Missouri's Wintertime Hunting Options

One of the many great things about living in Missouri is the fact that except for a few weeks leading up to the spring turkey season, it's always legal to hunt something. Moreover, the more-or-less two months between February 15 and opening day of the spring turkey season, and the short three weeks from the end of turkey season to the fourth Saturday in May when squirrel season opens, are the only times when it isn't legal to pursue one or more species of edible game.

That much opportunity requires most people to set priorities, and based on the number of permits sold, a large majority of the state's hunters choose firearms deer hunting either above or to the exclusion of everything else. Add about 100,000 bowhunters and a like number of turkey hunters and the "large" majority I just noted becomes a huge majority of the state's hunters who concentrate either all or at least most of their efforts on big game. With that much real or perceived competition, opening days are very big deals to deer and turkey hunters as anyone — and I do mean anyone — who's witnessed opening day of either the spring turkey season or the November portion of the firearms deer season will attest.

Opening days aren't totally unimportant to small game hunters, of course. Upland bird hunters and waterfowlers, for example, often venture out on their favorite opening days with a carefully chosen group of longtime friends. But whether they celebrate opening days or not, the days and weeks small game hunters most look forward to are happening right now. To find out how you can join the fun, let's begin by taking a closer look at rabbits and squirrels, which are not only Missouri's two favorite small game species, but which also have the longest open seasons of any edible game in the state.

RABBITS

Cottontail rabbits are Missouri's most popular small game, and why shouldn't they be? While there are undoubtedly some relatively small bunny-free pockets scattered here and there, it's not much of an exaggeration to say there are huntable numbers of cottontails the length and breadth of the Show Me State. Hunters in or near the Bootheel can also pursue swamp rabbits, which, while considered a separate species, look very much like an overgrown, darker-colored cottontail.

Rabbit hunters avoid their sport's Oct. 1 opening bell in droves. Some of these absentees would point out that Oct. 1 is also the opening day of the fall firearms turkey season. Others would note that the first half of the archery deer and turkey season is at its best in early October. Still others believe an ancient myth that states rabbits shouldn't be eaten until after the first hard freeze.

None of those reasons (or excuses) hold water from December through the close of the rabbit season at sunset on February 15. Firearms turkey hunting is over for the year. While it's true that the archery deer and turkey seasons remain open through January 15 and the muzzleloader deer season doesn't close until December 28, neither of those activities are very high on the priority lists of most small game hunters. Finally, it's extremely unlikely there's a single rabbit covert in the state that hasn't felt the bite of sub-freezing or even sub-zero temperatures.

There are more pragmatic reasons why December and January are the time to get serious about chasing cottontails. Of these, unfettered access to prime hunting land is among the most important. It's not that rabbit hunters couldn't spend all of their time on public land and end the season with big smiles, because they most assuredly could. That said, it's what is, for all practical purposes, limitless private land that opens up to rabbit hunters who agree to wait until after deer season that makes late-season hunting so exceptional.

Author's tip: Promising not to shoot quail opens still more gates.

Of course it doesn't make much difference how much land is available if the rabbits that live on it are not huntable. The cottontail's reputation for loving brier patches, weedy fields, brush-choked ditches and other equally nasty cover is well earned, and a swamp rabbit's affinity for canebrakes can make rousting the overgrown cottontails seem easy. The snow and windstorms that characterize Missouri weather from mid-November on are the only natural way to make cover that was impossible to hunt in October doable in December and January. At least that's true for those hunters and dogs that are willing to pay the price in scratches and aching legs.

An attendee at one of my seminars once asked me to name the single best thing about rabbit hunting. My first thought was to reply that beagles are the single best thing about rabbit hunting. Whether you choose to hunt with a single hound like I do or with a pack like most of my fellow beaglers, the additional sights and the sounds provided by four-footed assistants add immeasurably to the hunting experience.

No doubt fortunately, I caught myself before opening my mouth. The truth is that the best thing about rabbit hunting is the fact that there is no single "best" or even "right" way to go about it.

For example, a lone hunter or a small group of hunters operating independently can do well still-hunting along ditches and hedgerows or through crop stubble fields. Naturally, snow is an asset to this tactic, but it's far from a prerequisite. Riflemen, handgunners and archers need to be stealthy enough to have stationary targets. Shotgunners, on the other hand, are free to move faster and to make more noise.

Groups of hunters, especially those who hunt the habitat the Missouri Department of Conservation calls "old fields" on its properties, often copy the tactics so often used by pheasant hunters and use a combination of drivers and blockers to roust rabbits. The action can become fast and furious for both drivers and blockers. Shotguns and blaze orange clothing are highly recommended.

Stomping on brushpiles or through small patches of dense weeds or briers is yet another time-honored approach to bringing home the hasenpfeffer. The trick here is not to give up on a likely looking spot too quickly. It often takes several minutes of kicking and stomping to dislodge a determined cottontail.

SQUIRRELS

Missouri's squirrel hunting tradition pre-dates the appearance of the first European on its soil by thousands of years. There can be no better illustration of how alive and well that tradition continues to be in the 21st century than the fact that the squirrel season, which runs from the fourth Saturday in May through February 15, is longer than the season for any other edible game by a full four months.

