer supports the birds' needs. As farming practices have changed and our suburban culture has flourished, the birds were cut not slack. As their habitat disappeared so did they.

Unlike the rabbit and squirrel populations, which are comprised of multiple generations, 80 percent of bobwhites rarely live more than a year. Biologists also point out that the annual production of quail is dependent upon the right environmental conditions during the summertime reproductive season -- which explains why any given population can vary greatly from year to year.

Thus, quail management is almost entirely in the hands of Mother Nature. But even she is helpless if manicure the landscape into one that is not suited for bobwhites.

Landowners might not be able to control the weather, but they can manipulate habitat for maximum quail production. The DWFF has published a 47-page book, "Ecology and Management of the Bobwhite Quail in Alabama," that shows how best to do just that.

Written by biologist Stan Stewart, the free management guide is loaded with color photographs and illustrations.

"In recent years managers and researchers have revisited sound bobwhite biology and have made new discoveries about bobwhite behavior, ecology and management," Stewart says. "Individuals who are applying this knowledge are currently experiencing unprecedented bobwhite management successes and population highs.

"The message is clear: Quail do not have to be just part of the past. They respond to management," he adds. "Supply the birds a favorable environment, and they usually increase rapidly."

Despite the low numbers of native bobwhites, nearly 17,000 quail hunters take to the field each year in Alabama. Many of those folks who enjoy watching bird dogs zigging and zagging across the landscape are turning to the state's commercial op

erations. Pen-raised quail are no match for wild bobwhites when it comes to dodging lead, but they sure taste good.

Some of the state's best quail preserves can be found online at

www.gamebirdhunts.com/us-hunting/alabama.asp.

Squirrels

Like Apples In An Orchard

Bushytails attract more hunters than any other small game. Alabama has more than twice the number of squirrel hunters as we have chasers of cottontails, and both outnumber quail hunters. Not only do we have a bountiful population of squirrels, but one doesn't have to look far to find a place to hunt them.

It would be easier to list the places where you cannot find and hunt squirrels than to say where to do it. You cannot, for instance, shoot them out of the oaks surrounding the state capitol in Montgomery. You cannot shoot them off the balcony at Lakepoint Resort in Eufaula. Well, you could at either place, but it is illegal.

Actually, Alabama's 30 or so wildlife management areas and four national forests are perfect for hunting squirrels, and you get two weeks before the opening of the deer bow season and the entire month of February to have the tracts mostly to yourself. In addition, hunting is allowed on some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, national wildlife refuges and several small tracts purchased in recent years by the Forever Wild Land Trust.

Most people think big stands of hardwoods are best for bushytails, but that is not necessarily so.

Tim Cosby, former chief of the DWFF enforcement section, is nuts over squirrels. The retired No. 1 game warden likes to hunt them with treeing feists. He's also the guy who taught me that poking along a hardwood bottom isn't nearly as productive as prowling edge habitat -- where hardwoods are flanked by pine plantations.

There are no shortages of pine plantations in this state, particularly on many WMAs. Even where the pines are thickest in tracts owned by paper companies, the land is crisscrossed by streamside management zones, which are stands of hardwoods left flanking creeks to prevent erosion.

Some of the most squirrel-laden WMAs are near rivers, and accessing the most productive areas is best by boat. These include the Mulberry Fork WMA in Tuscaloosa and Walker counties, the Demopolis WMA where the Tombigbee and Warrior rivers converge, the Lauderdale WMA in extreme northwest Alabama, the Coosa WMA and the three preserves in the heart of the Mobile Delta -- W.L. Holland, Mobile-Tensaw and Upper Delta tracts.

My own personal favorite is the Mulberry Fork, which is full of hidden valleys that are teeming with bushytails. A person can stand on level ground, peer out at a seemingly endless grove of pines, and have no clue what's barely 50 yards in front of them. It may be a creek bottom so deep that the tops of 50- and 70-year-old oaks do not rise above the 12-year-old loblollies. Here, stuffing your vest or coat with eight squirrels can a walk in the park.

For more information about WMAs, log onto:

www.outdooralabama.com/hunting/land/wmamaps.

Squirrel Dogging

Best friends Joe Ward and Ray Mitchell of Lowndesboro are among many Alabamians who have fallen in love with squirrel dogging. Medical problems have cut down their excursions for a couple of seasons, but the retirees won't be able to stay off the saddle for much longer.

Like many other graying sportsmen in the Southeast, Mitchell switched allegiances from raccoon to squirrel hunting. It is a chance for the former Montgomery fireman to still enjoy training and hunting with treeing dogs without having to do it at night and over much greater distances.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
<font size="1" color="#000000"The small game season in Alabama for rabbits and squirrels runs from Oct. 1 through Feb. 28th statewide. The daily limit for both species is eight per hunter per day. The season for bobwhite quail extends from Nov. 15 through Feb. 28, with a daily limit of 12 birds per person.

Copies of the booklet Ecology and Management of the Bobwhite Quail in Alabama, by biologist Stan Stewart, are available from the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. For details on obtaining the free 47-page guide, which features color photographs and illustrations, call (334) 242-3469.

Ward, once a private investigator, became interested in hunting bushytails with dogs about eight years ago after reading a newspaper account of the American Treeing Feist Association's annual rally hunt in Marion.

"I told my wife that I'd like to have a squirrel dog for Christmas," he said. "She started looking, but about the cheapest one she found was $1,500.

"That's when I decided to send in my $10 and join the Treeing Feist association. I got their address from the article," he continued. "They sent me this yearbook that listed all their members, and I noticed one from right here in Lowndesboro."

The guy was Ray Mitchell, and a friendship was soon born.

Ward called Mitchell, introduced himself, and asked if he had a puppy for sale. But Mitchell was new to squirrel hunting, too, and he'd just bought his first dog from a kennel in Arkansas.

The next Sunday afternoon, Mitchell drove to Ward's home to show off his dog BooBoo. The two men have been hunting together ever since.

"This has been the greatest thing to happen to me in my whole life," Ward once gushed. "Without it, I don't know what I'd do."

Before Ward's eyes started giving him trouble and Mitchell's wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the two men hunted almost every weekday during squirrel season. They typically wait for February before adding weekend trips.

If they're not hunting with myriad friends who want to see the dogs work, the duo often attends competitive hunts in which feists and sometimes larger-boned curs compete nose to nose for trophies.

If you'd like to learn more about squirrel dogging and where to buy a feist, long onto the American Treeing Feist Association's website at

www.angelfire.com/ga2/atfa/index.html.

Rabbits

Long-Eared Action

The same habitat changes that have negatively impacted quail numbers have hurt rabbits as well. But cottontails are so prolific that the Heart of Dixie's rabbit population fluctuates, but does not collapse. We are still unlikely to ever face a shortage beyond the cyclic dips that follow surges in predator numbers.

You don't need a pack of beagles to shoot a

rabbit. You can still kick them up in fields managed in the Conservation Reserve Program, along fencerows and inside briar patches. But it's hard to collect a limit without dogs. Plus, a good race can really get one's adrenaline pumping.

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