3 Winter Small-Game Options For Virginians

Your hunting season does not have to end with the close of deer season. Some of the best hunting of the year can be yours now in uncrowded woods! (January 2007)

Photo by William Vaznis

At the close of deer season, we at Virginia Game & Fish hope you were able to fill your tags this season. You may be thinking about hanging up your hunting gear for the year, but there are three good reasons to keep the coat and shotgun handy: squirrel, rabbit and late-season dove hunting. All three seasons offer a faster-paced hunting trip that can often be done a short distance from home. The success rate of hunters venturing afield for small game in January is quite good.

SQUIRRELS

Squirrel hunting is reportedly the most popular small-game pursuit in Virginia. However, a survey in 2004 showed that only 32 percent of licensed hunters in Virginia hunted squirrels.

Pat Cook, small-game biologist with VDGIF, spoke with me and reported that squirrel hunter numbers have remained constant for 10 years. What does this mean for prospective squirrel hunters? Squirrel hunting is quite good and the pressure is very light on this agile small-game animal. In fact, according to Cook, squirrel populations have tripled since 1988.

Squirrel hunters will find that the hunting is good statewide. Squirrels are very adaptive and will live anywhere from downtown at the city hall to the deep woods. The last survey that VDGIF conducted reflected the greatest numbers of squirrels were in northern Virginia. Most WMAs have good populations of squirrels, which gives hunters without permission to hunt on private land a great place to go. Every corner of the state has some public land within a short drive.

Cook suggested that hunters go to the "Find Game" page on the VDGIF Web site. It can be found at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/hunting/findgame.asp. The link allows users to locate areas near their home where they can hunt and the site lists which game animals can be found in each location. Once a location is selected, directions, facilities and a description can be brought up. This is a great tool for hunters to use when doing some research or scouting.

Late-Season Tips

Squirrel hunting in September and squirrel hunting in January requires two very different approaches. When hunting bushytails in September, you can get quite close to your meal of Brunswick stew. Shotguns loaded with light loads are preferred in the early fall when the squirrels are busy bouncing around in the tops of trees feeding on hickory nuts and acorn mast. Ranges are quite short at this time.

However, once the trees have shed their foliage and just about all of the mast has fallen to the ground, squirrels are more often found on the ground scrounging for cached meals instead of running from limb to limb in a tree. Because there is much less foliage, squirrels are also seen at a greater distance and they are more apt to spook and hide as a result. For this reason, many hunters will switch over to a .22 rifle to take squirrels in the late winter.

Squirrels will still be found in and around hardwood lots, just as they were in the early season. The difference is that hunters should approach the area very quietly and move very slowly. While a casual walk through a hardwood lot in early fall was productive, more time sitting and waiting is in the works for a late-season hunt. If there are beech trees in the area, they are a great place to spend some time hunting. Beech trees often retain their smaller nuts a little longer and offer squirrels a more abundant supply of winter food during years of poor acorn mast.

Squirrels that hear or see a hunter approaching will take refuge high in a tree, in a knothole or even on the backside of a nearby tree. If the approach is quiet, the squirrels will soon forget the disturbance and resume their feeding activity. It is amazing how close one can get to a bushytail and never know it is there. Squirrels have popped out on the side of a tree in an open wood lot less than 10 feet from me a few minutes after I sat down.

Sit near or against a tree trunk to break up your outline as you wait. Give the spot 20 minutes or so before quietly moving on. Stop often while moving to the next spot to listen for chattering or leaves rustling as the rodents search among leaves for a cache of nuts.

If a squirrel is spooked, all is not lost. Take a seat quickly and begin searching for the squirrel. Most often, the varmint will begin barking a warning to other squirrels in the area. This can be a boon to the hunter, as other squirrels will answer the warning. A sharp eye and a good rifle shot can quickly fill the game vest.

Squirrels also have a habit of twitching their tails when they are angry or alarmed. This gives away their position. If you have a turkey locator call that makes a hawk scream, this will make a squirrel scurry out of its location and take up a perch on the side of a tree while barking and angrily flicking its tail. Keep such a call handy for those times when you know a squirrel is in the area, but you cannot find it.

Most avid squirrel hunters have a few tricks they like to use. There are two tricks I like to use to fill my bag with dinner. First, I really enjoy taking my retriever with me. Any breed of dog can be trained to retrieve a downed squirrel, but with a little additional basic training, a topnotch squirrel dog can become your steady partner in the hardwoods.

I use my dog to listen for squirrels. A dog's hearing is far keener than a human's and my dog will begin to stare in the direction of an approaching squirrel long before it gets within range of my .22. He also marks squirrels that are hiding on the sides of trees but chattering quietly. Once I make the shot, I send my retriever down to make the pick up while I remain ready for any nearby squirrels that may "swivel" or move to my side of the tree as my dog goes past their position. It is not uncommon for me to pick off an additional squirrel in this manner.

Second, I like to hunt in the early mornings and late evenings during January for squirrels. Squirrels are creatures of habit and will come and go at the same time from their den tree. Find a large hollow tree such as a knotty old hickory, a massive beech tree or an old oak and you will be in business. If you are hunting in the morning, arrive before daybreak and sit quietly. As soon as it is light enough to see, the squirrels will begin to scurry out of the tree and head for the ground.

The same tactic can be applied in the evening after work or school. On more than one occasion, I have taken my limit of squirrels by sitting between two den trees and picking off squirrels as they made their way home for the evening. This tactic calls for no more than an hour of hunting time and g

ood shooting to take home dinner. Things get real exciting at dusk!