Just as is the case with rabbits, rimfire rifles, muzzleloading rifles, both front- and breech-loading shotguns, archery gear and even atlatls are legal weaponry in the squirrel woods. Atlatls? Yep!

In the first few months of the season, arguments about the relative effectiveness — to say nothing of virtue of shotguns vs. rifles — break out wherever squirrel hunters come together. These discussions never completely stop, but by December, despite the fact that shotguns continue to be an acceptable choice, rifles reign supreme just as they did in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Most Missouri hunters say they're going squirrel hunting rather than say they're going fox squirrel hunting or gray squirrel hunting. That's logical enough. Both species are legal game, and both are lumped together as far as seasons, limits and methods go. But be that as it may, it's a wise hunter who understands the differences between these two very distinct species.

Fox squirrels take their name from the color of their fur, which is very similar to that of a red fox less the white tail tip. They thrive in linear habitats like hedgerows and riverine timber and, given the choice, seem to prefer bottomland timber to the ridges they sometimes visit. Fox squirrels often begin their morning feeding a half-hour or more after sunrise. During the winter months, they may remain active most of the day, although their level of activity wanes a couple of hours after sunrise and increases again about an hour before sunset.

Fox squirrels are laid-back animals and often pause for a minute or more at frequent intervals as they move through the treetops or on the ground searching for food. Unless they've been heavily hunted, their "comfort zone" seldom has a radius much more than 50 yards. Both of those traits endear them to hunters who prefer either shotguns or rifles.

Look for fox squirrels in small woodlots on public and private land. Fox squirrels don't need much room to thrive, and small parcels of land tend to be overlooked by hunters.

Gray squirrels are quite accurately named for the color of their fur. They're most at home in upland timber that's a mixture of hardwoods and cedars. Gray squirrels are up and about at first light. They usually, although not always, drastically reduce their activity level about two hours after sunrise and do not become active again until just before sunset. That activity pattern can be frustrating for hunters, because squirrel hunting in Missouri is legal only from sunrise to sunset.

Gray squirrels define the term frenetic. It's a good thing that shoot-'em-in-the-head riflemen are an optimistic lot, because grays rarely stop in the open long enough to take a shot — or so it seems. That trait makes gray squirrels good targets for shotgun-toting hunters, and they can be. The trouble is, the gray squirrels that have survived to December have very large comfort zones.

Gray squirrels are found on virtually every MDC property in the state that includes upland hardwood habitat. That said, the large blocks of timber found on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir project lands and in state and federal forests are the best bets for gray squirrel action. Check with the forestry biologist who manages the property for the latest information on acorn production.

ALTERNATE POSSIBILITIES

Some would say that a late season small game hunter's life can not be filled with mere rabbits and squirrels alone. They may have a point. Why else would Missouri's small game hunters have so many other options open to them in December and January?

Despite the basic truth of the gloom-and-doom talk that's surrounded our quail hunting for the past two decades, quail are not extinct in Missouri. In fact, it's quite possible to find small — and sometimes not so small — pockets of quail-holding habitat anywhere in the state that crops are grown or livestock is raised.

That said, the state's two northernmost tiers of counties are clearly the best bet. Many of the MDC-owned or managed properties in that area are being deliberately managed for the benefit of upland birds. In addition, more private landowners are including wildlife in their management plans with each passing year. While quail numbers may not be responding to these efforts as quickly as everyone would like, nevertheless, they are responding.

Pheasants are another reason to travel to Missouri's northern two tiers of counties, and this is especially true of the counties west of the Charitan River. Pheasant populations are spotty to be sure, but where there are pheasants, there often are a lot of them.

Quail and pheasant hunters who enjoy the luxury of using wide-ranging, yet biddable pointers and setters have a distinct advantage in northern Missouri, because crop fields are, on average, very large in that part of the state. That said, hunters without dogs can do very well by concentrating on small out-of-the-way pockets of heavy cover. Examples include abandoned farmsteads, pond banks, the center pivots of irrigation systems and cattail swamps.

Waterfowl seasons hadn't been officially set when this issue went to press, but based on recent years, it seems certain that duck and/or goose hunting will be legal in the Middle Zone at least through most of December and in the Southern Zone for most of January as well.

Stockton Reservoir is a consistent late-season duck producer in central Missouri, because it seldom freezes over, even when Truman and other bodies of water only a few air miles north do. Big-water tactics with hundreds of decoys and boats with built-on blinds are sound tactics in Mays Creek and above the bridge near Mutton Creek on the Big Sac River arm. That said, six- to 12-block decoy spreads set in protected areas anywhere around the lake where duck hunting is legal will pull in plenty of birds to satisfy one or two hunters.

The Bootheel is always a good choice for anyone who wants to get in some late-season goose hunting with an "appetizer" of duck hunting. Field shooting is the rule here. Outfitters and hunt clubs lease a lot of land in that part of the state, but there's plenty of land open to hunters who are willing to put out some effort to find it.

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