Deer, bear and grouse draw a lot of hunting interest in the winter. But they are not the only game in town. Here's what else is available.
PHOTO BY TOM MIGDALSKI
Late season hunting for many Mountain State sportsmen means tapping into the remaining opportunities for deer. But there's more to do than pursue whitetails. Though most hunters may have stored their shotguns and rifles for the season, there is still sport available for those hardy souls willing to partake.
The weather has a lot to do with the quality of late season hunting for ducks, geese, squirrels and rabbits. During a mild or late to arrive winter there are often even decent numbers of mourning doves around, though few folks pay much attention to doves after the conclusion of the early season.
What follows is a look at some December and January hunting options to help you end the 2010-11 campaign on a high note.
One of the more extensive opportunities is that of waterfowl hunting. If the weather is right the Mountain State can have excellent numbers of ducks, plus the ever-present Canada goose.
"We always have plenty of Canada geese around here, year 'round regardless of the weather," said Steve Wilson, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources waterfowl biologist. "Duck hunting, though, during December and January is very weather dependent. Most of our resident birds have bailed out of here.
"What we need is some good winter weather to the north of us to push migrant birds down here," he added. "If we get the good weather, you can get some really good duck hunting in several areas of the state, but particularly in the Ohio River valley. It's probably the best general area during the late season. When you get the Lake Erie marshes frozen over and those birds have to head south, we get them in the Ohio valley."
How and where a sportsman hunts relates directly to the weather patterns within a given winter season. That's not to say there's no opportunity when less than ideal weather patterns emerge. It's just that hunters must make the adjustment. They have to be willing to work a bit harder, in different areas, and likely be happy with just a bit less action.
"When it is mild, you don't have as many birds here," explained Wilson. "The ones you do have are more scattered out. You have to do a lot of legwork to find the places that have a few birds, where you can have a little bit of good shooting. But there won't be piles of birds around."
During mild winters hunters might still find a few ducks on bigger reservoirs and river systems, but with the birds more scattered, smaller places will also hold ducks. Expect birds to be on smaller reservoirs, on creeks and small rivers -- places that wouldn't be available to ducks if they were froze up.
"Now if we get the good weather, and it freezes up the farm ponds, and pushes birds down from the north, then the birds will concentrate on the open water of the bigger reservoirs and rivers," Wilson continued. "Then you can get into some really good shooting where the birds are flying all day. There will be a lot of species around. You can actually pick and choose what you shoot, and get a six-bird bag limit. If you have a local contact, one that can tell you that the birds are in, that's a great help."
During the early season, hunters will likely encounter a fairly short list of puddle ducks. Wood ducks will still be around, as will teal. Mallards will also be a common sighting during these hunts. But when the weather stimulates a major waterfowl migration, the fare becomes much more varied. Hunters will see a wide assortment of both dabbling ducks and also divers.
"We get all kinds of ducks," reported Wilson. "There are mallards, black ducks, pintails, canvasbacks, scaup, ringnecks -- just a whole variety of species."
Wilson said that while late season waterfowl hunting is enjoyed by a relative few, the potential for great sport is such that others should consider it.
"December and January are busy times of the year for a lot of people. To be consistently successful at late season waterfowling you have to be serious about it. So we don't have a lot of hunters that pursue ducks and geese this time of year. But the ones that we do have, they are serious folks and they take advantage of the opportunities."
As the major physical corridor in the state, it's no surprise that ducks use the Ohio valley as a main flyway corridor. While most of this land is in private ownership, some public land is available on both a state and federal level.
Of significance on the federal level is the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. While waterfowl hunting on a NWR may conjure up images of controlled, tightly managed hunts, this isn't the case on this network of islands. Actually, the Ohio River Islands NWR is a group of 22 islands, as well as three mainland areas found along 400 miles of the river. Eighteen of the islands are located in West Virginia.
The refuge was established in 1990 as an effort to preserve some of the wildness of the industrialized Ohio River valley. What it means to the hunter is access to an area that often plays host to an abundance of waterfowl during the winter season.
"What the Ohio Islands provide is public access to the river," noted the biologist. "You definitely have to have a boat that is able to handle the Ohio River during inclement weather. If you have the equipment to do that, you can go out and set up on or along some of those islands. You can have some pretty good hunts."
As Wilson pointed out, the Ohio River Islands NWR is accessible only by boat. Hunters will need to do some pre-hunt research to discover the best public access for a given islands, as well as each island's attractiveness to ducks and geese. Since public boat access to the river is good from not only the West Virginia side, but the Ohio side as well, this isn't too big a hurtle.
The Ohio can get whipped up pretty good in a wind, and is subject to use by large vessels such as coal barges. So a good-sized boat properly equipped with the necessary safety equipment is a must.
In addition to the proper state license, hunting the refuge requires a permit. The refuge's hunting brochure serves as that permit. A new permit is required each year, as the brochure spells out refuge-specific hunting regulations, which can change from year to year. There is no entrance fee for hunting the Ohio River Island NWR. Additional information can be obtained by calling the refuge headqu
arters at (304) 375-2923.
