Tennessee's Top Small-Game Hunting

Tennessee's Top Small-Game Hunting

Small-game hunting isn't just a thing of the past. Squirrels and cottontails are alive and well in Tennessee and just as much fun to hunt as they ever were. (December 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

In a time when deer and turkey hunting rule the land, small-game hunting has not only taken a backseat to big game, it's almost been lost in its wake. When most of us so-called veteran hunters were coming up, we cut our teeth on squirrels with .22s and learned patience waiting on a pack of beagles to bring a rabbit back around.

Today's youth are caught up in the technology whirlwind and stuck behind video game controllers more than behind the stocks of guns. The fortunate truth is that small-game hunting still exists in the Volunteer State, and for those willing to help get a youngster in on the act, there are rabbits to run and squirrels to tree. Cottontails and bushytails are still here -- and they're still fun to hunt.

Let's take a look at where small-game seasons stand for rabbits and squirrels in the modern era and what biologists as well as hunters have to say about continuing the time-honored tradition of small-game hunting.

REGION I

In Region I, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Small-Game Coordinator Jim Hamlington said the status of the squirrel hunting is one where squirrels are abundant in places; however, hunters are not. But there are several squirrel hunters in traditional squirrel-hunting areas, such as the Hatchie Bottom WMA in Haywood and Tipton counties.

Region I rabbits are faring well where you'd expect them to -- anyplace where they have habitat. Hamlington said rabbits seem to be doing well where idle ground is allowed to grow blackberry thickets and weeds, as well as warm season grasses. Two WMAs with many rabbits (and rabbit hunters taking advantage of the hunting) are White Oak and Wolf River.

Hamlington said the prime time to squirrel hunt right now is anytime the season is open. The best times of the day for still-hunting squirrels are in the morning and evening. Hamlington added that, later in the season after the leaves fall, squirrel hunting with a dog is good any time of the day. That's been a longstanding West Tennessee tradition that's spreading to the rest of the state.

He also said rabbit hunting is obviously best with beagles, and most hunters prefer to hunt in the morning hours. That's when you find the best scent conditions. Hamlington said squirrel hunting and rabbit hunting have not seen their best days in Tennessee. There's still plenty of it to be done.

REGION II

TWRA's Doug Markham said that the squirrel situation in Region II is simple: There are plenty of squirrels! When it comes to cottontails, it's not quite as good as the squirrel-hunting situation -- but it isn't bad, either. Markham said they have good rabbit years and then down years.

"We have some counties that seem to provide better hunting than others, and some counties that are becoming so developed that we have lost a lot of land," Markham explained. "Our WMAs are always a good place to look for rabbits. Don't overlook Percy Priest WMA. Small-game management does help. Anything that adds to our habitat and doesn't take from it is helpful."

As far as when to go, Markham said squirrel hunting is good throughout the fall, but as the leaves fall away and squirrels begin to forage for winter, things get better -- it's an excellent time to hunt. He said rabbit hunting is good when the season first opens normally, but as most hunters already know, February is also an excellent month for hunting because of the rut.

As to whether squirrel hunting and rabbit hunting have seen their best days, Markham said squirrel hunting is probably an underutilized resource. "We have a state full of squirrels and a daily limit of 10 that most of the time goes unfilled," he added. "Rabbit hunting is likely to stay cyclical -- very common for the species -- and the biggest concern for hunters will be loss of habitat."

REGION III

Forest Stewardship biologist Billy Swafford, in Region III, said the squirrel population in that area is coming back pretty strong now. They've definitely rebounded, but there are just not enough hunters pursuing them. Biologists are also seeing more rabbits in Region III. Swafford said they're doing OK, and the last few years have seen increased production of cottontails.

