2018 Texas Small Game Roundup
November 20, 2018
I know the bow season on deer is open, and pig hunting is a year-round option for hunters across Texas, but it’s a fact that October and into November the small game hunting opportunities in the Lone Star State are wide open. When I say small game, I’m talking about doves, quail, squirrels and rabbits.
One of the most challenging critters we can hunt in Texas are squirrels. We have both fox and cat squirrels. In East Texas, cat squirrels are most numerous. In the Hill Country, we have a lot of fox squirrels.
The season on squirrels is open in 51 East Texas counties from about the first of October through the end of February. In most East Texas counties, the daily limit is 10. The spring season is usually May 1-31. The season is open year-round in 157 counties across Texas with no daily limit.
Why is squirrel hunting so much fun? It’s certainly a challenge. Squirrels are always alert and on point. They are definitely not what you find in your yard in the big city. Many of us started out hunting squirrels at a young age. I got a single shot .410 H&R shotgun when I was about 10 years old. Still have that gun, and it’s still killing tasty squirrels.
The unique thing about squirrel hunting in Texas is that we have so much public land on which to hunt.
It’s easy to tap into public hunting lands. You can find a place to hunt on over a million acres of publicly accessible land located throughout Texas. Hunt areas include property owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, acreage leased by the department from other state and federal agencies, forest products industries and other cooperating private landowners.
Access to hunting on public lands is as simple as buying an Annual Public Hunting permit. Since 1987, the APH permit has offered the opportunity to participate in a variety of inexpensive, family oriented outdoor recreational activities including hunting for a multitude of wildlife species that include deer, waterfowl, doves, rabbits, squirrels and pigs. Over a million APH Permits have been sold.
Today’s Public Hunting Program includes over a million acres located throughout Texas. The map booklet and website contain information on property owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as well as acreage leased by the department from other state and federal agencies, forest products industries and other participating private landowners. Kids under 17 may access these areas for free with a permitted adult. Cost of the permit, per year, is $48.
APH holders receive a printed Map Booklet for Public Hunting Lands listing available areas, facilities, maps, rules, and schedules.
You can buy a permit at all TPWD regional and field law enforcement offices and any retail hunting and fishing license dealer, such as sporting goods stores.
The fox squirrel is large, about 21 inches long and 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. They got their name from their gray and red fur coat that resemble that of a gray fox. They are a little bit heavier than a cat squirrel.
Due to their ability to adapt to a wide range of forest habitats they are Texas’ most common squirrel. Their greatest numbers occur in open upland forest with a mixture of oak and nut trees.
Squirrels are usually active early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
Squirrels’ long bushy tails are used for a variety of purposes. They can be wrapped around a squirrel’s face to keep them warm, used as an aid in balancing when they run along tree limbs, or spread and used as a parachute if the squirrel should fall. With a little practice, watching a squirrel’s tail movements gives you a clue to their mood. Quick jerks of the tail signal that they are nervous or upset. But those tails will often work against them. Hunters can often see them fluttering in the breeze or hanging down off a limb.v
The gray squirrel is smaller and faster than the fox squirrel, and its agility and skittishness have given it a second name – cat squirrel. They are by far the toughest squirrel to hunt. They are most often seen running along limbs and jumping from one tree to another. That’s why a lot of us call them limb runners. If a cat squirrel sees you before you see it, the game is usually over. They will take off faster than greased lightening.
Conversely, the fox squirrel usually hides rather than runs. It will lie motionless or hide on the backside of the tree or a limb, peeping around to keep track of the hunter’s location. If the intruder starts moving around the tree, the fox squirrel also shifts its position so a limb or the whole tree remains between itself and any possible danger.
One of the best ways to successfully bag these tasty critters is to still hunt, or walk/stop, walk/stop. Most hunters prefer to sit and lean up against a tree for 30 minutes at a time in an area that’s likely to hold squirrels.
The absolute biggest day for hunting small game in Texas is the first of September — the dove season opener. Thousands of hunters converge on fields from one corner of Texas to the other. The season usually opens on Sept. 1 in the North and Central zones. The South Zone opens a couple of weeks later, with an exception for the special white-wing zones in South Texas. The North Zone covers 105 counties; the Central Zone has 138 counties, and the South Zone 54 counties.
Without a doubt some of the best and fastest shooting you’ll ever experience is on sunflower fields in South Texas. Guide Robert Sanders has been running dove hunts in the Port Mansfield area of South Texas for decades. Ditto that for quail hunts.
I’ve made a few dove hunts with Sanders during the past couple of seasons, and they are tough to beat. He’s got the perfect setup and runs his hunts over scattered sunflower fields.
