Our State's Best Small-Game Hunting

Our State's Best Small-Game Hunting

As midwinter approaches and big-game seasons conclude, you might find that small-game and bird hunting is some of the best fun you can have in Virginia.

The author with a Botetourt County fox squirrel that he killed the second Saturday in January last winter. Photo by Bruce Ingram.

When Virginia's big-game season ends the first Saturday in January every year, I always feel a mixture of sadness and joy -- the former because it will be many months before I can pursue whitetails again, the latter because it is now time to chase after squirrels, rabbits and grouse.

For example, last year on the second Saturday in January, I spent the morning doing various chores around the house, but by afternoon I was ready to revel in the outdoor experience. Bringing along a book I had wanted to read and my 20-gauge autoloader, I merely walked out the back door of my family's Botetourt County home and headed for the 29-acre wood lot that surrounds our house.

One of my favorite places to squirrel hunt on any Old Dominion parcel in January is where a hardwood cove abuts a pine or cedar grove. At this time of year, the acorns are typically gone, and both gray and fox squirrels tend to forage in edge habitat such as this. As I entered the cove, I spooked several squirrels despite my best attempt at still-hunting.

No matter, as I knew if I settled down against a tree, activity levels would soon return to normal. About 45 minutes after I nestled against a red cedar -- and after I had read some 20 pages (in between periodic scans of the woods) -- I observed a fox squirrel foraging in the forest duff some 60 yards away.

For nearly a half hour, I watched the reddish orange creature feeding randomly through the woods and finally it came to within about 30 yards of my position. Setting aside the book, I put on my hearing protection muffs and waited for the squirrel to come within that 20-yard mark that almost always guarantees an easy shot. The squirrel then took a notion to climb a red oak and when the animal moved over to the side of the tree, facing me, I dropped it. Sunday for lunch, after the critter had simmered for five hours in a crock-pot, squirrel with peas, carrots, and other vegetables was a satisfying entrée.

On the third Saturday in January, it was time to pursue cottontails. Friend Paul Hinlicky of Catawba and I drove to Craig County where we took pleasure in a morning of brush busting without dogs. We kicked red cedar piles, rambled through an unkempt field, braved a briar patch, and ended up checking out an overgrown fencerow. No bunnies were seen, but we had a grand time.

On the fourth Saturday of the initial month, some friends and I headed for the mountains of Botetourt to grouse hunt. Predictably, given my legendarily slow reflexes and tendency to be always out of position when a fool hen flies, I was never even able to mount the 20 gauge when the three birds that we did find flushed. This was true even though the dogs I was following did all they could to locate and point the trio.

Partway through our expedition through second-growth forest, upland creek coves, and rhododendron and laurel-infested finger ridges, my group came across a quartet of hunters from Franklin County. Among them was Jimmy Amos, a paramedic from Rocky Mount, who proudly showed us a ruff that he had shot earlier in the day. What was very impressive was that the Franklin four were hunting sans dogs, depending on their leg locomotion and knowledge of grouse habitat to find birds. Enviously, I took pictures of the successful Amos.

Three straight weekends, three different small-game animals pursued -- that's a wonderful way to enjoy Virginia January Saturdays.

A fascinating aspect of January hunting is how Virginians go about pursuing small game. Amos told me that his basic approach is for him and his friends to move slowly through dense habitat, stopping often when they reach particularly birdy cover.

Joe Trickey, who lives and hunts in Southside Virginia, likes to spend his winter Saturdays going after bunnies.

"My dad and I find most of our rabbits in cutovers and it seems the populations can be spotty," Trickey said. "For example, we may hunt one farm and not jump that many but go two miles down the road and find plenty of rabbits. We have a lot of predators here, and they make it hard for rabbits to survive.

"My dad, who is 65, talks a lot about the old glory days of rabbit hunting when he could easily jump 16 to 20 rabbits a day. I have hunting buddies who still do this, but it is on very exclusive private farms. My dad cares very little about eating a rabbit since he is all about hearing the dogs run, and I feel the same way. My dad is happy if he hears a good chase and we may kill one or two per day."

Dr. Carol Croy, forest wildlife biologist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest (GWJNF), offers this insight not only for hunting grouse in the national forest but also on private land.

