Rabbit and squirrel seekers have plenty to look forward to right through to the end of our state's long small-game season. Here's where you should try. (December 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
Sometimes one wants to go hunting just for the joy of being a field. That certainly was the case last January when friend Tim Wimer and I decided to drive to the Potts Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Monroe County to go squirrel hunting. As we left my house, a gusty wind blew across the landscape. The sky was colored cobalt blue, and I told Tim that we weren't likely to see any silvertails, let along bag any.
By the time we arrived, the wind speed had topped 20 mph, and a crusting of snow blanketed much of the public land. Undeterred, we left the vehicle and began still-hunting down an old logging road. Not long after we had entered the forest, Tim and I came across numerous turkey tracks, evidence that the birds had been using the tote road in great numbers.
Next, we happened too close to a hollow tree where a barred owl was waiting out the daytime hours. The owl flushed, and after we recovered from the shock of its abrupt departure, we continued up the road toward a highland flat that was our destination. Our next point of interest was a heavily worn trail where deer tracks and droppings characterized the path.
Last, we stopped at the mountain flat that had been our primary destination. Tim and I found where squirrels had cut some red oak acorns, evidence enough that the bushytails had found the area to their liking. Unfortunately, and certainly not to our surprise, the squirrels were not bounding about the flat because of the inclement conditions.
By then, the wind was whistling through the treetops at some 30 mph, and my friend and I both had begun to shiver. We quickly ambled down the mountain, returned to the vehicle, and turned the heater on high, and sped off to a local restaurant where we enjoyed lunch. Neither of us had glimpsed so much as a tail from a bushytail, but I was very well pleased with our "hunting" that day. (Continued)
If someone is not a late-season squirrel or rabbit hunter, it might be hard for that individual to fathom how our outing could have been such a success. However, consider these findings from the day afield. I ascertained that plenty of turkeys had made it through the fall season and that the Potts Creek WMA might be a good place to hunt the following spring.
I had learned that barred owls live in this particular parcel and that imitating the "who cooks for you" sounds this coming spring might cause a tom to turn on. I had determined where a hot stand site for deer could be, and the evidence of an abundance of acorns meant that the game animals should make it through the winter in good shape. In addition, the squirrel cuttings certainly showed that a return visit in a few days might prove to be a good time to harvest a silvertail or two. Therefore, the day really couldn't have gone much better.
Dick Hall, game manager supervisor for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), proclaims that the gray squirrel and the Eastern cottontail have maintained their fans, even though the pursuit of deer and turkeys is what most Mountain State sportsmen care mainly about nowadays.
"Squirrel and rabbit hunting are still popular," Hall said. "Since squirrel season is the first season to open in the fall, the excitement is still there. If you own a beagle or have a friend who has a beagle, rabbit hunting can likewise be exciting. For the most part, most kids learn to hunt small game first and then move up to big game."
Whether or not squirrels will be abundant depends on environmental issues.
"Squirrel numbers depend on the food condition the previous year," Hall continued. "If the mast crops were good, squirrels usually have two litters the following year (early spring and late summer). If the mast crops were poor, they usually have just the spring litter. Turnover in the squirrel population is extremely high. Studies in the 1950s revealed a 70 percent natural mortality in squirrels, whether hunted or not hunted."
I told Hall that from my experiences and contacts around the Mountain State, squirrels seemed to be commonplace almost everywhere. The biologist agreed.
"If you have a mature oak-hickory forest, you will have good squirrel hunting," he proclaimed. "Squirrels begin cutting on hickories early in the fall and if you can find a tree being used, you will have a very enjoyable day."
By December and January, those hickory nuts will, of course, be long gone, but the squirrels likely will not, Hall said. The hunting will probably remain good in that area unless, as was the case on my trip to Monroe County, the weather temporarily becomes foul.
Rabbit populations tend to fluctuate by the season or weather conditions, however.