West Virginia is divided into two separate waterfowl zones. This year the late duck season in Zone 1 runs from Dec. 10 to Jan. 29. The Zone 2 season is open from Dec. 3 through Jan. 22. The bag limit is six ducks per day.
The Canada goose season in both zones runs from Dec. 13 through Jan. 31 with a daily bag of five.
Squirrels are another winter option for some small game action. Photo by Polly Dean.
Squirrel hunting is a West Virginia tradition, though one that sees the most participation in October and November. But the season extends until January 31.
The key to late season squirrel hunting is to stay mobile. As food sources are depleted squirrels may not be in the same areas you found them earlier. The year's hard mast production will be important. Places where good supplies of acorns and hickory nuts are found should produce some fine shooting.
One public area that typically provides consistent squirrel hunting is the Elk River WMA, which covers more than 18,000 acres. The Elk River, including the dammed portion that forms Sutton Lake, comprises the nucleus of the area. The surrounding uplands provide the habitat necessary for forest species such as squirrels.
Hunters can expect to find a mixture of steep hills, ridges and benches along the Elk River valley. Much of the forestland is of the mature stage, making it ideal habitat for squirrels.
To reach the Elk River WMA take Exit 67 off of Interstate 79. Travel south on U.S. Highway 19. After about two miles turn east on State Route 15 and follow the signs for the WMA. The squirrel season extends until Jan. 31, with a daily bag limit of six.
For many hunters there's no sweeter sound than the bawl of a beagle or two hot on the trail of a cottontail. Just because the early season is over there's no reason to throw in the towel for the year.
West Virginia has a liberal season on cottontail rabbits. This year's hunt kicks off in early November and extends until Feb. 28, 2011. The daily bag limit is five.
The McClintic WMA covers 3,655 acres, much of it being good "rabbitat." The ideal rabbit habitat tends to be a mixture of farmland and brush land, of which McClintic has both. Hunters can expect to find about 600 acres of farmland and 1,100 acres of brushy cover at McClintic.
To reach the McClintic tract from Mason travel south about eight miles on SR 62. The WMA is accessed by way of County Road 12 (Fairgrounds Road). From Point Pleasant, travel north for five miles on SR 62.
The Green Bottom WMA in Mason and Cabell counties also provides public land that contains some good areas for bunnies. The Green Bottom tract covers nearly 1,100 acres. About 680 of these acres exist as farmland. Surrounding habitat includes forest and wetlands. The Green Bottom WMA is located 16 miles north of Huntington on SR 2.
The ideal conditions for late winter rabbit hunting is a mild, sunny day. When the sun is out the rabbits will be more active. If the ground is damp, as with a melting snow, the scent conditions can be excellent for beagles.
But lacking a dog is no reason to pass up a late winter rabbit hunt. A hunter can bounce them out on his own and it's an excellent way to shake off the cabin fever blues.
Late season rabbit hunting isn't limited to cottontails. Robust hunters look forward to winter hunts were the prey is snowshoe hare. The snowshoes find the state's high elevation region to their liking. The Monongahela National Forest covers much of this area, so there's no lack of public access. Tracts within the national forest that harbor snowshoe hares include Beaver Dam, Blackwater, Cheat, Cranberry, Little River, Otter Creek and Tea Creek.
For most sportsmen dove hunting is an early fall activity, the start of which is ushered in by the Labor Day weekend. Once the seasons for more glamorous species arrive the mourning dove is pretty much forgotten for another year. But as most any hunter that's walked the remnants of a picked cornfield can attest, there are still some doves around during the late season, and they still taste just as sweet.
The Hillcrest WMA in Hancock County is a good place to set up a dove hunt on public lands. It's located in the tip of the state's northern panhandle. The entire northern panhandle is but a sliver of country that lies along the eastern side of the Ohio River. While the region boasts its share of industry, there is also a fair amount of farmland.
Hillcrest WMA covers 2,212 acres. Whereas many of our state's WMAs and federal public lands are comprised mostly of forestland, the Hillcrest tract is made up largely of reverting farmland. A hunter can expect to find a mixture of old farm fields, croplands and scattered woodlots. The lay of the land varies from that of flat bottomlands to slopes that rise up to elevations of 1,000 to 1,200 feet.
Mourning doves are fairly predictable creatures, making daily flights between feeding and roosting areas. In that they tend to roost in open areas such as dead trees and on power lines, finding concentrations of birds is rarely a problem.
Corn and grain fields are typical feeding areas. Doves need grit to digest their food, so dirt roads that provide gravel are another important ingredient in locating doves. Add to that the need for water and you've covered the basics.
You can access the Hillcrest WMA by way of SR 8, which intersects with SR 2 north of Weirton. County roads 42, 14 and 18 all extend in to the interior of the Hillcrest tract.
Nearby Tomlinson Run State Park is located just to the west, on the opposite side of SR 8.
The season for mourning doves is split into three sessions. The final of those runs from Dec. 22 through Jan. 1, 2011. The bag limit per hunter is 15 doves per day.
SUMMING IT UP
The weather may be turning frigid in the Mountain State in December, but there is plenty of shooting action available. There are ducks, squirrels, rabbits and even doves to offer you a challenge.
It's just a question of getting out the door and into the fields or on the waters this month.