"Ruffed grouse in the Appalachians are found in two distinctive forest types: mixed mesophytic (plants that do well when receiving at least average amounts of rainfall) and oak-hickory (typically dry) forests," Croy said. "Mixed mesophytic forests are found in regions with higher annual rainfall, the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia, far southwestern Virginia, and along the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

"These areas are often characterized as having cherry, birch and an abundance of herbaceous plants supporting insects. Oak-hickory forests are usually found in the drier regions of the Appalachians and are the dominant forest type in most of western Virginia."

Croy relates that on mixed mesophytic sites, grouse home ranges overall tend to be smaller and more centralized around high stem density habitats, like those found in clearcuts from four to 20 years in age. On oak-hickory sites, home ranges tend to be larger overall and have a distinct seasonal shift. During the day, grouse frequent riparian areas, access roads and hollows with water. In the winter during the day, the birds especially prefer stands of rhododendron for foraging. Then to roost, grouse move upslope to ridges with mountain laurel thickets.

"If I were hunting for grouse in Virginia, I would need to know what type of forest I was hunting in, whether it is mixed mesophytic or oak hickory," continued Croy. "That would help me to decide what my hunting strategy would be. If I were hunting in mixed mesophytic forest types, then the more traditional grouse hunting strategy of concentrating around timber cuts should be the best way to find grouse.

"But if I were in the drier oak-hickory forest type, I would focus on access roads, riparian areas and mesic (wet) hollows with rhododendron thickets, within a mile radius from either a 4- to -20-year-old (clearcut) or prescribed burned or wildfire area, that has patches of early successional habitat. The access roads, riparian areas and mesic hollows would be the best places to find grouse during the day.

"I would then switch to access roads farther upslope in the late afternoon, as grouse are traveling from their foraging areas to roost sites on the mid to upper slopes and ridgetops. Access roads mid slope would also be good to hunt first thing in the mornings, as grouse are heading down from their night roost areas to their foraging areas down slope."


Gary Norman monitors the grouse population for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). And he offers some good news -- much welcome glad tidings, given that ruff numbers have been down in recent years. The basis for that optimism is the "2008 Grouse and Turkey Survey Routes" data. The data is derived from survey participants who record the number of birds heard during their forays afield.

"For a change, the numbers are up slightly, nothing to get overly excited about, but better than another decline," Norman told me. "The average number of grouse heard per route had been steadily declining since 2001. Our latest hunter survey estimates that we have 12,043 grouse hunters and they harvest 20,353 birds annually."

The survey includes a summary of grouse drums and turkey gobbles heard by cooperators conducting spring drum/gobble routes in western Virginia from 1994 through 2008. For example, during the 15 years that the VDGIF has collected data, individuals have annually made between 81 and 98 "runs" and have implemented both "first runs" and "second runs" with a yearly average of 1.2 grouse drums per route.

The best year for birds heard drumming was 2001 when participants recorded 1.9. However since 2001, numbers have persistently declined as the data shows (the numbers of birds drumming per route are in parentheses): 2002 (1.5), 2003 (1.0), 2004 (0.9), 2005 (0.9), 2006 (0.8) and 2007 (0.7). In fact, the 2007 recording was the lowest of all 15 years and noticeably lower than the drumming results from the 1990s (when grouse hunting was generally acknowledged to be better than it is now), when all the drumming tallies were 1.1 and greater.

Although the uptick in 2008 was small, the news was at least a tad positive -- as Old Dominion grouse hunters have not had much to rejoice about the past five or six years. Many individuals have blamed many things for the drop in grouse numbers. Recently, one man even told me that the reason ruff numbers were down was because of coyotes -- which seem to be the dastardly villain of choice these days and are generally accused of causing all manners of game and non-game species to decline.

The truth is that coyotes mainly consume such creatures as rabbits, mice, red foxes and groundhogs, although they can and will eat anything from Rover's dog food to Rover himself and Felix the cat.

But what has caused grouse numbers to decline are such things as a series of poor hatches because of inclement weather, as well as not enough timber cutting being done in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest. I am no fan of coyotes, and people who hunt groundhogs can justifiably blame coyotes for the lack of woodchucks in certain areas, but these creatures can't be fingered for our grouse decline.

