Winter Small-Game Options For Virginians

Winter Small-Game Options For Virginians

Done with deer for the season but want to keep hunting? Some of the most enjoyable hunting in Virginia awaits the small-game hunter. (January 2006)

Salem's Skip Lautenschlager and his bird dog celebrate downing a Craig County grouse. Today's Virginia grouse hunters have to scramble to kill ruffs.
Photo by Bruce Ingram

As much as I enjoy hunting for deer and turkeys, one of the best things about January is that the month is a superlative time to go after ruffed grouse, squirrels and rabbits. January Saturdays are marvelous times for those with bird dogs and beagles to ramble after ruffs and rabbits, respectively. And many January weekdays after work, I like to go on stand behind my house for an hour or so for squirrels. Here's what is currently happening with what are arguably Virginia's three most popular small-game animals.

RUFFED GROUSE

Gary Norman, forest game bird project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), is best known for his work with the state's wild turkeys. But Norman also keeps tabs on the grouse population. Much of the news is not good.

Norman told me that clearly we're losing grouse hunters in Virginia. For example, he offered the following figures by year (with the number of grouse hunters in parentheses): 1980 (38,323), 1993 (28,619), 1994 (34,156), 1995 (29,625), 1996 (24,817), 1997 (26,738), 1998 (24,782), 1999 (18,361), and 2001 (18,911).

For 2001, the last year for which figures were available, the number of grouse hunters was down some 20,000 from 1980. The biologist noted that this trend is evident in other Southeastern states as well. Some hunters may welcome this news in that they will feel that there are more birds for them. But when a game animal's numbers decrease and the individuals that pursue that animal decrease as well, when fewer people pursue a game animal, then there is a corresponding drop in individuals who will come to meetings, write letters, and advocate for that game animal.

The DGIF also monitors fool hen numbers by means of its "Grouse/ Turkey Route Cooperators" survey. For this data-gathering enterprise, cooperators cover routes through suitable habitat and periodically make stops in order to listen for birds drumming. In 2005, cooperators made 812 "stops" and heard on average only 0.08 drumming birds per stop. The average from 1994 through 2005 was 0.14.

Norman also gave specific data detailing the lack of birds.

Only 0.92 grouse were flushed per hour during the 2003-04 season, the last one for which data was available at press time. The spring 2004 breeding population remained stable but at low levels. To compare, the long-term average is 1.16. The lowest ever rate was 0.72 in 1976-77.

The grouse hunter satisfaction rating for 2003-04 was 2.7 on a scale of 1 to 7. In recent years, the rating ranged from 3.2 to 4.0.

All indices suggested a significant decline in Virginia's grouse population in 2003-04.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a 2.3 percent annual decline in grouse breeding population levels.

A DGIF report stated that cooperating grouse hunters reported higher flushing rates on private lands than on public-owned lands. Private lands could have better habitat or lower hunting pressure than public lands. The report also stated that forest management on national forest lands is declining in Virginia, so the future for grouse hunting on the national forest is uncertain.

"Regarding where to hunt on public lands, I think some department lands offer good prospects for grouse because we're continuing to cut timber and create grouse habitat, but we don't have that much land and it's easily overhunted," Norman added. "Therefore, I'm reluctant to give specific recommendations for state WMAs. Generally, I think the key is to check with the local DGIF staff to see where we've cut timber 10 or 15 years ago and how much. The same goes for national forest lands. In general, I believe we have better grouse populations farther west and southwest."

Given the low grouse populations today, fool hen fanciers have to work hard for their flushes. Skip Lautenschlager, a Salem lawyer, said that loss of habitat, creeping suburbia, the selling of small farms, and a lack of clearcuts all have combined to hurt grouse numbers. He offers these tips for today's Virginia grouse hunter.

"I recommend concentrating on dense growth, young growth and cutovers, but still, the birds aren't going to be there a lot of the time," Lautenschlager said. "So you have to cover more ground, develop a hit-and-run plan through all types of places.

"It's hard to train a young dog with this type of hunting approach because you put up so few birds. That's why I recommend that bird hunters go to preserves to train their dogs."

