Small Game For Fast Action!

The Peach State is loaded with great but underutilized opportunities for small-game hunting. Here's a guide to what most hunters are overlooking. (November 2007)

Estimates put the 2006 harvest of rabbits in the Peach State at more than 177,000.
Photo by Polly Dean.

Georgia is loaded with hunting opportunities. Although deer and turkey receive a lion's share of the attention from Peach State hunters, the state's small-game hunting is excellent and for the most part, underutilized.


Like most hunters of my generation and older, I cut my teeth on hunting small game, especially rabbits and squirrels. Most hunters kept a few beagles or bird dogs. Many winter afternoons were spent with friends and families, stomping through the brush listening for the bawl of a beagle striking a hot trail and then hearing the pack join the chorus.

In those simpler times, many people could hunt right out their back door. Even the few hours of weak winter daylight after the school day offered the opportunity for a quick hunt before supper and homework.


As times and attitudes have changed over the years, those opportunities have become more limited. However, there's no better way to introduce youngsters to the sport of hunting than by pursuing small game.


Unlike big-game hunting, a large investment of time isn't required to ensure success. Also, shooting opportunities abound. And the woodsmanship skills learned pursuing small game can be utilized throughout a lifetime spent in the outdoors.

Let's take a look at how some small-game species are doing in Georgia and some of the best places to hunt them this season. Good small-game hunting can be found nearly anywhere, but to keep things simple, we'll focus on Georgia's public-land hunting opportunities.

RABBITS

One of the most popular small-game species, rabbits offer great hunting opportunities. Serious hunters head afield with a pack of beagles to help flush rabbits from the thick cover and bring them around for a shot. On the other hand, success can be had just walking them up yourself -- if you're willing to plow through the thickest briar patch you can find, with a stop-and-go gait that tests 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 cover on afterburner and looking for a safer hidey-hole.

Four species of rabbits are found in Georgia. The eastern cottontail is the most common species. It has dense brown to gray fur on its back, a white underside and a white or "cotton" tail.

There's usually a white spot on its forehead. The nape of the neck is rusty in color, and the feet are whitish. From head to tail, adults measure 14 to 17 inches and weigh 2 to 4 pounds.

A cottontail's home base will range over four to 13 acres. Preferred habitat is cropland, fallow fields, pastures, briar patches and shrub thickets. Thickets provide important cover from predators, since any rabbit on open ground is an easy dinner for hawks and foxes. Research has shown annual mortality rates for cottontails to be as high as 80 percent per year.

The swamp rabbit, or "cane cutter," is the largest rabbit in Georgia and occurs mostly in the Piedmont region. It has coarse black to rusty-brown fur on its back, and a white underside. The nape of the neck is small and indistinct, while the feet are rusty. From head to tail, adults measure 14 to 17 inches and weigh 3 to 6 pounds.

Swamp rabbits are found usually near water, such as beaver ponds, swamps, marshes, flood plains, canebrakes and wet bottomlands. Cane cutters are good swimmers and don't mind taking a dip, often taking to the water when pursued. Their range can cover five to 19 acres.

The marsh rabbit is the smallest rabbit in Georgia and occurs from the Upper Coastal Plain to the Atlantic shores. It has coarse blackish to reddish-brown back with a brownish-gray underside.

Its ears, feet and tail are smaller than the other species'. From head to tail, adults measure 14 to 16 inches and weigh 2 to 3 pounds. As their name one might suggest, marsh rabbits are typically associated with marsh-type habitat, such as wet bottomlands, swamps and hammocks.

The Appalachian cottontail is the scarcest rabbit in Georgia and the only member of the family included on the state's Protected Wildlife list. The species makes its calls home at high elevations of more than 3,000 feet in mountain laurel and blueberry thickets in the mountain counties of Fannin, Rabun, Towns, and Union.

Appalachian cottontails are similar in appearance to the eastern cottontail, but have smaller round, black-edged ears and a black spot between their ears. From head to tail, adults measure 15 to 17 inches and weigh 2 to 3 pounds.

