Peach State Small-Game Bonanza

Peach State Small-Game Bonanza

Our woodlands and fields are loaded with game animals that hunters often seem to neglect. Too bad -- because for fast action, rabbits, squirrels, grouse and snipe are hard to beat! (Nov 2006)

Dear Mr. Trussell,

Some of my friends say that snipe do not exist. My father said I should write you, because anything you see in the pages of Georgia Sportsman must be so. Please tell me the truth. Do snipe actually exist?


Thank you,


Virginia O'Dowd

Dear Virginia,

Your friends are wrong. They have been affected by our skeptical age. That skepticism runs deep in some quarters, aggravated by pranksters playing snipe-hunting practical jokes on their friends.

The joker tells the friend/victim that snipe are hunted at night along lonely, deserted dirt roads deep in the country. The trick involves getting the would-be snipe hunter to straddle a ditch with a paper sack so that the snipe, which are supposedly to be chased down the ditch, can literally be "bagged." The joker then gets in the car and heads down the road with the stated purpose of "driving" the quarry toward the waiting sucker. Shortly after the taillights fade into the gloom, of course, the hapless victim realizes the horrible truth, and is left to walk home.

Stunts of this sort have fueled claims that snipe are figments of the imagination. But, Virginia, the snipe is a very real, very wild bird that floats, whirls, and dashes through the woodlands of Georgia, and serves as the focus of many a thrilling hunt.

Respectfully,


John Trussell

* * *

Such an exchange of letters might stretch the limits of the fanciful a bit -- but in a state like Georgia, where game and hunters both abound, its potential necessity isn't completely impossible. Let's take a look at what the Peach State offers in the way of snipe and other small-game action this year.

SNIPE

Seriously -- snipe do exist in Georgia. They're usually bagged by accident as hunters pursue other species such as rabbits, squirrels or quail. In fact, the most common reason for snipe escaping is the hunter failing to shoot, unsure if a season's even open for the species!

Wilson's snipe, as it's more fully known, is a migratory bird, and so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets the season for it -- which in Georgia normally runs from mid-November through the end of February.

Snipe breed in Canada and the northern United States and then migrate to the Southern states, or even as far as northern South America. During the late fall and winter they can be found scattered all across Georgia. They frequently inhabit boggy areas, where they use their long bills to forage in soft mud for worms and insects.

About the size of a bobwhite quail, the snipe has short greenish grey legs and a dark-hued, straight and, as noted, very long bill. Its body is mottled brown on top and pale underneath. It has a dark stripe through the eye, above and below which are light stripes.

The snipe's wings are pointed, which contributes to its erratic flight patterns. It likes to hug the earth, and rather than flush quickly, it often holds tight to flush underfoot, or runs along the ground ahead of the dogs. Once airborne, the birds never seem to fly straight and can prove frustratingly difficult targets for even for skilled shooters. Expect to be humbled by this little bird.

A shotgun with an improved cylinder choke and loaded with No. 8 birdshot is suitable armament for taking aim at these darters -- but you'll have to work hard for a limit.

According to Game Management regional supervisor Steve Ruckel of the WRD Albany office, Elmodel, Chickasawhatchee, Hannahatchee, Flint River and Horse Creek wildlife management areas are promising sites in the southern reaches of Georgia for locating snipe. In central Georgia, try Oaky Woods or Ocmulgee WMAs. In the North Georgia mountains, snipe are not common at any public area, but are present at most. Check out any swampy drainages at low elevation to find the birds.

GROUSE

The ruffled grouse is another game bird found in North Georgia. But unlike the snipe, it's quarry that you have to hunt for specifically; you won't flush these birds by chance. The scarcity of quail and rabbits in the mountains is such that few small-game hunters just stumble across grouse.

Often called the "king of upland game birds," the grouse gets its name from the ruff of dark feathers on its neck, a feature particularly evident on the males. The female lays nine to 10 eggs, but unfortunately only about 25 percent of nests are successful. Grouse do not usually renest, which, says WRD wildlife biologist Adam Hammond, tends to keep the population low in Georgia. That low density is also due to some extent to the Peach's State being on the southern fringe of these birds' natural range.

Generally, grouse prefer second-growth forests with a brushy understory, and thrive in the luxuriant greenery that fills in the voids left by timber harvesting. Clearcuts 10 to 15 years of age that are thick with head-high briers are ideal for the birds, which can also be found around springheads surrounded by mountain laurel. That laurel, Christmas fern and greenbrier are favored food sources.

Grouse inhabit 50- to 100-acre ranges, depending upon time of year, and normally favor elevations above 1,000 feet. That preference qualifies much of North Georgia's Chattahoochee National Forest as grouse habitat, so the forest can boast a fair-sized complement of the birds.

Hammond suggested that the best places for public-land hunts are on the Blue Ridge, Chestatee, Chattahoochee, Cohutta, Coopers Creek and Rich Mountain WMAs, all of which are within Chattahoochee NF. Fortunately, after a hiatus of many years, some clearcutting has resumed within the forest, which promises to be a boon for grouse in coming years.

A Brittany spaniel is an ideal grouse dog, since it normally won't range far ahead. Grouse may either flush wildly when pressured or take off running over the ridge, so you want on the one hand to be close enough for a shot, and on the other to stay close enough to join the dog in following the running bird until it takes to the air.

