By John E. Phillips
In the Cotton State, small-game hunting has a long and revered history going back at least a century. Part of that is the result of a lot of sportsmen simply enjoying the pursuit of rabbits, squirrels and quail. On the other hand, it can also be attributed to the lack of other options.
More than 50 years ago, as far as we knew, no deer or turkeys lived within 100 miles of Birmingham, where I grew up. So hunting for smaller critters was the only “game” in town.
My history of hunting in Alabama is probably representative of many other hunters today that are past the ripe old age of 45. Unlike today’s youngsters, we started out on small game, evolving into turkey and deer hunters when that game became plentiful. But along the way, many of us never lost our love for hunting squirrels, jumping rabbits and flushing quail.
On the other hand, small-game hunting in Alabama has declined dramatically in participation over the last 35 years, while some of the game we hunted has fallen on hard times as well.
Keith Guyse, the assistant chief of Alabama’s Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries within the Department of Conservation and Natural Resource, is in a position to have an overall view of these resources, where they have been and where we are headed in the future. Here’s what he has to say regarding our small-game resources.
“Alabama’s in good shape on squirrels statewide,” Guyse explained. “Squirrels thrive in older-age hardwoods with some pine in them. We still have a lot of that kind of habitat within our state along stream edges and major water systems. You also find hardwoods around beaver ponds.”
Because Alabama’s squirrel population has remained constant for a long time, a few years ago, officials in the Wildlife Division extended the squirrel season through the month of February to take advantage of this underutilized resource.
“This practice has generated more interest in squirrel hunting,” Guyse noted. “We’ve had more participation in squirrel hunting now with the longer season. We’ve found the public is quite interested in hunting squirrels after deer season closes. We’ve also seen a renewed interest in hunting squirrels with dogs.”
Up through the mid-1960s, just about every rural family seemed to have a squirrel dog. As more people moved into cities, a squirrel dog became a rarity. However, in the last 10 years, hunting with squirrel dogs, especially the small feist breed, has made a comeback.
If you want a challenge that can improve your overall hunting skills, then head out after squirrels with a .22-caliber rifle. Each year I try to hunt squirrels two or three times before bow season for deer arrives. Squirrel hunting helps train the eye to identify movement in the woods. You will relearn the lessons of moving slowly, walking softly, using cover and aiming accurately in the thick foliage. All these lessons come in handy for larger game, but again come into play in January and February for squirrels again. In fact, with the leaves gone from the trees, getting a crack at a bushytail becomes even more of a game of stealth.
After a successful shot, don’t assume you have bagged the squirrel in that area. Rather look around for landmarks to pinpoint where the squirrel went down, then keep an eye out for more movement. These animals often exhibit a curious nature and check out unusual commotion. But, don’t expect them to hop on top of a limb in plain sight. More likely you will see the twitch of a tail as one peeks around a tree trunk. One way to make such a scenario more likely is to use .22 short ammunition. Though you may lose some range on your shots, the soft report from a shot is not going to carry far and is not as likely to send other squirrels scurrying for a hollow tree.
Of course, if you become so proficient at bagging bushytails that it seems too easy, you can turn to using a squirrel call to try and bring them into you. Or perhaps you’d like to give me a few lessons in the sport?
Squirrels are one species of game that has not suffered as much due to changing land use in Alabama. Part of that is because all four of the national forests in the state provide some excellent habitat for them. Also, just about all the state-managed wildlife management areas have some places the critters find quite comfortable.
According to Keith Guyse, the best squirrel hunting on any of these public lands is found along large creeks or rivers. That is because these are usually areas holding plenty of hardwoods that offer the animals forage and den trees.
“Black Warrior WMA is a large wilderness area with many mature hardwoods,” Guyse reported. “Although you may not want to hike out to the middle of this WMA, you can enjoy plenty of productive squirrel hunting around the edges.
Other overlooked sites for a squirrel hunt that he mentioned are the waterfowl WMAs scattered along the Tennessee River. Crow Creek, Mud Creek and Raccoon Creek WMAs, along with Crow Creek and North Sauty refuges in Jackson County have small wood lots with mature hardwoods and lots of squirrels. Also, Mallard-Fox Creek WMA in Lawrence and Morgan counties, Mallard-Fox Creek WMA in Lauderdale County and Swan Creek WMA in Limestone County fall in this category.
Many squirrel hunters in the west
-central section of the state find plenty of action for squirrels at Demopolis WMA on the floodplain of the Tombigbee River. You may need a boat to reach some of the prime spots on this WMA.
Also, in this same western part of the state, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns land along the Tenn-Tom Waterway that contains numerous river-bottom hardwood stands. These get very little hunting pressure.
The story of rabbit hunting in the Heart of Dixie is a mixed one. Back in the days of small family farms, the abundant field edges and row crops hid and fed hordes of cottontails and swamp rabbits. Though we traditionally think of rabbit hunts as involving a pack of beagles running the animals, rabbits were once so thick that dogs were a luxury, not a necessity,
Back then, five or six of my buddies and I would put on bunny drives near my home on Saturdays throughout hunting season. We’d spread out about 15 to 20 yards apart, stomp woodpiles, kick through fields, briar patches or cutovers and jump a number of cottontails.
