Cotton State Small-Game Options

Sometimes lost in the fanfare of deer season, hunts for smaller game can be enjoyed in Alabama as well. Here's a look at the critters that support that action. (December 2009)

Some areas in the Talladega National Forest are providing better conditions for finding a few coveys of quail.

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

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

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

n.

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.

There are three basic approaches to squirrel hunting, and all three are fun. The first is the "wait them out" approach. This is probably how your Grandpa hunted squirrels. With a good knowledge of where the best mast trees are, sneak in at daylight, pick a location within range, and then find a comfortable seat and wait. When their stomachs tell them it is time to eat, squirrels head for their favorite mast tree like a charter bus full of tourists hitting the buffet line.

A scoped .22 is perfect for this type of hunting, since it allows for long shots and the short, sharp crack of a shot doesn't seem to spook the bushytails like the boom of a shotgun.

Other hunters like to stalk hunt through the woods, spotting their quarry from a distance and moving to it. Again, a .22 is an excellent choice, but the scattergun evens the odds when you push your luck a little too far and a squirrel goes scurrying through the limbs. Shotguns are more appropriate for those small and moving targets.

The third method is to use a dog to tree the squirrel and keep tabs on the bushytail until you arrive. This type hunting is growing in popularity. Once on site, the game then becomes spotting a squirrel hiding high in the limbs and bringing him to hand with a well-placed shot.

Squirrel dogs can come from just about any breed. However, feists and curs have proven their mettle in the squirrel woods.

Since squirrels are so abundant and widespread, any WMA with a good hardwood stand should offer some opportunity.

Quail

The third small-game species is deeply steeped in Southern lore. Wingshooting for bobwhite quail is indelibly linked with the South.

Yet changes in land use practices that have resulted in subdivisions and strip malls popping up where a patchwork of small family farms once stood have not been kind to the bobwhite. Despite that situation, there are still quail to hunt.

For quail to prosper, all their needs must be met within their annual home range of about 40 acres. Weedy openings for seed and insect foraging, overgrown grassy cover for nesting, and shrub thickets for escape cover are all needed within the covey's home range.

Like other edge habit species, quail prefer smaller irregular pieces of varied habitat, rather than one big sprawling field. Areas where field borders and fencerows are left in native vegetation are good. Also, early-succession environments resulting from controlled burns and thinning of pine forests create good habitat. Opening the forest canopy encourages vegetation growth to provide good habitat.

Of course, food plots planted in millet, lespedeza or partridge peas are always a plus when choosing a hunting location.

How's The Hunting

Now let's take a look at how these popular small-game species are faring and a few public lands that you might want to consider for your next small-game hunt. For a general overview, we talked to DWFF wildlife biologist Stan Stewart.

"Statewide, quail numbers continue to be very low compared to the past," Stewart said. "Rabbits and squirrels continue to do well though and are very abundant in many places."

When it comes to public-land hunting opportunities, the outlook is also mixed.

"Since our WMAs are primarily managed for deer and turkey, no areas stand out from the statewide WMA system as exceptional small-game hunting," he continued. "Squirrel hunters have it best on the WMAs, since most areas have good numbers of squirrels and there is not much hunting pressure. Quail and rabbit hunters aren't going to find the WMAs as productive as the squirrel hunters do, but there may be some limited opportunity here and there."

Still, there are a few areas you may want to consider.

"On Barbour WMA, we are in the process of a Longleaf Restoration Project, which should increase quail- and rabbit-hunting opportunities at the WMA," wildlife biologist Richard Tharp of southeast Bama said. "On Blue Spring WMA and Geneva Forest WMA, we are partnered with Quail Unlimited and established several acres of partridge peas to improve habitat and quail utilization.

"Along with those special activities, there are management activities done on our WMAs that benefit all wildlife species, including small game," Tharp continued. "Prescribed burning, establishing food plots, management of early successional areas with fire, drum chopping, herbicides and timber management all work together to improve the habitat."

In his area, Tharp points to Barbour WMA as best for rabbits and squirrels, Blue Spring WMA for quail and squirrels, and Geneva Forest WMA as a good opportunity for rabbit hunting.

To continue filling out the picture of what small-game hunters can expect, let's go to the other end of the state to northeast Alabama.

"Squirrel hunting seems to be good on all our WMAs in this area of the state," offered wildlife biologist Randy Liles. "There is ample hardwood habitat, both upland and bottomland.

"Rabbit and quail hunting may be best on the Jackson County and Skyline WMAs," he added. "There's an intensive small-game management program underway on Skyline, primarily for quail, but rabbits are benefiting, too.

"The Jackson County WMAs are primarily managed for waterfowl, but do offer some excellent small-game hunting opportunities.

There are some other options in the region as well.

"On Choccolocco WMA, the Forest Service does have an area approximately 3,000 acres in size that is being intensively managed for quail, but the area tends to get hunted out quickly.

"During the last several years, the fox squirrel population seems to be growing in many areas. Like the rest of the state, our public-hunting lands are primarily managed for deer and turkeys, but squirrels are abundant on those areas too. There is definitely not a shortage of grey squirrels on any area," Liles concluded.

Although some small-game populations may have fallen from their record highs during the heyday of the small family farm and the excellent small-game habitat it provided, some pocket populations are still strong and provide good hunting. Since small-game action is often overlooked by most hunters, even public lands provide the opportunity to find areas that receive very little pressure.

Small-game seasons and bag limits are generous, and a call to your local DWFF office should give you the rundown on the best places and times to hunt small game on public land near you this wint

er.

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