Swafford agrees with most biologists and hunters that the best time to hunt squirrels is when the leaves are coming off the trees and nuts are plentiful. He added that rabbit hunting is best in the winter months. Although squirrel and rabbit populations are improving in Region III, Swafford said there could still be some work done in that area. The lack of hunting pressure has helped build populations since small-game hunting just isn't at the forefront of hunters' minds these days. Because of that, squirrel and rabbit hunting still offers some good opportunities afield.

REGION IV

Biologist David Brandenburg in Region IV said squirrels are underutilized there as well and seem to be abundant based on the number of nuisance calls coming in about them. With bear, deer and turkey populations at all-time highs, you just don't see the interest you once saw in squirrel hunting.

Brandenburg said rabbit populations cycle up and down, but they are higher than they've been in some time. He also noted that rabbits are essentially a byproduct of habitat. The good thing about rabbits is they do best when you do nothing. Brandenburg explained as long as you have idle areas, rabbits are fine. He added that cottontail populations for some reason are better the farther west you go across the state, but all areas are losing rabbit hunters.

He said rabbit populations coincidently are highest in the fall when the season rolls around. Brandenburg, who is also heavily into training beagles, said the cool fall weather is the best time to run dogs. Brandenburg agreed the best time to squirrel hunt is when the leaves hit the ground, but he's concerned about the lack of mast this year and the effect it might have on squirrels.

The veteran biologist also said people need to take advantage of a solid squirrel population. He doesn't understand why hunters don't combine deer scouting in the early fall with squirrel hunting. Brandenburg also said he hopes rabbit hunting hasn't seen its best days, because it's taken him 40 years to get the quality hounds he's putting on the ground now. He's definitely looking forward to the next 20 years.

TIME-TESTED RABBIT HUNTING

Tim Seaton of Pigeon Creek Kennels in Greene County has been running beagles hardcore since 1992. Seaton's field trialing has slowed dow

n a little in recent years, but he's still going. He's a past member of the executive board of the American Rabbit Hound Association and knows beagles. Pigeon Creek Kennels is still home to 14 active beagles, and Seaton likes to run four to five of them when he's hunting rabbits.

The rabbit veteran will run dogs all year long, keeping them in shape and ready to hunt or field trial at any time. Seaton's first love is field trailing but don't think he won't gun hunt when given the opportunity. The truth is he knows to keep the dogs interested and every now and then, you have to reward them with a gun hunt. It's a reward for the hunter as well. But whether running his dogs in competition or in the field with a shotgun, Seaton's rabbit hunting has always been about the beagles themselves. Like other hunting sports that rely on hounds to locate game, the hunting is really about the dogs.

When it comes to which beagles to put in the field, Seaton hunts both males and females but prefers the hunting style of females. He said they just hunt better. Males spend plenty of time stopping to mark territory as males often do, while females get down to the business of hunting.

The advantage of having a good male that'll hunt and gain a reputation, especially when it comes to field trialing, is that you can garner a good stud fee once the word gets out, and it does. The other disadvantage to hunting only females is that as nature has it, they'll come into heat, and sometimes that's during hunting season or when a key field trial is slated.

Once the late season arrives, Seaton turns his beagles loose in fields that have mild flora bushes left. Briars are a big deal this time of year and are about the only cover left. He said many of the grasses are now gone and he looks for overgrown fields and overgrown fencerows that hold late-season rabbits. With all the recent development even in rural areas, you have to get out and look for areas to hunt.

The tough part about rabbit hunting these days is the major development with subdivisions sprouting up everywhere. Seaton said you can find a place to hunt, but there are just not as many big fields as there used to be. The result is turning dogs loose in areas bounded by neighborhoods and subdivisions, and hunting dogs including beagles aren't aware of property lines (although rabbits seem to be).

In the late winter, Seaton particularly likes to run his dogs in the afternoon. Afternoons are definitely best, especially if you have a warm day after a cold morning or a morning rain. Seaton said after a rain, the damp ground makes for good scent conditions for beagling. And the sun brings the rabbits out to warm up after a cold or wet morning.