Primarily nocturnal, these rabbits never move far from dense cover. Their home range is two acres or less.

Although rabbits of he other species are extremely common, recent surveys show that only 13 percent of Georgia hunters take to the field in pursuit of them. In the 1960s, rabbit hunting was very popular, with 117,000 hunters harvesting 1.27 million animals annually. However, due to large-scale habitat changes, rabbit populations have declined -- and so have the number of rabbit hunters.

In the 2005-06 survey, 29,164 hunters spent 180,275 days afield, harvesting 177,208 rabbits. Rabbits rank third in small-game hunting popularity behind doves and squirrels. Rabbit season typically lasts longer than three months, and the daily limit is 12 animals per day.

Which is the best public hunting land for rabbits?

The answer is relatively simple. For starters, the closest WMA probably offers some opportunity.

Rabbits prefer early-succession habitat, and nearly all WMAs have maintained food plots and wildlife openings that rabbits find attractive. Areas dominated by mature stands of timber are going to be lower on the list, while areas that have been recently cut offer good hunting.

For a really good day afield, contact your regional Game Management office and ask which WMAs in your area they recommend, based on current management strategies.

In northwest Georgia, Berry College WMA is always a good bet. Clybel in Middle Georgia has good hunting, and in South Georgia any of the swampy river-bottom WMAs are a good choices for cane cutters.

SQUIRRELS


After doves, squirrels are the most popular small-game species in Georgia, with 22 percent of all hunters spending at least some time each year in the squirrel woods. Bushytails also are probably the most common game species in Georgia.

If you reach down, pick up a stick, and throw it, chances are it will land in squirrel country. There are squirrels anywhere there are trees, whether that's in a downtown park or on the highest mountain in Georgia.

Two tree squirrel species are of interest to hunters in the Peach State. The eastern gray squirrel, the most common species in Georgia, is found statewide in both rural and urban areas. Adult gray squirrels weigh from 12 ounces to 1 1/2 pounds.

Though there is some color variation among gray squirrels, most are very similar in appearance.

The slightly larger and more variably colored fox squirrel is also found statewide, but is less common, more habitat-specific and has more of a sporadic, patchy distribution. Adult fox squirrels range in weight from 1 pound to nearly 3 pounds. Their coats can range from pure black to pure blond, with all sorts of intermediate color schemes.

Gray and fox squirrels are closely associated with wooded habitats. Although they're often found together, they habitat preferences do differ. Gray squirrels are most common in mature hardwood forests with a mix of mast-bearing oaks and hickories. They can also be found in mixed pine/hardwood stands.

In Georgia, fox squirrels tend to be most closely associated with mature pine and mixed pine/hardwood stands. Mature Piedmont and Coastal Plain pine stands with open understories are dominated by fox squirrels, with few gray squirrels.

Acorns and hickory nuts are favorite foods of gray squirrels. They also eat a variety of other foods, including the buds and flowers of other trees, the fruits of dogwood and black gum, mulberries and grasses.

Fox squirrels eat many of the same foods as gray squirrels, but pine seeds are a favorite food item.

Any observant person who has spent many winter days in the woods has an idea about squirrel nesting behavior. Gray and fox squirrels use both leaf and cavity nests. Using cavities for nests likely depends on availability. Lacking good cavities, squirrels will construct a nest of leaves high in the trees.

In autumn, when all the leaves have fallen, these nests stick out like a sore thumb and can give you an idea of how many squirrels are using the woodlot. Fox squirrels tend to build more leaf nests than do gray squirrels.

There are three basic approaches to squirrel hunting, and all three are fun.

The first, the "Wait 'em out" approach, 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 with a comfortable tree to lean your back against, and just wait.

When their stomachs tell them it's time to eat, squirrels head for their favorite mast tree like a charter bus full of tourists hitting the buffet line.

A good hunter can pick off several squirrels from the same tree in a morning's hunt. A scoped .22 rifle is perfect for this type of hunting, since it allows for long shots.

