The wildlife management areas highlighted here will put you smack dab in the middle of fine squirrel or rabbit hunting (sometimes both) this winter season. (December 2006)
Photo By Jim Low
All week, I repeatedly watched the Weather Channel to see what the forecast would be for the day of our hunt. Tim Wimer and I were anxious to engage in some late-season squirrel hunting and some pre-season deer scouting on the Potts Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which is part of the Jefferson National Forest.
So when the forecast was for overcast skies in the 30s, we planned our outing for the next day. When we arrived, I asked Tim to linger about 50 yards behind me since I have hunted the WMA many times and this was my friend's first visit to it. There was another reason for this positioning. If a squirrel glimpsed me before I spotted it and scurried around the other side of a tree trunk, Wimer might be able to still-hunt up to the animal as I moved on.
As we walked slowly along an old logging road, the already overcast clouds began to darken and a light, icy mist began to fall. But just as I was beginning to worry that we might have to prematurely end our outing, I spotted a gray squirrel about 60 yards away. I indicated to Tim that I had spotted game, and he froze in place as I began to stealthily slip toward the silvertail.
After about 10 minutes, I had come to within about 20 yards of where I had first viewed the bushytail, but the problem was that the animal likewise was on the move, busily scurrying along the forest floor in a search for any remnant acorns among the duff. Then I saw some posted signs up ahead, and it was obvious that I had come to the border of the public land where it met private property.
Some old-timers would no doubt proclaim that particular squirrel could read, for it was about that time that the gray slipped past the posted sign and onto the landowner's property. A few minutes later, it disappeared from view and so did my chances for an entrée of squirrel dinner that night. As it turned out, it was our last such sighting of the day.
At that time, our future success or failure was unknown, so I retreated from the property boundary, met with Tim again, and on we went up the logging road and Potts Mountain. We came to a small clearing in the forest, and there I spotted an abundance of deer droppings and even the J-shaped dropping of a gobbler. Going a little farther, I noted a well-worn trail where whitetails had consistently been entering an opening. About 10 yards from the trail grew two mockernut hickories -- potential places to hang a portable stand.
We then continued along the deer trail, which wound through a shelf on the mountainside. The pathway left the shelf and entered a mountain laurel copse. Here I observed several old rubs on pitch pines. Finally, the trail passed through the laurel and took an abrupt left turn at the intersection of a mountain rill and laurel-covered mountainside. When I reached that juncture, it was then that five does -- about 60 yards away -- suddenly arose from their beds and quickly loped even farther up the mountain.
Normally, I don't like to spook whitetails, but on this particular occasion my doing so was all right, at least in my opinion. A cold rain then began to fall, and our combination squirrel hunt and deer-scouting expedition was soon over. Although we had not bagged any squirrels and had spooked deer, I was very pleased with our outing.
We had confirmed that at least one gobbler lived on the mountain and had survived the fall turkey season, and a well-worn deer trail offered possibilities for bow season. Even some late-season squirrel hunting was possible on the WMA. For those three reasons -- and seasons -- I will definitely be back to that individual hollow, logging road and mountainside.
OVERVIEW OF SQUIRREL & RABBIT POPULATIONS
Gray squirrels and cottontail rabbits are two of the most popular small- game animals in the Mountain State. Dick Hall, game management supervisor for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), believes fellow silvertail chasers have much to look forward to this year.
"Squirrel numbers should be up," Hall said. "We had improved mast conditions in 2005, and that typically means positive things for squirrels. When there is more mast the year before, the animals are often able to have two litters the next year. When the mast crop fails, the squirrels are doing pretty good to have one litter.
"Now, there was a frost in much of the state in mid-May of this year. I don't think that frost had much of an impact as far as hurting this year's mast crop; at least I don't think it did. It was the type of frost, though, where I had to cover my tomato plants."
Biologists often have a harder time getting a handle on rabbit populations. Cottontail numbers often fluctuate wildly from year to year, and, for that matter, from area to area within the same county.
"With rabbits," continued Hall, "their populations are totally dependent on habitat. Rabbits are an early successional species. By that I mean they need open areas with lots of cover and brush. Clearcuts are something else that rabbits benefit from, at least for a time until the trees grow too large.
"In West Virginia, the best rabbit hunting generally takes place on private land. A great place to hunt would be an old farm that is slowly growing up in vegetation.
"I often hear hunters say that they saw all kinds of rabbits in the summer, but when the hunting season came, they didn't see nearly as many. That's easy to explain. In the summer, the growth is green, lush and tall, and predators have a lot of foods to choose from. But when the vegetation dies and is beat down in the fall, the predation goes way up. The rabbits can no longer 'jump in the brush' when they need to."
And there are a great many creatures that like to chow down on cottontails. Hall lists bobcats, foxes and various avian predators as well as a relatively new creature on the block.
"Coyotes started appearing in West Virginia about 20 years ago," he said. "Now they are practically in every county. Coyotes feed mostly on rodents, but they will, of course, take a rabbit or even a doe fawn."
Hall laughed when asked if the DNR still had to deal with the ridiculous rumor that it had stocked coyotes in West Virginia.
"It is illegal for the DNR or anyone else to have stocked coyotes," continued Hall. "Actually, they appear to have come in here from the South. It also appears that fox hunters let go some coyotes when fox numbers were down."
Fox hunters releasing coyotes is indeed ironic because coyotes can really put a hurting on a red fox population, the biologist said. In any event, Hall said that coyotes are in West Virginia to stay and have become part of the ecosystem.
I asked Dick Hall if there are any wildlife management areas where West Virginia sportsmen can go and have a realistic chance to come across good numbers of bushytails and cottontails.