Jack Leffel of Eagle Rock is another veteran upland bird enthusiast. Leffel said that he experienced somewhat better hunting in 2004 than in previous years, but even then, the wing-shooting was not close to what it once was.

"To be a successful grouse hunter now, you have to go to places where other people don't go," Leffel said. "There are still patches of good grouse habitat around, but they are far from roads and well back in the mountains. But you just can't go to just any old place and expect to put up a bird.

"For example, years ago, you could go to a given hollow, put up a bird, and kill it. Then you could go back to that same spot the next week and put up another bird. Now if you kill a bird in one place and return there later, you won't find another grouse."

Leffel related that certain types of locations will still hold the random ruff or two. Grouse relish greenbrier (also known as catbrier) berries and will gather in copses containing this soft mast. The Eagle Rock sportsman said that many of the grouse he downed last year had greenbrier berries in their crops. Other contents were teaberries, small leaves and acorns.

Leffel also recommended that if the birds seem to be congregating in thick cover, then wing-shooters should consider No. 6 high brass shot. This load is especially good later in the season, as is the case now. The grouse season continues through Feb. 11. The bag limit is three per day.

RABBIT AND SQUIRREL OVERVIEW

DGIF biologist Pat Cook works out of the Farmville office and has the task of monitoring rabbit and squirrel populations. As is the case with grouse and grouse hunters, fewer cottontails and cottontail hunters exist today than in the past. The last time the DGIF surveyed hunte

rs on their game preferences was the 2001-2002 season.

"During the 2001-2002 season, 19.5 percent of licensed hunters hunted rabbits," Cook said. "This percentage was 3.4 times that reported for bears, 2.8 times that reported for ducks, three times that reported for quail, and 2.6 times that reported for grouse.

"There are fewer rabbits today than there were 50 years or so ago. However, over the last 10 years, the rabbit population has remained relatively stable."

For more success, Cook suggested that bunny fans narrow their searches to very specific habitat.

"The eastern cottontail is an early successional species," he said. "It may be encountered in a variety of habitats, but is most abundant in areas that contain a mixture of weeds, grasses and short brush. Since rabbits are the favorite prey of so many predators (for example, bobcats, foxes, hawks and owls), patches of escape cover in the form of dense shrub thickets, brushy fencerows, hedgerows, blackberry thickets and brushpiles are crucial. Areas where these patches are in close proximity to feeding areas provide ideal habitat. Well-drained fields of dense grass, such as switchgrass, provide prime nesting cover."

Virginian sportsmen don't typically consider public land when planning excursions for rabbits, but nevertheless, some possibilities exist.

"In fact, most public lands will have at least a few rabbits, some more than others," Cook continued. "However, it's important to note that these areas are often heavily hunted. So rabbits won't typically be super abundant on most places (even those with ideal habitat). On Amelia WMA, rabbit harvest has been reduced through a permit system (quota hunt). Since the permit system was initiated in 1998, the satisfaction rating of rabbit hunters on Amelia WMA has increased."

The rabbit season continues through Feb. 13. The bag limit is six per day.

I would guess that many if not most Old Dominion sportsmen were introduced to hunting by going after squirrels with a relative or peer. Although deer remain without question the most popular big- or small-game animal in the Commonwealth, Cook notes that silvertails still boast a considerable following.

"During the 2001-2002 season, 32.5 percent of licensed hunters hunted squirrels," he said. "This percentage was 5.6 times that reported for bears, 4.7 times that reported for ducks, 4.9 times that reported for quail, 4.3 times that reported for grouse, and 1.7 times that reported for rabbits. Of course, it lagged behind deer hunting and was equal to turkey hunting (fall and spring combined). It was higher than spring turkey hunting."

I find it very interesting that nearly one-third of Virginia hunters pursue squirrels, and that these treetop dwellers have more fans than spring gobblers. Part of the bushytail's popularity could be its abundance.

"Gray squirrels are increasing in number," Cook said. "The subspecies of fox squirrel that is hunted in Virginia (found in the western part of the state) is increasing as well and expanding its range eastward. There are two other subspecies of fox squirrel in Virginia. The Delmarva fox squirrel is endangered and the Southern fox squirrel is rare. Both of these subspecies are located in counties where hunting for fox squirrels is prohibited."