"The number of rabbits present depends on the time of the year," the biologist explained. "Production in rabbits is high in spring and early summer; however, as fall and winter approach, the habitat that was so lush in the spring and summer becomes very sparse and rabbits become susceptible to predation. Where you have good, thick escape cover, you will generally find good populations of rabbits."
As many cottontail chasers well know, the epic days of the 1950s and 1960s when rabbits populated the state in solid numbers are well past. The days when farmers left their fencerows grown up in brush, when overgrown fields were common, and when cedar mounds seemed to be on the edge of every field, largely do not exist now.
"Generally, the best rabbit habitat is where agricultural practices are still being carried out," Hall explained. "Areas along the Ohio River and Eastern Panhandle, specifically the Potomac and Shenandoah river bottomlands, have always maintained good rabbit habitat. Farmlands that produce row crops as well as brushy fence borders provide excellent habitat for cottontail rabbits."
PUBLIC LAND CHOICES
What does Dick Hall say about national forest and state lands for squirrels? Once again, his answer should not surprise anyone.
"I can't think of any of the WMAs that would be poor for squirrel hunting," Hall said concisely.
Indeed, this is certainly the case. To be honest, a squirrel hunter who lives in McDowell County along the Virginia border is not going to take off for Bear Rock Lakes WMA in Ohio County along the Pennsylvania border just because he heard that the public land hosts healthy numbers of squirrels. No one in thi
s day and time of abundant silvertails is going to make a six-hour drive, like our hypothetical McDowell hunter, to pursue this small-game critter.
Tim Wimer and I drove 42 miles to the Potts Creek WMA because we wanted to scout for deer and turkeys and relish the outdoor experience. But if I wanted to go squirrel hunting to put meat on the table, I would have gone behind my house, to the dairy farm six miles away, or to the national forest land that lies a few miles from my home. This game plan, no doubt, is the same as most West Virginia squirrel fanciers.
If you are new to the state and really need a public land to go hunting on, visit the DNR's Web site at www.wvdnr.gov. Then click on "Hunting" and "Wildlife Management Areas." Next, click on "Select a Wildlife Management Area by Map and District." You will then see a map of the counties with numbers and letters inside. Those numbers and letters are coded to public lands.
Let's employ our hypothetical McDowell County sportsman once more. If he clicked on McDowell County, he would find the following links to public lands: "43, Anawalt Lake WMA; 45, Berwind Lake WMA; 54, Tug River WMA; and H. Panther State Forest. Our fellow sportsman could then click again, this time on the individual public lands and receive informative descriptions on each of them. All of these areas would be relatively near his home, all would offer good squirrel hunting, and maybe several of them would eventually prove interesting as a place to go after, for instance, deer and turkeys at some later date.
Dick Hall maintained that a number of public-land possibilities for rabbits exist. Obviously, though, the numbers of WMAs that offer bountiful rabbit action are far fewer than those that offer satisfying squirrel sport. One public land that the biologist does recommend for rabbits is the well-known McClintic WMA, a 3,655-acre tract in Mason County.
McClintic has been written about many times in the pages of this magazine, not only as a destination for rabbits but also for just about any large or small-game species. The reason is the dazzling diversity of habitat that exists. McClintic features some 600 acres of farmland, 1,100 acres of brush land, 180 acres of wetlands, and 1,775 acres of mixed hardwoods. Edge habit is seemingly everywhere.
Of course, given its reputation, the McClintic WMA attracts rabbit hunters not only from Mason County but also from around District V. Still, even the late-season hunter should be able to enjoy some good hound and beagle escapades.
A second public land that Hall is high on is the Hillcrest WMA in Hancock County. This District I domain, like McClintic, is known for a diversity of habitat across its 2,212 acres. As one would expect of a District I rabbit hotspot, the topography is not steep, as the elevations range from 1,000 to 1,280 feet.