The moment in which the grouse busts skyward is no time for indecision: In that split second you must locate the grouse, bring the shotgun to your shoulder and fire -- because once the target's on the move though the trees, the window of opportunity slams shut Most grouse hunts are judged not by birds downed, but by number of flushes and shots taken.

SQUIRRELS

Like many other members of the baby-boom generation, I cut my hunting teeth on small game -- in particular, squirrels. We, unlike most youngsters today, didn't begin with deer and turkey hunts: Back then, we hunted what was available close to home. But for better or worse, small-game hunting has declined over the years, and at present, 75 percent of all hunting is for deer.

A pellet gun was the weapon with which I took my first shots at squirrels and rabbits. From that I moved up to a single-shot .22 Remington rifle; then, it was a used 12-gauge pump-action shotgun. Whatever I brought home in my game bag was prepared for dinner by my mother, or saved for the next campout.

Gray and fox squirrels both will be found throughout Georgia. The tail, a squirrel's most distinctive physical feature, provides balance for running, jumping and climbing, and acts as a parachute to break unexpected falls. It supplies warmth in cold weather and helps cool the little rodent on sunny days, and when rapidly flicked back and forth, it acts as a warning signal, or as a decoy to distract enemies. But it's also the part of the critter that most often alerts hunters to its presence.

Still-hunting or slow stalking are the techniques that most squirrel hunters prefer. However, the use of dogs has gained popularity in recent years. While it's possible to use dogs to hunt squirrels at any time during the season, it's much more enjoyable, not to mention profitable, to wait until late fall and winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees, depriving the bushytails of the dense arboreal foliage in which they're nearly impossible to locate.

Squirrels normally have two distinct breeding periods in Georgia -- the first in June and early July, the second in December on into early January -- which accounts in part for their abundance. Females ("does"; the males are "bucks") usually produce their first litter at 1 year of age. The gestation period for both species is approximately 45 days; litter sizes range from one to five kits, three on average. The life expectancy of squirrels in the wild is 1 to 2 years with about 50 percent of the population being lost to predation, accident and disease each year.

An adult squirrel consumes about 2 pounds of food each week. Major fall foods are mast crops such as acorns, hickory nuts, beechnuts, pecans, and walnuts, plus pine seeds and the fleshy fruits of dogwood and blackgum trees.

Although fox squirrels can move over a mile in a day, both species typically use less than five acres surrounding the den tree. The total area used during the year is usually less than 30 acres. Amid the pine stands so plentiful in the state, hardwood corridors along streamsides and in drainages are likely locales in which to find bushytails.

With regard to public land, the state's WMAs provide over 1 million acres of hunting opportunity. Virtually all of these hold at least some squirrels, and many are overrun with the critters.

Squirrel season opens on Aug. 15 each year, with many WMAs providing early squirrel action. But as the season progresses, you should check the regulations for specific WMAs, since small-game hunts are prohibited during managed deer hunts.

According to Steve Ruckel, the squirrels haunting out public lands are seriously underexploited. Some promising WMAs to target are Dixon Forest, Ocmulgee, Cohutta, Cedar Creek and Altamaha -- but, again, wherever you find hardwoods you'll find some squirrels.

RABBITS

In Georgia, rabbits rank third behind doves and squirrels in small-game hunting popularity.

Four species live in Georgia, the most common being the eastern cottontail, whose habitat includes upland areas associated with agricultural fields, pine woodlands and brushy areas. Brown to grey in color, they feature a white spot on their foreheads.

The swamp rabbit (often called "cane-cutter") is the largest species in Georgia. It has black to rusty-brown fur and a white underside. Swamp rabbits live in bottomland-hardwood and beaver-pond habitat along rivers and creeks in the Piedmont.

The Appalachian cottontail, similar in size and appearance to the eastern cottontail, often has a black spot between the ears instead of the white spot on the forehead. Confining themselves to high mountain elevations, these rabbits are rare.

The marsh rabbit is the smallest found in Georgia. It has a blackish to reddish brown back with a brownish gray underside, not white as in the other three species. Its ears and tail also are smaller. Marsh rabbits usually inhabit open marsh areas associated with the coastal plain, particularly along coastal river systems.

In Georgia rabbits begin breeding after the first warm days in February and typically continue until early November. They can have three to seven litters per year and typically select different nest locations for each litter. A female rabbit can breed on the same day that she gives birth. Litter sizes range from three to five young. Female rabbits produce an average of 20 young per year.

Approximately 80 percent of the rabbit population dies of some cause each year. A major cause of this mortality is predation, since rabbits rank high on the list of preferred foods for many predators.

Rabbits eat parts of more than 100 species of plants. Important winter foods include honeysuckle, lespedeza, blackberry and greenbrier.

A cottontail's home range rarely exceed 11 acres, and the animal heartily dislikes straying from it -- which explains why rabbits often run in small circles when chased by dogs. Areas featuring a mixture of grassy and brushy vegetation are optimal habitat for cottontails. Because rabbits rate so high with predators, escape cover is always close to a food source.

Look for rabbits around agricultural fields that containing some fencerows, or edge areas left in a natural state. Thickets of blackberry, honeysuckle, plum or other dense, low-growing vegetation are ideal rabbit hides.

HIT THE WOODS AND FIELDS

So there you have it: If you want some action with small game this fall, plenty of it's to be had on private and public land. Be it snipe, grouse, squirrels or rabbits, the hunting can be fun and exciting.

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