Winter Small Game & Upland Prospects

Winter Small Game  & Upland Prospects

Hunters who live in Virginia, Delaware & Maryland have some great choices for small-game and upland bird hunting this winter. (December 2009)

I first talked with and met Jeff Powers, who operates Powers Tractors and Equipment Company in Vinton, several months before the various hunting seasons began last year. While we were talking about outdoor related issues, the Moneta resident mentioned that he enjoyed chasing after rabbits during December through mid-February. So I mentioned that perhaps he could drop me an e-mail if he wanted to go sometime.

And they're off! Wayne Booth releases his beagles for a rabbit hunt last February.

Photo by Bruce Ingram.

Imagine my anticipation when I received this post.

"You're not going to believe this," wrote Powers. "Last week, I spoke to my cousin, Wayne Booth, who is in his 60s, and made plans to go rabbit hunting before the season ends. He called me this morning to see if I wanted to go. With about a dozen small beagles, Wayne, my 8-year-old son, Josh, and I went hunting around our barns and the old farmhouse. In about three hours, we jumped 13 rabbits. I shot at four and killed two; I was a little rusty. Josh shot at one with his gun. It was the first time he had been rabbit hunting and he's still on cloud 9.

"Wayne doesn't even take his gun anymore. He was telling me about how rabbit hunting used to be like a ritual where members of the Booth family would get together many times a season to hunt, and everyone treated it like a family outing. Every time I go hunting with Wayne, I feel like I'm in a history class.

"The other reason he wanted to go was to take Josh. Our family has always believed in teaching the next generation about rabbit hunting and its importance to our family's heritage. My 17-year-old daughter, Joy, also loves to rabbit and squirrel hunt. Wayne never had any kids, so his dogs are like his kids and my children are like his grandchildren."

So this past Feb. 14, I joined Jeff, Josh, Wayne and friend Jeff Dillon, all of Moneta, for a Bedford bunny brush-buster. As the beagles came streaming out of the truck, I noted that they were all of the short-legged variety. I had to ask Jeff why he and his family preferred this kind of canine.

"Short-legged beagles are absolutely the best kind of rabbit dog," he said. "Long-legged beagles move too fast and will quickly run a rabbit into a hole. Long-legged dogs also have their noses too far from the ground, so they miss a lot of trails.

"Short-legged dogs also move through thickets and briar and bramble bushes better. And they don't get injured as much because of that."

While the five of us were walking toward a thicket on the Powers family farm, I made a good decision, probably the only one I made all morning, stating that my reflexes were extremely slow. The statement turned out to be a prophetic one.

For over the next three hours, those tiny beagles jumped some eight or nine cottontails. I shot and missed the first two that passed my way, and then missed one particular rabbit on three different occasions before Jeff downed him. Powers kindly said that my shooting had "slowed that rabbit down." Perhaps in reality, the bunny had instinctively determined that I was no threat to its existence and had decided to amble along instead of to sprint.

In any event, Jeff killed three rabbits during my Bedford sojourn and graciously offered them to me, and I gladly accepted. That night, my wife Elaine and I had "cottontail in a crockpot" for dinner, and the entrée, simmered along with potatoes, carrots, onions and peas, was delicious.

It's no secret that quality rabbit hunting like I experienced last February in Bedford County is not always the norm these days. What is the secret to success?

"Three things," replied Jeff Powers. "First, hunters have to work harder these days to gain access to good properties for rabbits. Second, hunters have to make a commitment to work their dogs. Beagles can get out of shape just like athletes can.

"Last, hunters need to spread the word any way they can about the importance of creating quality habitat. One of the best things a landowner can do is plant warm-season grasses. Rabbits, like many other animals, benefit from those stands."

Switch grass, Indian grass, big and little bluestem are just a few of the warm-season grasses that grow well in much of the Old Dominion. To learn more about which varieties will do well in various areas of the state, Powers suggests readers contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), Virginia Tech or a local county extension agent.

Powers is also chairman of the Bedford Agriculture Economic Development Advisory Board, which is dedicated to sound conservation practices being carried out on agricultural lands. The following Web site offers a wealth of practical information for sportsmen and individuals interested in improving wildlife habitat on private land. For more information, go to Timber Cutting Equals Better Public Grouse Hunting

It's no secret among the upland bird-hunting contingent in Virginia that more timber cutting on national forest and state WMAs would result in more and better ruffed grouse habitat. The Virginia Coalition on the George Washington Plan Partners made a recent proposal toward that end to the U.S. Forest Service. The coalition consists of various conservation groups.

