With so much focus on deer hunting during fall it's easy to forget that New England's public hunting areas offer some spectacular small game and bird hunting opportunities. Whether your target of choice is gray squirrels, cottontail rabbits, snowshoe hares, grouse, woodcock or stocked pheasants and quail there are places to go for limit hunts, often for multiple species.
Try these proven small game hotspots when the season opens in your state this fall:
Maine grouse are abundant, widespread and cover-oriented; finding them usually means finding 5- to 10-year-old edge cover. Thanks to decades of concentrated logging, fair portions of Maine's northern woodlands offer the perfect mix of forest and edge habitat. Maine is also unique in that any land that is not posted is open to hunting. Plenty of birds, plenty of room to roam and a chance for a bag limit of four birds per day — it doesn't get any better than this!
For a taste of old-time Northeast bird hunting, head for Millinocket and the Golden Road via Interstate Route 95 and state Route 11. Motels abound in the region and there are plenty of American Plan camps throughout the area that cater to sportsmen during the bird-hunting season. Or, bring your camping gear and make a real adventure out of your trip.
Many hunters ride the gravel Golden Road (where logging trucks always have the right of way) and look for birds feeding or picking grit at roadside. Most are back at camp by 10 a.m. with a limit of four grouse. Hunters with dogs may prefer to go after the singles. Or, to make a "serious" hunt out of it, try parking near any of the thousands of grown-over logging paths and trails that connect to the Golden Road. Grouse will be found in the alders and brush along these roads.
In the early season the birds will still be in family groups where hunters may flush six or eight birds at one time. Later, it's all about individual flushes, but there will be plenty of them.
Maine offers some great squirrel hunting in its southern zone oak forests. The 111-acre Frye Mountain Wildlife Management Area off Route 137 from Belfast is a good place to start looking for fat fall grays. Look for red and white oaks on the higher ground and plan to be on hand early and late in the day.
For more information, contact the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife at www.maine.gov/ifw. For meals and accommodations, log onto www.mainetourism.com.
The Bay State has one of the most aggressive pheasant-stocking programs in the East. Over 40,000 birds are stocked annually statewide. The heaviest stocking occurs during the first week of the season on nearly 50 Central District WMAs. Hunting is permitted from sunrise to sunset on any WMA where pheasants are stocked. A high visibility orange cap is required.
The largest WMA in the Central District is the Millers River WMA in Athol, Royalston and Phillipston. Access is off I-202 and state Route 68. Weekend hunts can be crowded but sportsmen who are able to schedule time off during the week often have textbook hunts with everyone in the party limiting out.
Massachusetts has an abundance of cottontail rabbits statewide. These popular small-game targets are most numerous in areas of thick brush and briars bordering grassy areas. Most of the public lands that are managed for pheasants, quail or deer contain huntable numbers of cottontails during the early season. The Central and Eastern districts offer the best cottontail hunting, although pockets of rabbits may be found in the Western districts where clear-cutting and farming operations continue.
Crane Pond WMA covers 2,100 acres near Haverhill and Lawrence. Openings resulting from timbering activities provide cover for rabbits, and a power line running through the WMA provides additional habitat. Pheasants are stocked daily on this WMA, offering hunters additional incentives.
Crane Pond WMA is divided into five parts, with parking and access included for each section. Hunters pursuing or possessing pheasants must wear an orange hat. Anyone hunting rabbits who shoots a pheasant must comply with the orange hat regulation.
Access to the WMA is via I-95 at Exit 57 and state Route 113 near Groveland and Byfield.
For information, contact MassWildlife at www.mass.gov/dfwele. For accommodations and meals, log onto www.masstourist.com.
For early-season action, nothing compares to hunting gray squirrels in the oaks, and what better place to find a limit of grays than in The Charter Oak State? Squirrels are abundant statewide due to a high density of mature white oaks. Most WMAs have thriving populations of squirrels in open forest, river bottom and hedgerow stands of oaks where the action starts as soon as the season opens.
For high-odds squirrel hunting this season, try Connecticut's Nipmuck State Forest off I-84 in Union. Replete with acorn-laden white oaks, this northeast-region forest offers plenty of opportunities for early fall squirrel hunting. Hunt the ridge tops at dawn and again in late afternoon.
Most of the squirrel activity will be in the treetops. Sharp-eyed hunters can take their limit with a scoped .22, while others opt for a shotgun with a full choke and sturdy magnum loads to bring down their share of bushytails.