One of what Seaton calls his late-season secrets is to hit the field after a snow. If you don't have time to hunt, at least get out and scout. He said it's a good time to find rabbit tracks and to see just what areas they're using. It's just a good time to hunt or scout.

On the best days, Seaton expects his dogs to produce three or four races per morning or afternoon. The dogs don't always bring the rabbit back around for a shot, but your best strategy for getting one is to stay put after the pack jumps a rabbit. Seaton said rabbits have a tendency to circle back trying to cross their tracks to confuse the dogs. The ideal situation is to have a group of hunters spread out waiting on the cottontail to swing back around and present a shot. He said when the dogs start to head back toward you, look for an open area or a shooting lane, and get ready. The rabbit may be trying to cross up the dogs but won't know you're lying in wait for him to cross your path.

Regardless of development encroaching into traditional rabbit-hunting areas, Seaton said the future of rabbit hunting is bright and sustained. He's seeing a good number of rabbits in the field, and young hunters seem to be getting more involved in the sport. They're not only getting beagles and hitting the fields, they're taking part more and more in the field trials.

Seaton said the Internet has also opened up many resources for beginners and veteran beagle folks as well. You can find a wealth of information on anything from kennel design to beagle health. Most beagle hunting Web sites have question-and-answer forums that can help anyone out. Rabbit season continues through the end of February with a limit of five per day.

SQUIRREL DOGS

Squirrel hunting with dogs in West Tennessee is as much a tradition as bear hunting with dogs is in East Tennessee. Mike McLemore made his name with a duck call. He's a three-time world champion and champion of champions duck caller, but McLemore has been hunting squirrels with dogs for 25 years as well.

What makes a good squirrel-hunting day? McLemore said a day with a misting rain is by far best. Or, it's at least a day where it's rained a little and then quit. The damp ground makes for good scenting conditions for the dogs, but it helps the squirrels also. McLemore said it's easier for squirrels to find nuts when the ground is damp, and they just can't help themselves -- they gotta get on the ground.

Squirrel hunting with dogs also adds a little more excitement when introducing youth to the tradition, but McLemore said adults are more impressed by a treeing squirrel dog. Adults just appreciate a good dog. In his stable of squirrel addicts, McLemore has one mountain cur and the rest of the dozen are mountain feists. He likes to have two good dogs on hand at all times and a few to train. He'll hunt a good dog with an apprentice dog for two or three days and then turn it over to the other veteran and a rookie.

"A good tree dog just has that mentality," McLemore explained. "It's hard to find the perfect dog."

He said he's seen beagles and pointers make good squirrel dogs as well. McLemore likes to get a dog to hunt good first and then tree afterward. Once they figure out the game and what it is you're trying to do, most of them make good squirrel hunters. The best time of the year to hunt bushytails with dogs is like any other squirrel hunting -- when the leaves are off the trees. It's a simple matter of being able to see them. Sometimes the dogs will even pick them out of the trees. And the veteran squirrel hunter said he's always heard from older hunters that a good dog can hear a squirrel climbing the side of a tree -- and from a distance.

McLemore said the colder days aren't the best for squirrel hunting, because squirrels hole up and only come out for about 30 minutes after daylight and for the same period before dark. If you go, you have to go when they're stirring. If he hits one of those misty days, McLemore said when he takes three or four people with him, they can shoot anywhere from 18 to 25 squirrels and up to 30 on a good trip.

Most of the time, he'll hunt a couple hours a day by himself while training a dog. If he trees six squirrels, he'll shoot two or three out for the dog. Like with a coon dog, you have to reward them from time to time by letting them see what the objective really is in the end. He said if he shot all he treed, he'd soon be without a good place to hunt. The 62-year-old McLemore's only regret is that he didn't start squirrel

hunting with dogs back when he was 15 years of age. He said he's missed a lot despite 25 years of it and climbing --that's how much he loves the sport.

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