Fox Squirrels

Finally, a consideration of squirrel hunting in Virginia would be lacking without a mention of the fox squirrel. Most of the squirrel hunting is done in pursuit of the gray squirrel. However, in the western counties of Virginia, ample fox squirrel hunting can be had as well. The same basic principles of gray squirrel hunting apply to fox squirrel hunting, with one major exception. Fox squirrels prefer to take to the ground in woods that are more open and especially near abandoned fields or field edges. If you have never seen a fox squirrel, be prepared, they are huge! These animals are much larger than a gray squirrel and will get your attention rapidly. When pressed, a fox squirrel will climb a tree, but they prefer to run along the ground.

RABBITS

The number two small-game animal in Virginia is undoubtedly the cottontail rabbit. In fact, many would argue that the cottontail rivals the gray squirrel for the top slot in small-game hunting. There truly is not much that can get the blood pumping on a cold Virginia day in January faster than a pack of beagles hot on the trail of a cottontail rabbit. The baying of hounds and the flash of this spry and nimble game animal as it dashes by will put a smile on your face every time.

Rabbit hunter numbers appear to be fairly constant, according to VDGIF figures, and rabbit populations appear to be fairly stable despite considerable development of land and habitat. Cook noted that rabbit populations face a threat when there are changes in the uses of land that reduce the quality or quantity of their habitat.

Southwest Virginia is particularly well known for great cottontail hunting, but cottontails are found statewide wherever there is open habitat consisting of short brush, weeds and grasses. Old home sites, berry brambles, cutovers, overgrown fields, field edges, apple orchards and pastures are excellent locations to turn a beagle out of the dog box and a hang a shotgun in the crook of your arm. By using the "Find Game" link mentioned in the previous section, hunters can locate public lands with good rabbit populations that are near their residence.

Late-Season Tips

There are two ways to hunt cottontails. The first and by far the most popular way is to use a few good rabbit dogs, mainly beagles, to roust rabbits out of the thickets and brambles. Rabbit hunting in such a manner is exciting for an entire group of people, whether they are hunting buddies or family members.

Hunters turn a small pack of beagles of up to 10 dogs loose in a cutover, pasture or thicket and wait for the fun to begin. The short-legged and enthusiastic hounds search for a fresh scent and then the chase begins. Once one dog hits the trail, all the dogs pile on. Hunters spread out, armed with shotguns and wait for the dogs to run the rabbit within range. Most of the time the rabbit is far ahead of the dogs and will at times pause, giving the hunter a better shot. However, this is not always the case and running shots are not uncommon.

Rabbits chased by hounds tend to make a loop and sometimes a miss by one hunter means an opportunity for the next hunter in the loop. Fast reflexes, a well-patterned 20-gauge scattergun loaded with No. 6 or No. 7 1/2 shot, and the desire to have fun will be all that is needed to have a great day afield chasing rabbits.

Virginia hunter Frank Spuchesi enjoys turning his beagles loose in a rabbit field and hearing them run. Spuchesi commented that first-time rabbit hunters should remember to dress for the occasion. Brush pants that will ward off briars, an upland game vest and a thick pair of leather gloves to deal with briars and thorns are a good idea. Heavy boots that are waterproof are also something to consider.

Spuchesi also advised hunters new to the sport of rabbit hunting with hounds to locate a clear position that has some high ground relatively close to where the dog jumped a rabbit rather than chasing or following the pack as they trail the long-eared quarry. The rabbit will almost always return to the area where it was jumped.

Even though blaze orange is not required of rabbit hunters who are hunting outside of firearms deer season, it certainly would be wise to wear such safety gear. Running dogs and thick cover make it easy to lose track of where everyone is. Blaze orange will help you quickly identify the location of your hunting buddies.

The second and more passive way to hunt winter cottontails is to stand-hunt along hedgerows, fields and in orchards. The northern portion of the state is dotted with a number of orchards, which in turn attract many rabbits. Hunters can slowly walk through the bare orchards stopping regularly to sit and watch. This technique is very effective in areas where there are good numbers of rabbits. The orchards are still productive hunting grounds even though the apples have been picked because many apples are in various states of decomposition on the ground, and there is plenty of grass for the rabbits to feed on in the open areas between trees.

Hunters moving along hedgerows and field edges will find that a stalk-and-sit approach works very well in the late afternoon right up until dusk. Rabbits will venture out near dusk to feed. In such locations, a shotgun can be used, but in open areas where it is safe to do so, a .22 rifle can increase the range and cut down on the stalking distance a hunter must cover to bag dinner. Hunters without dogs may also get together and roust rabbits by stomping on brushpiles.

DOVES

Much of Virginia's dove hunting takes place in September, but I have found the action to be hotter in January.

Late-season dove hunting is a far different cry than the early fall season. Hunters wanting to take their limit of 12 birds will need to do some scouting and sharpen their wing-shooting to be successful. Doves love to congregate in evergreen trees in the evening during the winter. Find a grain field or cutover that has pine trees on the edges. An hour or so before sunset, take a position near a bush or small tree either in the field or near its edge. Hedgerows are great, too. As sunset nears, the doves will begin flying toward the pine trees to roost. The pine trees offer thermal cover to the birds.

Hunters should be prepared for multiple shots, as the birds can come in singles or whole flocks at a time. A good retriever is an asset, as the shooting can be intense and the end of legal shooting hours comes quickly when the action is hot.

Gary Costanzo, biologist with VDGIF, noted that there is not too much pressure from hunters on doves in January, but with some scouting the hunt can be successful.

"Any of the WMAs that you would find good bird hunting during the early season are worth a scouting trip in January. More times than not, you will find you have the area to yourself."

There are a number of ways to spend the month of January. I prefer to stay warm by hunting squirrels, rabbits and doves every chance I get. The hunting is fine and a welcome change to the tough last days of deer season spent sitting on a

stand. The eating is great, too. Don't put your shotgun in the rack just yet. Get in on the great small-game action this month to tide you over before fishing starts in February!

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