Habitat types include overgrown fields, old orchards, crop fields and scattered oak-hickory stands. Indeed, an old-time rabbit hunter visiting this public land will be reminded of what prime rabbit habitat looked like back in the 1950s and thereabouts. An additional incentive for a sojourn is that Tomlinson Run State Park is fewer than two miles away. Sportsmen may want to consider camping there and hunting for several days at Hillcrest. For more information on planning a stay at Tomlinson Run or at any state park, call (800) CALL-WVA.
Another public land that Hall suggests is Bluestone Lake WMA in southern West Virginia. This District IV public land is one that I have hunted on several times in recent years, and I can well understand why the biologist lists it as a possible destination. Bluestone sprawls over 18,019 acres in Monroe, Summers and Mercer counties and has been extensively managed for years by several WMA supervisors.
The result is an outstanding mix of habitats. Great places to look for rabbits are in the area's many fields and openings that have been created, improved upon, or seeded in wildlife mixes. In some of those openings, I have found fruit trees, brushpiles, and even the odd old building, are the types of places that rabbits naturally will be drawn to.
The natural habitat is similarly appealing. The New River forms one of the public land's boundaries and some rich bottomland exists. The steep mountainsides and cliffs don't offer much for rabbits, but hunters can follow the old logging roads that wind through the highlands and locate plenty of openings. I have bumped rabbits while hunting along those roads, especially the roads that have been seeded. I have camped on the Bluestone Lake WMA several times and, of course, the namesake state park is another place where lodging is available. I have spent a number of nights at the park as well, and heartily recommend both it and the WMA as a place to stay.
A fourth possibility is the Shannondale Springs WMA in the Eastern Panhandle. This District II public land contains 1,361 acres in Jefferson County. The Shannondale Springs WMA lies along the Shenandoah River and as such boasts a great deal of bottomland terrain. The elevation tops out at just 700 feet, so this public land is lacking in steep terrain.
The best place to look for cottontails is the brush land and old fields that characterize portions of Shannondale. There is not as much of this type of habitat as that which exists on McClintic, but enough can be found that rousting up some rabbits is a distinct possibility.
The final locale that Hall lists is the Pleasants Creek WMA in District I. A relatively small public land at 3,030 acres, Barbour and Taylor counties share it. Mixed hardwoods exist on this WMA, but where cottontails are most likely to be encountered are in the edge areas where wetlands adjoin forests.
Tygart Lake State Park is nearby and offers a number of cabins. Camping is also available at the WMA itself.
Creating Rabbit Habitat
Some 20 years ago, a wildlife biologist told me that if sportsmen wanted more rabbits to pursue, they should create what he called "rabitat," that is habitat that rabbits are drawn to. A good example of rabbit habitat can now be found on the 29-acre tract I live on.
To explain, this past spring I had a commercial logger cut about 50 aging Virginia pines. After the trees were taken to a local sawmill, a friend asked me if I were going to bush-hog the remnant boughs into a central area and burn them. Piles ranging from huge stacks to small mounds dotted the logging site, and my buddy regarded these leftovers as eyesores. However, I regarded them as future places for rabbits to breed in, to hide in, and for me to hunt next to.
Rabbits benefit from what some would say are "sloppy" land-use practices. There is a tendency among landowners today to make their places neat. Rabbits, however, aren't attracted to neat places and well-manicured lawns. Give them an old brushpile, some stacked-up boughs, the tops off timbered trees, and they will likely do quite well.
I also conducted some management activities that will benefit squirrels on my land. For example, when I had the aging pines removed, in several places the result was that the remainin
g oak and hickory trees will now have more light reach them and their crowns will be able to expand. I expect that both of these hardwoods will produce more hard mast in the future. Squirrels, as well as deer and turkeys, will certainly benefit from the increased nut production.
Like many outdoorsmen today, my two favorite game animals to pursue are turkeys and deer. However, once the seasons for these two big-game animals wind down or end, my thoughts increasingly turn to bushytails and rabbits. December and January are two great months to go after these small-game species in West Virginia.