"It is unrealistic as a whole to expect very many WMAs to have a lot of both squirrels and rabbits," Hall said. "Squirrels prefer mature timber and rabbits prefer early successional, so that's going from one extreme to another in what the two species like."
The biologist informed that one public land where sportsmen would have a chance at this unusual double play is the McClintic WMA (3,655 acres) in Mason County. This District V public ground is, of course, well known as featuring the most diverse wildlife habitat in the Mountain State.
McClintic WMA possesses farmland, brushy openings, wetlands, mixed hardwoods, creek bottoms and ponds. It is possible for a hunter, for instance, to spend the morning still- hunting through the oak and hickory forests in search of silvertails. And then later in the morning and on into the early afternoon, move slowly through the various kinds of overgrown openings and hope to stir up a cottontail or two.
Of course, the McClintic is so well known throughout the state that it can receive quite a bit of hunting pressure. The WMA is popular with deer, turkey and dove enthusiasts, too.
The biologist also lists a District I public land as presenting sportsmen with a chance at mixed-bag success. The Pleasant Creek WMA (3,030 acres) in Barbour and Taylor counties contains mixed hardwoods, bottomland wetlands and some transitional habitat as well. A combination rabbit and squirrel hunt here would be harder to pull off than at McClintic, but there is a chance for success.
Hall said that the Shannondale Springs WMA (1,361 acres) in Jefferson County provides a slim chance at combo hunting. Warm-season grasses have been planted at this District II public ground, and rabbits do use this type of habitat. Warm-season grasses are ones such as big bluestem, Indian grass and switch grass. All have been long known to attract wildlife.
The Shannondale WMA lies along the main stem of the Shenandoah, and as such provides some bottomland hunting. Open fields, brush land and some rolling hills covered with mixed hardwood also characterize this Eastern Panhandle public ground.
Hall said that the Bluestone WMA (18,019 acres) in Summers, Mercer and Monroe counties offers some rabbit habitat in the form of open bottomland and brushy areas. The squirrel hunting is much better, however, as the steep hardwood slopes can provide quality habitat for squirrels. Last autumn, for example, while I was hunting turkeys on the Bluestone WMA, which lies in District IV, I encountered one West Virginian who was bowhunting for deer and another who was toting a 20-gauge in pursuit of squirrels. This is another public land that can attract quite a bit of hunting pressure.
Finally, Hall said that hunters might be able to scare up a rabbit or two on the Stonewall Jackson WMA (18,289 acres) in Lewis County. He said this District IV public land contains some fields that are gradually turning into forest, and this type of habitat can draw rabbits. Once again, though, the squirrel hunter has a much better chance at taking home his favorite quarry than a rabbit hunter does. And Hall once again emphasized that combo hunters will generally have a hard time on most public lands anywhere.
The squirrel season continues through Jan. 31; the daily bag limit is six. The cottontail rabbit season continues through Feb. 28; the daily limit is five. Neither species has a season limit.
For the past 36 years, the DNR, in cooperation with the Division of Forestry (DOF), has annually surveyed the state to determine the mast production status of various trees and shrubs. The 2006 survey was unavailable at press time, but the 2005 survey should give at least some additional insight into bushytail and rabbit prospects for this season.
In 2005, the DNR and DOF surveyed 252 locations, covering all regions of the Mountain State. Squirrel populations are especially dependent upon favorable mast conditions, but so are to a degree such big-game animals as turkeys, deer and bears.
In 2005, for the first time in five years, the mast index was slightly above average. That was a major reason why Dick Hall was able to forecast an improvement in squirrel numbers for 2006. From 2001 through 2004, various weather-related problems combined to hurt production of both hard and soft mast species.
An important reason why mast production increased was because of favorable weather in the spring of 2005. The state as a whole experienced dry conditions during the early spring, followed by rain in late May. Also, fewer killing frosts occurred during that crucial stage when many oak trees are flowering.
In 2004, the white oak acorn production was good, and as is well known, the white oak is one of the most sought-after foods for squirrels. Red oak production also improved significantly in 2005 -- which was another positive factor. So for the 2004 and 2005 surveys, acorn production was quite acceptable in terms of helping out squirrel populations.
West Virginia hosts such important hickory trees as the shagbark, mockernut and pignut species, and they, too, showed an upsurge. Indices were also higher for grapes, hawthorns, dogwoods and crabapples -- all soft mast species that silvertails will consume. In short, many positive factors are in play. The survey also offers this statement.
"Because of the abundance and distribution of oaks and hickories, there should be a sufficient amount of food to again produce a few more squirrels in 2006. However, because of timber harvesting and the poor mast years we have had in recent years, squirrel numbers will not be at record high levels this year (2005) or 2006."
In West Virginia, squirrels normally produce two litters, as Dick Hall noted earlier. The first litter comes in the spring, and that reproduction is very dependent upon there being hard and soft mast that these animals can overwinter on. The spring 2006 litter thus should have been a good one.
West Virginia squirrels typically produce a summer litter, as well, but that reproductive cycle is not dependent upon winter mast availability to the degree that the spring litter is. The summer litter produces a large percentage of the squirrels that we see in mid-October and onward.
The mast survey also concludes that cottontail numbers from 2001 through 2005 have been increasing -- certainly some encouraging news that has ramifications for this season. Again, however, with rabbits all populations are localized. If the cover exists in one postage stamp-sized parcel in a pa
rt of a certain county, then rabbits will be available. If there is little cover in another part of the country just five or so miles distant, then cottontails will be scarce.
December and especially January are by far my favorite times to squirrel hunt, and if a rabbit jumps up somewhere along the line, so much the better. These are two very popular small-game species for West Virginians, and the prospects for this season seem promising. So be sure to have your crockpot, skillet or oven in good working order.