Dennis LaBare, an upland bird advocate from Upper Tract, West Virginia, and group member, relates that land-use policies that help wildlife to prosper involve active timber and vegetation management, and those activities foster healthy populations. Preservation groups that push for more wilderness, that want roadless areas increased, and that preach no timber cutting are actually hurting wildlife, including grouse, on our national forest land.

Non-wilderness visitors even spend more money ($132,870,409 to $5,142,984 annually) than wilderness visitors, and rural economies need this spending, in addition to the money that enters into local coffers from logging and related activities. Here are some other bullet points from the group.

  • '‚Early successional habitats are the rarest of all forest age-classes (less than 4 percent).
  • '‚The harvest objective should be 4,000 to 5,000 acres per year in an effort to reach the more than 15 percent of 0- to 20-year-old age-class habitat that is needed for grouse and other game and non-game species.
  • '‚Only 350,000 out of 1.1 million acres of forest are even available for timber harvest and the young forest habitat it creates. This lack of timberin

    g hurts some species of wildlife and local economies. This acreage should be increased to at least pre-1993 levels, preferably more. For example, in 1992, 6,105 acres were cut. In recent years, the harvest has hovered around 1,000 acres.

  • '‚True biodiversity is maintained on the forest by keeping the widest variety of age-classes to accommodate as many species of wildlife as possible. Presently, forest age-class distribution is heavily and unhealthily biased toward maturity. Nearly 70 species of wildlife depend on young forest for all or part of their lives.
  • '‚There are no species of wildlife that require old-growth forests, a fact the Forest Service notes in its other forest plans in the Southern Appalachians.
  • '‚There are far more species in decline that are "young forest dependent" than those that are mature forest dependent. Mature forest dependent wildlife species are not inherently more important than early successional, young forest dependent wildlife species.
  • '‚The principle mast species of the Southern oak-hickory forest have finite productive lives. Old-growth, wilderness and roadless areas are not and will not replace these forests and will assure wildlife declines.

On another national forest-related front, Russ MacFarland, silviculturist for the Washington and Jefferson, reports that the service was proposing to conduct suppression treatments because of gypsy moth infestation on 19,387 acres in 49 separate blocks within Alleghany, Augusta, Craig, Giles, Montgomery and Rockingham counties. Treatments on 1,015 acres of congressionally designated wilderness land are being considered as well.

Gypsy moths especially attack oaks and ravage hickories, maples, apples and elms among others. This is a situation that bears close watching, as these creatures have proliferated throughout the Virginias, Maryland, Delaware and points north. For more information, go to the site at:

Last winter one afternoon after school, I had the opportunity to go grouse hunting in the Washington and Jefferson with Jim Slater of Troutville. Like all upland bird hunters I have talked to in recent years, Slater bemoaned the lack of timber cutting being done on this public land. But Slater is at least able to experience some success by being creative in his approach.

For example, Slater and his English setter first took me on a tour of a creek bottom, then we headed to where a burn had taken place, and finally we slogged through a mountain laurel thicket. During our brief outing, we didn't put up any ruffs, but Jim's approach is sound.

Bushytails, Bunnies and Quail

VDGIF Small Game Project Leader Marc Puckett uses a number of methods to gain insight into small-game numbers. One of these methods is the Rural Mail Carrier Survey, which is done annually in August. The most recently completed survey covered the 2008 period, which should hold relevance for this season.

According to the survey, compared with 2007, statewide population indices increased for quail (plus 3 percent), rabbits (plus 2 percent) and squirrels (plus 11 percent). Regionally, quail population indices were highest in the Tidewater region and lowest in the Southwest Mountain region. Both results were as expected given the mountainous, heavily forested terrain of southwest Virginia and the agricultural component of Tidewater.

Rabbit indices were highest in the Central Mountain region and lowest in the West Piedmont region, and squirrel indices were highest in the Northern region and lowest in the Southwest Mountain region. Fox squirrels were most abundant in the Central Mountain region and least abundant in the East Piedmont.

