Many hunters and fishermen think that New England's fall sporting opportunities come to an end by Thanksgiving week in November. This used to be true, but there have been many changes in the region's hunting and fishing regulations, giving sportsmen additional opportunities well into January.
Here's a look at what's available for hunting and fishing options on public land in your state this winter:
Don't put your hunting gear away just yet. The Pine Tree State offers plenty of great small game hunting that lasts, in the case of the snowshoe hare, until the end of March.
Snowshoe hares are plentiful statewide and their numbers seem to be rising. For example, on a recent trip to the Saco-Biddeford area in southern Maine after a December snowfall, I found the woods were liberally peppered with the tracks and trails of wandering hares.
Hares may be hunted with beagles, alone with a .22 or shotgun, or groups of hunters may get together for a cedar swamp drive. Hares are masters of evasion, but their white color makes them stand out against the dark, bland December background of alders, spruce, fir and hemlock.
There is great hare hunting available statewide, but the best opportunities will be found in the central and southern parts of the state due to recent hard winters that have severely reduced wildlife numbers in the northern reaches of the state. Fortunately, hares are adaptable, prolific and cyclical, so local populations affected by the harsh weather will soon be back to carrying capacity.
Wildlife management areas and public reserve lands in mid-central and southern Maine will be your best bet in 2010. A complete listing of Maine's public lands is available on the MDIFW's Web site.
One of Maine's greatest assets is that hunters may legally access private lands that are not posted. The Maine Warden Service encourages hunters to seek landowner permission whenever possible, but generally speaking, if it's not posted you may legally hunt there (abiding by all current laws and safety recommendations, of course!).
Other species with open seasons in December and/or January include grouse, squirrel, fox, bobcat and coyote. All of these species are currently abundant (or at least present in huntable numbers) and thrive on public lands throughout the state. One reason is that Maine is 95 percent forested, a rare and valuable resource when it comes to the needs and interests of hunters.
For additional information on Maine's winter hunting seasons, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at www.maine.gov/ifw/.
Maine's traditional December fishing target is the chain pickerel, which most anglers consider a "warm-up" for the trout and salmon fishing season, which opens in January on most waters.
Pickerel fishing is most productive on small, local ponds and lakes as soon as safe ice forms, which can be as early as Dec. 5 in some areas. Test the ice frequently this month — if it's not at least 3 inches thick, it's not safe!
Pickerel prefer lively shiners or minnows that are 2 to 3 inches long. Cut holes in shallow water and fish a few inches off the bottom or just over the weed cover.
Excellent early-winter pickerel ponds in Maine include Wadleigh Pond in Lyman, Branns Mill Pond in Dover-Foxcroft, Pug Pond in Alton and Boyd Lake in Milo. Most small ponds and shallow lakes in Maine have a resident population of chain pickerel, and most are open to ice-fishing under the general rule.
For additional Maine winter fishing information, contact the MDIFW at www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/fishingGuide.
New Hampshire's December-January hunting options include wild turkeys (archery only through Dec. 15), and small game (varied seasons through March 2011).
Squirrels are abundant statewide and may be taken by stand hunting, still-hunting or spot-and-stalk techniques using archery gear, .22 rifles and shotguns. The best pheasant and quail hunting occurs in the southern part of the state where brushy grasslands provide good habitat for these ground-roosting birds. Hunters may pursue all these small game species, plus cottontail rabbits, until Dec. 31. The Granite State's snowshoe hare season runs through March 31.
Hunting is allowed on private land, state wildlife management areas and on the Green Mountain National Forest in southern and western New Hampshire.
For season dates, bag limits, licensing details and other information, log onto the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Web site at www.wildnh.com/Hunting/.
For fast Granite State fishing for a variety of species, Lake Winnipesaukee is the place to be no matter what the time of year. From bullheads to 30-inch lake trout, the state's largest lake has it all. Open to fishing year-round, Lake Winnipesaukee offers great angling for bass, trout, cusk, salmon, lake trout and a variety of panfish species.
New Hampshire's winter bass, trout and salmon seasons open Jan. 1, but most other species are open year-round. For details, log onto the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department's Web site at www.wildnh.com/Fishing/fishing.
Green Mountain State hunters may also pursue raccoons through Dec. 31 and fox (red and gray) through Feb. 13.
Ruffed grouse are numerous wherever edge cover may be found, but be prepared to climb! Vermont contains some of the steepest mountains in the Northeast, and is well known as a skiing destination for the downhill and snowboarding set.
Excellent grouse hunting may be had in all of southern, central and northern Vermont, including the famed Northeast Kingdom in the extreme northeast region of the state. The birds are there, but clever hunters will work in pairs, leaving one vehicle at a lower level and then parking another vehicle above and hunting downhill. Some groups leave one or two blockers on the lower level to intercept birds flying down the mountain ahead of the drivers, but be prepared for some fast and furious shooting! Even with dogs, you will earn every Green Mountain State grouse you bag!
While you are bulling your way through Vermont's best grouse cover, keep an eye out for gray squirrels, which may be found in the mature oak stands bordering the brushy cover. Both species may be hunted through Dec. 31, while hares and rabbits may be hunted through March 13.
Great small game hunting may be found in the Green Mountain National Forest area and the Connecticut River corridor. Public land abounds in these areas, particularly within the GMNF boundaries, but many private landowners will give permission to hunt small game in December and January.
Even in early winter, rabbits will be in the thickest -- and often nastiest -- brush they can find. Hunters willing to go in there with their dogs will find the most game. Photo by Stephen D. Carpenteri.
For additional information on Vermont's winter hunting opportunities, log onto the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Web site at www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
According to John Hall, the state's 43-year veteran Information and Education Department director, Lake Champlain is the place to go for odds-on, year-round fishing action.
