Winter Hunts In The Gulf States

Winter Hunts In The Gulf States

Deer may get all the attention, but in Mississippi and Louisiana the winter offers more species to hunt. Here's an overview of what's available.

Marsh hens are abundant along the Louisiana coast, but don't get a lot of attention from hunters. Photo by Polly Dean.

Tired of competing with thousands of other hunters on limited public land and rarely seen game? Want to hunt abundant species with long seasons, liberal bag limits and little pressure -- sometimes no seasons or limits?

Sportsmen don't need to fly to Canada or Africa for such action. While others chase whitetails, hunters who target largely ignored species can enjoy more days afield and bag more game close to home, frequently on public property largely devoid of competition.

DOVES

The traditional September dove opener kicks off another hunting season each year, but many sportsmen forget about doves until the following year. However, the late season can provide some of the best shooting all year with the top fields empty of hunters. In both Louisiana and Mississippi, split seasons may extend into January with generous limits.

Doves prefer pastures, grasslands or agricultural fields punctuated by occasional trees, brush or fencerows. Both states sometimes lease fields where hunters can pay a daily fee to hunt. Some private landholders also allow hunting for a fee.

Additionally, any wildlife management area with open brush fields might hold doves. A couple worth trying are 10,801-acre Wolf River WMA near Picayune, Miss. or Sandy Hollow WMA, a 3,697-acre plot near Amite, La.

SQUIRRELS

Opening in October, squirrel season usually draws crowds, but most people ignore this species after the first weekend or two. Seasons in both Louisiana and Mississippi last until late February. In a public area that prohibits deer hunting or only allows it for a brief season, squirrel hunters might tramp over miles of woods without seeing another human after mid-October.

Hunters may bag either fox or common gray squirrels. Grays prefer denser hardwood bottoms and swamps. Larger and more colorful fox squirrels thrive in uplands of sparse pines and scattered hardwoods. Both species co-exist in some areas.

In Louisiana, sportsmen might visit the 10,989-acre Ouachita WMA near Monroe or 8,743-acre Sabine Island WMA near Vinton. In Mississippi, try hunting any hardwood forest in the Delta bottoms, such as those on 5,847-acre Twin Oaks WMA north of Vicksburg.

RABBITS

The season for cottontails parallels that of squirrels. That's when serious bunny chasers love to follow their dogs. They release packs of beagles into thickets and wait for rabbits to emerge.

Once the most popular game in the eastern United States, rabbit hunting fever has subsided somewhat in recent decades. Still a dedicated cadre loves to listen to baying beagles.

"I just like to come out here to listen to the dogs howl," said J.W. Bolton, a dedicated rabbit hunter from central Louisiana. "If someone has been doing this long enough, he can tell which dog is howling and why. We can tell when a dog is on a hot trail or just searching. I don't care if I shoot a rabbit at all. It's exciting just to hear the dogs."

Southern sportsmen can target two rabbit species, eastern cottontails and swamp rabbits, also known as cane cutters. Cottontails typically prefer upland habitat, while swamp rabbits readily take to wetlands and swim very well. Swampers sometimes escape from dogs by jumping into water and hiding under tangled roots with only their noses protruding above the surface.

Although difficult, sportsmen can bag rabbits without the aid of dogs. When "walking up" rabbits, make a lot of noise. Kick underbrush, log piles or other hiding places. Hunting in teams, walk in a line abreast across a field and kick every clump. In really thick cover, send one person smashing into a thicket while others watch likely escape routes.

Sportsmen can find rabbits just about anywhere from hills to marshes. For cottontails, pick one with open fields or clear-cuts. For swampers, hunt hardwood bottoms.

In Louisiana, visit the 54,269-acre Clear Creek WMA in Vernon Parish. In Mississippi, try the 5,300-acre Black Prairie WMA near Brooksville.

Though quail numbers are down, Mississippi still offers some action for bobwhites. Photo by Polly Dean.

QUAIL

Years ago, gentlemen sportsmen dressed in their best hunting attire to pursue quail on plantations. On the other hand, small farm owners just grabbed their shotgun and headed out the back door to skirt field edges. Bobwhites were everywhere.

Across the Southeast, wild quail populations have dropped drastically as suitable habitat vanished. Quail prefer tall grasses, open pine savannahs and brush. They thrive on field edges with plenty of weeds, grass clumps, briars or woody thickets for cover and seeds for food. Quail can't survive in monoculture croplands or pine plantations.