Although that survey gave a smattering of good news regarding bobwhites, the overall picture is bleak not only in the Old Dominion but throughout the region. For example, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Breeding Bird Survey from 1966 through 2007, Virginia's quail population is declining at a rate of 4.17 percent annually -- and we are not alone. For comparison, the following states are seeing average annual declines at these percentages: Kentucky (2.61), Maryland (5.12), North Carolina (4.49) South Carolina, (4.87), Tennessee (3.99) and West Virginia (11.72).

The Commonwealth's Quail Hunter Cooperator Survey in 2007-08 offers yet more insight. The survey now only has 60 participants, and during that year, those individuals flushed 704 bobs, down from 984 the previous year. The coveys flushed per hunter hour also showed a decline of 0.27 percent, down 4 percent from 2006-07.

One of the most interesting facts Puckett presented was the data from the survey's first five seasons (1977-1982) versus the past half decade, which shows that flushes have decreased 33 percent. Studies also show that in the late 1970s, hunters took on average 2.5 hours to flush a covey, but today it takes 4.0 hours on average. Additionally, the harvest was again too low in the Central and Southwest mountains to analyze. The best hunting, such as it is, is in the Tidewater.

Puckett encourages sportsmen and landowners to learn more about the various warm-season grasses, such as switch grass, as well as habitat management practices that aid quail. He suggests the following VDGIF link, and a publication available there, Open Lands Habitat Management, published by the University of Tennesse

Maryland and Delaware Overview

Harry Spiker, game mammal section leader for the Maryland DNR, told me that some one-tenth of the state's 100,000 hunters pursue fox and gray squirrels.

"Squirrel hunting is absolutely a popular statewide activity, but it is especially so in central and western Maryland, which has more rural areas than the eastern part of the state," he says. "I think certainly one of the best places to squirrel hunt is Green Ridge State Forest in Allegany County."

This 46,000-acre public land consists largely of oak-hickory forests and long has been a traditional place for silvertail fanciers. Spiker relates that other quality destinations include the Indian Springs WMA (6,400 acres) and Sideling Hill WMA (3,100 acres), both in Washington County.

Another possibility, continues the biologist, is the Dans Mountain State Forest (9,200 acres) in Allegany County. Also of note is the McKee-Beshers WMA (2,000 acres) in western Montgomery County.

The most rural county in Maryland is Garrett, but Spiker notes that this far western domain, known for its high, rugged uplands in the Appalachian Plateau, hosts relatively few squirrels, especially compared with other counties in the region, such as Allegany and Washington. In fact, Garrett possesses the four highest mountains in the Free State, the most significant being Backbone Mountain, which tops out at 3,360 feet.

Spiker says that about 5,000 sportsmen pursue rabbits, but public-hunting options are limited.

"In recent years, we have not had the money, and so consequently, the manpower to create the kind of early succession habitat on our public lands that rabbits need to do well," says the biologist. "Ideally for wildlife, a public land would have old-growth

forest, early successional forest, and many different stages and ages of forest in between. All early succession needing species suffer from a lack of management on public lands."

Understandably with so few patches of rabbit habitat on the state's public lands, Spiker was hesitant to mention in print specific places where sportsmen could go to chase after cottontails. The biologist's advice is for hunters to contact the regional office in their area and ask the personnel there what are the closest public-land possibilities.

"We are conducting some management activities on some of our WMAs," said Spiker. "Those include things such as mowing open areas to keep them in the early succession stages, prescribed burns and some timber cutting."

For more information on hunting in Maryland, contact the DNR at, or call (877) 620-8DNR.

Delaware is, of course, a small state with small parcels of public land. To learn more about where these public lands are, view maps of them and learn about hunting opportunities, consult these two Web sites: or www.dnr.state.

A Prescription for Better Small-Game Hunting

If you own or lease hunting land or if you have permission to hunt on private land, here are some things you can do or encourage others to accomplish so that better small-game opportunities will exist.

  • '‚For squirrels especially, conduct timber-thinning exercises. For example, remove non-mast trees, such as red and striped maples, ashes and poplars, so that the oaks and hickories can expand their crowns and produce more nuts.
  • '‚Plant warm-season grasses, such as switch grass, Indian grass, and big and little bluestem. During the summer, grouse and quail can use these areas to "bug" in, a valuable activity for their young.
  • '‚Conduct small timber cuts and lots of them. Four or five timber cuts of, say, five acres scattered about a 100-acre parcel will certainly create more edge habitat.
  • '‚Encourage, or plant, soft-mast producers, such as dogwood, persimmon, and apple trees, as well as plants like grapes, viburnums and greenbrier.

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