Cook added that squirrel hunting is popular in every region of the state, although fox squirrel hunting is limited to the western part of the state, plus the counties of Culpepper, Fauquier, Loudoun, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock. The season continues through Jan. 31. The bag limit is six per day combined. That means that hunters can kill a total of six gray and fox squirrels but not six grays and six foxes.

The biologist also stressed the importance of older hunters introducing younger or budding sportsmen to squirrel hunting.

"Taking youths squirrel hunting is a great way to introduce them to hunting," he said. "As I'm sure you are aware, the number of hunters in Virginia is dwindling. Every sportsman should be alarmed by this trend. To keep this important tradition alive, we must recruit new hunters. In the 1998-1999 general hunter survey, 52.2 percent of hunters responded that the squirrel was the first species they ever hunted (deer were next at 23.4 percent).

"Of current hunters who introduced a youngster to the sport of hunting within the past five years, 66.1 percent took them deer hunting (only 20.4 percent took them squirrel hunting). I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with taking a kid deer hunting, but introducing him or her to squirrel hunting first may be a better approach for some kids. Their chances of harvesting an animal is much higher and it doesn't require as much patience."

RABBIT TACTICS

Frank Sizemore, a self-employed pantry and remodeling contractor from Catawba, often goes rabbit hunting with friend, Jack Tyree, also of Catawba.

"A key to our success is that the areas we go to, we don't overhunt," Sizemore explained. "Jack and I try to find private land places that other people don't have access to for rabbits. We also very seldom hunt the same place more than twice in a season. For example, we might go to a farm at the beginning of the season, but then won't go again until near the end of the season. We like to always leave some rabbits behind for the next time, too.

"Jack and I also refuse to jumpshoot a rabbit. By that, I mean that we won't shoot a rabbit in its bed or if the animal just randomly gets up. If the dogs aren't chasing that rabbit, we won't shoot it. For us, the most important thing is the dog work."

Sizemore said that the biggest threat to rabbit hunting is the loss of habitat through the increasing suburbanization of Virginia. But he also bemoans the lack of old, overgrown fencerows, which cottontails so dearly love to hunker down in. And he said that when Westvaco sold its Virginia land, it was a dark day for rabbit hunters, as well as for those sportsmen who pursue other game.

Interestingly though, he and Tyree like to travel to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest.

"A clearcut on the national forest, or a clearcut anywhere for that matter, between three and six years old is a great place to go after rabbits," he said. "If you want to check out the potential of a clearcut, look at the base of small trees and see if the wood has been gnawed on. If the bark sort of looks like a small beaver has been cutting on the wood, then rabbits are present. After about age seven, a clearcut has trees that have gotten to be too big around for the rabbit hunting to be good."

SQUIRREL TACTICS

For me, there's no question that January is my favorite time to hunt squirrels. No longer do I have to worry about still-hunting through a wood lot for silvertails and possibly bumping deer from their beds, since the late muzzleloader season closes the first Saturday in January every year.

But a major re

ason why January squirrel hunting is so pleasurable is because it is so simple an activity -- especially after all the intensity of the fall deer and turkey seasons. No longer do I have to worry about scent-free clothes for deer or sitting perfectly still for turkeys. No longer do I have to worry about planning to don just the right kind of clothing in order to spend hours on stand for whitetails or worry about making the wrong call while looking for birds.

If you become cold while stand-hunting for squirrels, you simply get up and move. If you sound the wrong note on a squirrel call, no big deal. No squirrel cover scents exist (thank goodness), and we don't have to worry about our scent spooking the little gamesters.

What January squirrel hunting in Virginia does require (which is another one of its nice aspects) is knowledge of what this critter is consuming now. Typically, the mature hardwood stands of white oaks and mockernut hickories don't draw bushytails. Squirrels usually devour all the mockernut hickory nuts by late September and shortly afterward have downed the shagbark and pignut hickory nuts, too.

The white oak acorns vanish usually by late October, if not before. And it is a rare January when any of the nuts from Northern red, black, pin, blackjack or turkey oaks are on the ground. That means hunters will have to look for squirrels in pine groves, grape thickets and overgrown fencerows.

January may be the shank of the hunting season. But it is a pleasurable time to go after your favorite small-game critter.

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