It was only later as a young adult that I met Mel Stuart of Dora, who introduced me to the mesmerizing cries of a pack of beagles running a jumped rabbit in full circle back to our hunting party. I’ve loved to hunt bunnies with beagles ever since.
Unfortunately, changing land use and farming practices eliminated much of the edge habitat rabbits need, and urban/suburban living made keeping a pack of beagles pretty impractical. For those reasons, along with the rise of interest in bigger game, rabbit hunting activity declined.
But according to Guyse, the bunnies did not disappear and even have made a bit of a comeback.
“We still have plenty of rabbits within the areas that always have held rabbits,” he offered. “Rabbits like to stay near covered areas in field edges, small wood lots, grown-up fencerows and for the first few years in areas where timber has been clear cut. Rabbits need early successional grasses and plants that are low to the ground that they can eat.”
It is the need for this type habitat that explains why rabbits are on the rebound. As more hunters have started planting food plots for deer and turkeys, these green fields have become rabbit magnets.
“However, not all green fields provide really good rabbit habitat,” Guyse cautioned.
The food plots planted on the edges of clearcuts, open fields or pastures, along woods roads produce more rabbits than plantings deep in the woods. The open areas put the new food sources close to more natural rabbit habitat.
“But if you plant green fields for deer and turkeys,” he went on to concede, “then regardless of where you plant them, you’re also producing lands for rabbits and providing good places to hunt them.”
The Tennessee River Valley waterfowling areas mentioned earlier in north Alabama can be good places for rabbit hunts. That’s particularly true on Mud Creek, Crow Creek, Raccoon Creek, Swan Creek and North Sauty tracts in Jackson County.
“Any of the WMAs where the state has extensive farming operations, as at the waterfowling areas, will be good for hunting rabbits.
“All the Jackson County areas should have good populations of rabbits along planted field areas. You can find good populations on any wood roads, briar thickets and clearcuts there. Some of my favorite places to hunt rabbits are fields and croplands close to the edges of streams and rivers where you find cottontails and super-sized swamp rabbits,” Guyse concluded.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to the small-game outlook in the Yellowhammer State. That cloud hangs over the present condition and future of bobwhite quail.
As a youngster, I hunted quail. The story here was much like that for rabbits. There were plenty of birds and even without a dog we could walk some up. There was plenty of good habitat for bobwhites, so we just lunged through the areas where they roosted, fed and sought refuge. In the process, we would flush one to three coveys most days and take a few birds home for supper.
Later, while in high school, my dad and I bought a bird dog and hunted wild birds frequently. When I went off to college at the University of West Alabama in Livingston, I hooked up with Earnest “Smiley” Shaw from nearby York. He was a good friend to have, since he operated the Dairy Queen, owned bird dogs and let me hunt with him two to three times each week.
Back then, the small fields and gardens of family farms were abundant in the west-central section of Alabama. Such land use promoted the production of quail as well and getting permission to hunt was usually not difficult.
Most of that is gone now, and unlike for rabbits, the edges of deer hunters’ food plots have not been sufficient to support quail.
“The statewide quail population is not doing well and has been trending downward for decades now,” Guyse admitted. “The DCNR is concerned about quail populations and has paid quite a bit of attention. Much information has been learned about how to bring quail populations back in certain areas.
“Years ago, good quail habitat was a byproduct of the way the land was farmed,” he continued. “Almost every farmer had a garden, a pea patch, a corn field or some type of agriculture that he could produce with a mule and a plow.
“But to create that same type of habitat today takes a lot of time and money. Some sportsmen have begun burning regimes, crop planting and habitats on the lands that they own and have seen positive effects of the programs on native quail.”
Still, the prospects of a return to even a shadow of the great bobwhite populations of six or seven decades ago are slim. Unlike deer and turkey that were brought back from the edge of elimination in the state, for bobwhites it takes more than simply restocking the habitat – most of the habitat is gone.
“To be quite honest, the state doesn’t have really good quail hunting on any WMA,” Guyse noted.
That is mainly because hunters put heavy pressure on any tract with decent bobwhite habitat.
“The demand for quail is much higher than the supply,” Guyse pointed out. “Once again, the waterfowling regions where the
state farms for wildlife will be the best sites for finding quail,” he added.
“But another area that has been historically good for quail hunting is Blue Springs WMA near Andalusia,” he offered. “The reason that Blue Springs WMA is one of the state’s better quail-hunting areas is because the land is managed for longleaf pine. Longleaf pine sites always provide good habitat for quail, creating an open canopy. On this WMA, burns are used to help control the undergrowth.”
“We’re beginning to see more sportsmen hunting small game and landowners recognizing the importance of having small game on their properties,” Guyse reported. “I believe the future of small-game hunting is starting to look good now.”
At least in the case of squirrels and rabbits that optimism seems well founded. Hopefully, efforts of biologists and landowners around the state can also bring back at least a vestige of the hunting once offered by bobwhites in Bama.
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