"Quail populations have been declining in much of North America since the early 1900s due to a variety of reasons," said Wes Burger, a quail expert at Mississippi State University. "From the mid-1900s through today, agricultural lands that supported quail no longer do because of the intensification of agricultural practices."

As small family farms separated by hedgerows disappeared, agricultural corporations merged these properties into giant holdings and plowed every inch of available ground. That left little cover for quail. As a result, most bobwhite hunting today takes place on preserves that release pen-raised birds.

Some pockets of wild quail remain where they find proper habitat. In the right spot, bobwhites reproduce quickly. In Louisiana, some of the best wild quail hunting occurs on the 604,000-acre Kisatchie National Forest.

Mississippi hunters might apply for special quail permits to hunt Hell Creek WMA in Union and Tippah counties.

WOODCOCK

Another more common game bird is the woodcock. These birds prefer very different habitat. More like gray squirrels, they thrive in thick hardwood forests where they can probe their long bills into soft mud to snatch earthworms. Many a startled squirrel hunter h

as recoiled as a screeching brown object about the size of a baseball exploded almost in his face before rocketing off through the thick underbrush.

Louisiana hosts approximately 70 percent of the migrating winter woodcock population, although few people intentionally chase these birds. Most shoot them only incidental to other hunting.

The Atchafalaya Basin attracts the bulk of those birds with many heading to the 44,000-acre Sherburne WMA near Krotz Springs.

In Mississippi, sportsmen may happen upon birds arriving with a major cold front. Woodcock might remain in one area a few days and then disappear.

Seasons in both states open in mid-December and run through late January.

SNIPE

Looking similar to woodcock, but lighter in color, snipe prefer open marshes and rice fields. Like woodcock, snipe zip erratically through the air after flushing in a screeching fury. The word "sniper," for an excellent marksman, once described sportsmen with skills sufficiently expert to bag flying snipe.

Although most snipe probably fall to waterfowlers targeting ducks or geese, hunting these diminutive birds makes challenging sport. Hunters can spread out through a moist marsh or field at intervals just out of shotgun range and walk them up. Snipe frequently flush only at the last second and then usually fly just a short distance. Sportsmen can usually kick them up again.

When targeting snipe in places that don't ban toxic ammunition, use No. 8 lead shot and an open choke 12- or 20-gauge shotgun.

Any coastal marsh that attracts ducks should hold snipe. In Louisiana, 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA near Slidell or 8,328-acre Manchac WMA near LaPlace usually hold good snipe populations.

With little public coastal marsh in Mississippi, sportsmen have fewer options for snipe. The best bet is to look for them in soggy upland fields. The 9,494-acre Ward Bayou WMA near Moss Point may hold a few snipe.

The season in both states typically runs from mid-November to late February.

RAILS & GALINULES

Rails and gallinules also congregate in marshes and along lake shorelines. Probably the least sought of any game birds along the Gulf coast, rails and gallinules can provide great sport with very liberal daily bags and almost no pressure.

You can shoot up to 15 purple and common gallinules, 15 king and clapper rails and 25 sora and Virginia rails for an astonishing 55 birds each day! The seasons generally begin in September and run into December.

Clapper rails, also called marsh hens, prefer salt marshes and often feed on exposed mud banks at low tide. Larger king rails stay near fresh water. Virginia rails look like scaled down versions of king rails. Sora rails look more like quail with short chicken-like bills.

Also called moorhens, gallinules also prefer freshwater systems. With their long toes, they can easily walk across lilies or matted vegetation.

Most people hunt rails and gallinules by poling or paddling small boats through reedy areas. More gregarious and better swimmers than rails, gallinules sometimes raft up in weedy coves. They usually duck into tall reeds rather than fly when sensing danger, but may run across the water to take off. Often, they emerge from the weeds a short distance away a few minutes later.

COOTS

Sportsmen can also paddle up coots, often called poule d'eau meaning "water hen" in Louisiana. Largely ignored by duck hunters, coots receive little hunting pressure and may allow a canoe to approach well within shotgun range -- even on an open lake.

When flushed, they run across the water and seldom fly more than a few hundred yards. Sportsmen then can usually sneak up on the flock again.

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