"Champlain is 100 miles long and 10 miles wide," Hall said. "It contains all of Vermont's most popular species plus pike, walleyes, yellow perch, trout, salmon and bass.
"There is excellent surface fishing for trout and salmon in late fall and early winter," Hall continued, "and the Benson area has produced some great walleye fishing as well."
Hall noted that increasing numbers of anglers have been targeting the big lake's abundant yellow perch population, and there has been a great deal of interest in the lake's growing northern pike fishery as well.
For more information on Lake Champlain and Vermont's other winter fishing opportunities, contact Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org; or log onto the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's Web site at www.vtfishandwildlife.com.
The Bay State offers long hunting seasons for cottontails (and hares in Units 1-4 ending Feb. 28, while the hare season ends Feb. 5 in the remainder of the state. Squirrel hunting ends Jan. 1 statewide.
Great hunting may be found throughout the Bay State, but hunters who prefer a more "wilderness" experience should target the western region's Berkshire Mountains, most of which is public land open to hunting throughout the season.
To find some great rabbit and squirrel hunting, target the same wildlife management areas where pheasants and quail were stocked throughout the fall. No, you can't hunt these birds in the late season, but rabbits and squirrels abound on these same WMAs, especially in the brushy cover bordering the fields where upland birds were the quarry of choice through November.
These WMAs are scattered across the state from the Berkshires to Cape Cod. Grab a .22 or a brace of beagles and give these public lands a try. The odds are that small game hunters will have these areas to themselves right through the end of the season.
To find a specific place to hunt in Massachusetts this winter, log onto www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw and click on the Wildlife Management Areas link, which provides maps, directions and more information about each WMA in the state. The MassWildlife home page also provides details on current hunting and fishing regulations, season dates, bag limits and licensing requirements.
Massachusetts' late-season trout fishing is among the best in the East. The state's trout season is open year-round with some restrictions (reduced bag limits or catch-and-release only), but the fishing is phenomenal for holdover trout and big brood stock hatchery salmon, which are released into various waters throughout the state.
Hotspots for fly-fishing only, catch-and-release trout fishing include the Upper Deerfield River from the Fife Brook Dam downstream 1.5 miles to the Hoosac Tunnel railroad trestle and from the mouth of Pelham Brook downstream one mile to the Mohawk Campgrounds.
Also, try the Housatonic River from the Route 20 bridge in Lee downstream to the Willow Mill Dam in Lee, and, from the Glendale Dam in Great Barrington downstream to the Boston and Maine railroad bridge in Great Barrington.
For more information on Massachusetts' late season hunting and fishing opportunities, log onto www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw.
Nutmeg State forests are the place to be for great small game hunting in December and January. Natchaug State Forest, Peoples Forest, a variety of wildlife management areas and other public lands are open to hunting through the end of the season.
Pheasants may be hunted through Dec. 31. Hunters who want to focus on these popular game birds in the late season are advised to avoid the open, cut cornfields and other vast "dead grass" areas that were so productive in October. In December, pheasants will be found in thick brush, uncut weedy cover and swampy areas reminiscent of grouse cover. Get in the thick stuff and be prepared to get your feet wet! December pheasants will hold tight and let you walk right on by, so move slowly, pause often and kick any brush pile, grassy hummock or bent-over swale grass you find.
This is tough work without the help of a dog, but a team of hunters can put up a lot of birds that other hunters might have bypassed in the process.
Other spots to focus on are cedar clumps, briar patches; overgrown rock wall corners, hedgerows and fence lines; and those tangled, swampy thickets that few hunters (or dogs) want to enter. Get in there and make the birds fly! If you don't get a shot, mark them down and try again.
Squirrels and rabbits may also be pursued through Feb. 27. These species may also be taken on WMAs, state forests and other areas that have been abandoned by deer and bird hunters. Squirrels are abundant wherever oak stands may be found, and rabbits will be easy to find in the mixed briars, tall grass, junipers and cedars that are common cover types on Connecticut's WMAs.
For details on these and other hunting opportunities, log onto the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection's Web page at www.ct.gov/dep. Regulations including season dates, bag limits and other restrictions are available on the DEP's Web site.For anglers, Connecticut offers over 180 lakes and ponds plus thousands of miles of rivers and streams that provide great fishing for trout, bass, pike, wal
leye and other popular species year-round.
The state's trout streams are well stocked and provide excellent angling year-round. Most streams have good numbers of stocked fish as well as holdover lunkers and the occasional hatchery brood-stock monster. Many streams are open to fishing in winter under a variety of regulations that may be reviewed on the DEP's Web site noted above.
Connecticut's bass and pike fishing are phenomenal in winter, especially on the Connecticut River and its many tributaries and coves. Open water and ice-fishing opportunities abound for other species including perch, bluegills and pickerel.
The Ocean State's squirrel, rabbit and pheasant seasons remain open in December and January. Pheasants are stocked on a number of wildlife management areas throughout the season and into December.
Most of Rhode Island's 28 state wildlife management areas are open to small game hunting during the open seasons. The largest of these, Arcadia WMA on the west-central border of the state, is managed in four parts and is a good place to look for small game in the late season.
Late-season squirrel hunters are advised to spend most of their time in mature hardwoods near but but not on the edge of farm fields and other open areas. Squirrels will be most active near dawn and dusk, so plan your hunts accordingly.
Pheasant hunters should also spend most of their time in thick, brushy cover where one might expect to find grouse or woodcock.
A complete list of WMAs where hunting is allowed during December and January may be found on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management's Web page at www.dem.ri.gov.
Downloadable maps indicating the areas that are open to hunting on each of the state's WMAs are available by following the links on the RIDEM's Web page.