Another small-game bird species that has suffered population reversals is the woodcock. Dennis LaBare, an upland bird advocate from Upper Tract, West Virginia, has devised a plan (along with Frank Jezioro, director of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and Steve Smith of Pointing Dog Journal) to create a woodcock stamp. The proposed stamp would be federally mandated, cost $10 (although this amount is not definite) and would be modeled on the duck stamp and its "user pay, user benefits" premise. Some 150,000 sportsmen currently pursue woodcocks in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways.

"We believe the stamp would generate approximately $1 million," LaBare said. "The idea is to keep the stamp simple, so as to cause minimal administrative costs. Funds from the stamp would be used to create and/or improve woodcock habitat on both public and private lands.

"The same sort of habitat that is beneficial to woodcocks, that is, young regenerating forests, is the same habitat that is used by ruffed grouse and some 43 species of neo-tropical songbirds, as well as deer, bears and turkeys. Grouse and woodcock habitat preferences are very complementary and are essentially inseparable. So, hunters and non-hunters receive a lot of bang for their bucks when woodcock habitat is created."

LaBare said that the stamp initiative has been turned over to the Ruffed Grouse Society (online at www. ruffedgrousesociety.org) and that organization is currently working on a broader hunter survey with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If the response is favorable, the stamp proposal will move another step closer to reality. LaBare hopes that the stamp can become a reality by 2010.


Marc Puckett monitors squirrels, rabbits and quail for the VDGIF.

"Populations of gray squirrels are strong, and the western Virginia or Sciurus niger vulpinus subspecies of fox squirrels is doing very well, but still largely restricted to the mountainous counties that contain ample acreages of farmland, particularly dairy farms," Puckett told me. "Fox squirrels are usually associated with more open farmlands and wood lots or fringes of woodlands and are not typically found in deep woods.

"The Eastern variety of fox squirrel, Sciurus niger niger, is still relatively sparsely populated and is not in an area in which hunting fox squirrels is legal. Rabbit populations are stable, at fair to good across much of the state, but southwest Virginia is still a stronghold. The eastern Piedmont is down a bit."

Interestingly, several years ago, the Old Dominion became one of the few states to allow June hunting for squirrels. Puckett said the VDGIF does not have exact numbers, but hunter participation in this season remains low. The biologist added that the idea for the season was to provide another opportunity for hunting, particularly for school kids who are on summer break. He expects participation to grow in the June season, but that it will never equal the regular season in popularity.

Puckett said that the following WMAs are rated excellent for squirrel hunting: Clinch Mountain, Fairystone, Gathright, Hidden Valley, Little North Mountain; many other WMAs are listed as good. Regarding rabbits, the following WMAs are rated good: Amelia, Clinch Mountain, Crooked Creek, Featherfin, Hardware River, James River, Pettigrew and White Oak Mountain.

"National forest (NF) areas that border farmlands may have some overlap with fox and gray squirrels, but other than that, most NF lands will be gray squirrel hunting only," Puckett said. "I would say rabbit hunting is lim

ited on NF lands."

One of Puckett's main job descriptions is to work with landowners to improve wildlife habitat. He emphasizes that bunnies need cover: brushy draws, hedgerows, natural or constructed brushpiles, as well as farmers allowing some odd corners and fencerows to grow up with greenbriers, blackberries and honeysuckles.

"At least 10 percent of a given farm should be in this type cover to maximize rabbits," continued the biologist. "Cutover timberlands also provide some rabbit cover. Further enhancements can be made by planting a mixture of red and white clovers in one-fourth-acre to one-acre patches adjacent to good cover. Use 4 pounds of each clover, mixed, inoculated and planted in fall is best.

"Clover can also be top sown over standing wheat during winter in a process known as 'frost seeding' and it will grow up through the dead wheat come summer. Clover needs a sweet soil, meaning landowners should conduct soil tests and lime accordingly. Cover is key, as rabbits play a shell game with predators -- the more "shells" the rabbits have to hide under, the better their chances. And the closer cover is to food sources, the less rabbits need to expose themselves to feed."

Yes, January is the small-game month and now is the time to enjoy and pursue the animal or animals you are most interested in.

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