“What I like to do is pay farmers to plow up small areas to plant sunflowers,” says Sanders. “They can be anywhere from three to five acres. If I have about five different sunflower fields, I can rotate them out of hunts. It’s a fact that if you hunt a field two or three days in a row you’ll run the birds off. I like to shoot a field, then give it a few days’ rest.”
The sunflower fields in South Texas attract both mourning and white-wing doves. The really crazy thing is that the birds roost in trees of nearby towns. About 4 or 5 p.m., the birds begin to fly from the city to the sunflower fields. It typically starts out with a trickle of birds, then clouds of them. That’s when you can shoot as fast as you can load up and fire another couple of rounds. It’s exciting shooting. The birds fly like bats out of a cave for about two hours. Then regroup and head back to the city roost trees.
Southeast Texas dove hunters generally do best by hunting over fresh-cut rice fields. Some of the best shoots take place around Winnie, and just west of Beaumont. And almost all of those birds are mourning doves. If you can get access to fresh-cut rice, the shooting can be pretty fast. Another very good option is to set up on a flyway where the birds leave the roost and head to grain fields.
Jim West has been running hunts in the Winnie area of Southeast Texas for decades.
“Opening day is a big event here,” he says. “There will be a ton of hunters out in the fields around here. About the only thing that can slow opening day hunts down is rain. That’s the kiss of death. But on most openers the shooting is good — and stays that way for at least a couple of days. The key is to not over-shoot a field. That’ll run the birds off. Some of our best hunts are on long tree lines that doves use as flyways. Once you establish a flyway, you can move in, set up and put an easy limit of doves on the ground.”
Quail hunting can be hit or miss in Texas, especially the South Texas regions where in some years over a hundred thousand hunters pursue these fast-flying game birds from October through February. The predictions by TPWD in 2015 were right on the money for South Texas where big time numbers of quail made this one of the best seasons in over 20 years.
“I haven’t seen anything like the 2015 and 2016 quail hunts in well over two decades,” says Sanders. “We were seeing 30 or more coveys per hunt.”
The 2016 Texas quail season served as a reminder of how good hunting can be when all the right elements converge. Specifically, weather and habitat aligned to create a “super boom” year for quail production that led to exceptional hunts the likes of which had not been seen in many years.
Sanders has been hunting on ranches in Star County for decades. During the 2015 season it wasn’t unusual to bust up 25 to 30 coveys. That’s about as good as quail hunting gets. But as they say, all good things must come to an end. And it did by the 2017 season.
“Last season we were doing good to find a single covey,” says Sanders. “It was the worst season I’ve ever seen. On some hunts we were lucky to see a single bird. Going into the 2017-18 season, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department surveys showed decent numbers of bobwhite quail. But by the season opener in October, things didn’t look too good.”
Drought conditions over much of the core quail hunting areas in the spring and summer can substantially reduce numbers of quail.
“The key is to have timely rains during the spring and summer that provide plenty of ground cover, abundant forbs and countless insects that bobwhite quail survive on,” says Sanders. “Plus, the combination of frequent rainfall and below-average temperatures resulted in an extended window of breeding and nesting opportunity throughout South Texas.”
But when the hunts are good, it’s some of the finest bird shooting you’ll ever experience. When a pointer locks up on covey after covey, you know you’re living right. And when there are plenty of coveys, a 15-bird per day limit of wild bobs can be one of the best memories you’ll ever have.
Other than South Texas, quail hunts can be very good up around Lubbock and in areas near Sulphur Springs.
Some of the areas in West Texas will have some pretty good hunts for both bobs and blue quail. The blue quail — bigger than bobs — can be tough to hunt since they typically would rather run than fly. And when they are running through brush, they can be very difficult to track down with a load of lead shot from a full choke 12-gauge shotgun.
Rabbit hunting in Texas is not nearly as popular as it used to be. In fact, running them with dogs is practically unheard of. But truth be known, rabbit hunting in the Texas Hill Country can be excellent, especially when you spotlight them at night, which is perfectly legal. Rabbit hunting in Texas is open year-round. It’s something you might find to be pretty good on your deer lease.
There are two species of rabbits in Texas — cottontails and swamp rabbits. Yes, we also have plenty of jackrabbits, but they are hares, not true rabbits.
Cottontails, weighing 2 to 3 pounds, can be found in numbers in East Texas and the Hill Country. They are primarily found in weedy, overgrown fields and brushy fencerows. This is the most popular rabbit to hunt in Texas.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s the swamp rabbit population was booming. Nowadays, they are rarely seen. Swamp rabbits, weighing around 3 to 6 pounds, can be found along river bottoms, cane thickets and the coastal marshes.