And the short, sharp crack of a .22 doesn't seem to spook the woods like the boom of a scattergun reverberating off the ridges.

Other hunters like to stalk-hunt through the woods, spotting their quarry from a distance and slipping 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 figures out the jig is up. When the critters are scurrying up the nearest tree, the only shot offered you is at a small, fast-moving target.

The third method is to use a squirrel dog, bred for the purpose of treeing a squirrel and staying after him until you arrive. The game then becomes to spot the squirrel hiding high in the limbs and try to bring him to the game bag.

During the 2005-06 hunting season, 51,172 hunters spent 446,889 days in the woods and harvested 628,737 squirrels. This year, squirrel hunters have plenty of opportunity since the season runs from mid-August through February, with a daily bag limit of 12 squirrels.

With a few exceptions, all WMAs offer good squirrel hunting. Any stand of mature hardwoods anywhere in the state is going to be loaded with squirrels. Hardwood ridges provide especially good hunting, so some of the North Georgia mountain WMAs, like Pigeon Mountain and Blue Ridge WMAs are good choices.

WHAT ELSE?

Although rabbits and squirrels attract a significant portion of the attention from small game hunters, many other species offer opportunities too. Two to keep in mind if you want to try a new hunting experience are ruffed grouse and raccoons.

Hunting for either of these species is somewhat specialized.

RUFFED GROUSE

Ruffed grouse surveys over the last 25 years show a somewhat cyclic fluctuation in populations. Since 1996, unfortunately, the trend has been on the downswing.

Narrow habitat preferences limit ruffed grouse to a range extending from Canada to North Georgia.

Early-stage forests with a dense growth of small trees interspersed with shrubby vegetation and some larger mast trees provide the best habitat. Grown-over clearcuts are ideal. Grouse are opportunistic feeders, foraging on more than 300 different plant species.

In the southern Appalachians, where heavy snowfall for burrowing is rare, conifers and other evergreen plants provide protection from the winter cold. Grouse hunting is limited to the extreme North Georgia mountains. National forest or WMA land in the Cohutta Mountains is a good place to begin your search. Given the rough terrain and the grouses' wildness, a good pair of legs, a steady bird dog and quick shooting reflexes are required if you have any hopes of putting a bird in the bag.

Grouse hunters make up less than one percent of all hunters in Georgia. But for them, nothing beats spending a fall day hiking the mountain thickets.

RACOONS

Raccoon hunting with hounds is a Southern tradition.

Hardcore houndsmen love their dogs as they do their children, and gladly look forward to spending most of a cold winter night slogging through swamps and briars following their dogs out front, doing what they do best -- tracking and treeing coons.

Raccoon hunting is all about the thrill of the chase. In these days of a well-stocked grocery store just a few miles down the road from everyone, raccoons are not popular table fare. But heari

ng a pack of dogs chase one through the moonlight sure is fun!

Like bass fishing, coon hunting has developed a competitive aspect, with coon-dog trials held all across the country and national titles awarded for the best of the best.

Raccoons are very versatile mammals and thrive nearly anywhere. As development has spread across the state, raccoons have found garbage cans and backyard gardens to be just as good areas for foraging as are creeks and swamps. Any place is likely to hold a few raccoons. But mixed habitat with mature timber, openings and low ground cover is prime raccoon habitat.

Basic coon hunting strategy is to go to a likely area, turn out the dogs and let them do their thing. When a trail is struck, the music starts and reaches a crescendo when the striped bandit takes refuge high in a tree. The hunters then converge, either to harvest the raccoon or pull the dogs off and start the game all over again.

Approximately 4 percent of all hunters pursued raccoons. But on average, they made 28 nighttime trips into the woods, showing their dedication to their sport.

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 those provided. But populations are still plenty strong enough to provide good hunting.

Since most hunters overlook small game, even public lands receive very little pressure.

Small-game seasons and bag limits are generous. A call to your local Game Management office should give you the rundown on the best places and times to hunt on public land near you this winter.

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