To get there from I-84 east, take Exit 72. Follow Route 89 north to the intersection of Route 89 and Route 190. Go west onto Route 190.
Last year the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection stocked 15,775 pheasants, an increase of 1,472 adult pheasants compared to 2009. Stocking on the best quality areas will again be conducted three days per week this year while several high-quality areas will be stocked on occasional Saturdays throughout the season. The highest number of birds will be stocked during five of the seven weeks between opening day and Thanksgiving.
In addition to WMAs, permit-required hunting areas are available through agreements with private landowners in the towns of Woodstock, Hebron, East Windsor, Enfield, Suffield and others. A list of these stocked properties is available from the DEP. Hunters must visit an authorized permit station, fill out a daily report card and return the card to the DEP.
The best hunting on these permit-required private lands takes place during the week. Hunters without dogs should spend their time in the thickest cover (briars, hedgerows and wetlands) where stocked pheasants will go after being flushed out of the traditional cornfields and grassy cover by weekend hunters.
According to the DEP, the Flaherty Field Trial Area in East Windsor is one of the best pheasant hunting areas in Connecticut. On weekends the area is used for field trial events and is closed to public access. However, The DEP will be stocking nearly 300 birds here on weekdays only starting the week after opening day and ending on the week of Thanksgiving.
For maps, licenses and more information, contact the Connecticut DEP at www.ct.gov/dep. For accommodations and meals, log onto www.ctvisit.com.
Some of the best rabbit hunting in the Ocean State may be found on Arcadia WMA in West Greenwich, Exeter, Hopkinton and Richmond. The WMA boasts over 11,000 acres of varied upland habitat and forest with another 1,700 wetland acres.
There is plenty of room for kick-'em-up and hound hunters on this huge public hunting area, which is off I-95 via state routes 3 and 165. For maps and more information, log onto www.rihunts.com/wma/arcadia.htm.
For a productive early-season squirrel hunt, Ocean State wildlife managers point to 3,498-acre George Washington WMA off state Route 100 in Burrillville and Glocester. Evenly split between deciduous and softwood forests, this WMA contains prime habitat for gray squirrels and other forest game. For maps and more information about the WMA, log onto www.rihunts.com/wma/georgewashington.htm.
For more information about small game hunting opportunities in Rhode Island, log onto www.dem.ri.gov. For accommodations and meals, log onto http://www.visitrhodeisland.com.
One of the best-kept secrets in the Northeast is the Granite State's three-month-long fall archery turkey season, with some opportunities for shotgun hunters as well. The state has an estimated population of over 40,000 birds, and fall archery hunters get first crack at them when the population is at its peak.
Fall turkey hunting requires room to roam, so the logical destination is the White Mountain National Forest, which offers 750,000 acres of prime turkey habitat including plentiful public access via roads, logging roads and 1,200 miles of hiking trails. Adventurous hunters may simple strike off into the woods without benefit of trails or paths and expect to find excellent fall turkey hunting far from the crowds.
New Hampshire's fabled White Mountains are also home to a thriving population of ruffed grouse. In one of the few states with a four-bird daily limit, hunters will enjoy matching wits with this crafty upland target, but be forewarned: you will earn every bird you bring home. They don't call these "mountains" for nothing!
Grouse are abundant statewide and there are several WMAs where great upland shooting may be enjoyed, but the 750,000-acre WMNF should provide room enough and birds enough for any hunter who is up to the challenge.
For maps and specific information about New Hampshire's fall turkey and grouse seasons, log onto www.wildnh.com. For accommodations and meals, log onto www.visitnh.gov.
One of the biggest gray squirrels I ever saw was bouncing down a stone wall on a hardwood mountaintop in Ludlow, Vermont. It was deer season, so of course the woods were alive with big, fat grays. I returned to that same sunny slope for decades and never failed to bag my limit of bushytails using a .22 or .410.
For great early-season squirrel hunting with little competition and plenty of room to roam, head for Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest, which covers 400,000 acres in two large parcels providing endless opportunities for squirrel hunters. Good squirrel hunting may be had just a few yards off the many access roads, paths and trails within the forest. Or, hunters with a traveling bone can head for the hills on thousands of miles of hiking trails that provide foot access to much of the interior of the forest — more than any squirrel hunter will ever need!
For maps and more information on the Green Mountain National Forest, log onto www.fs.fed.us.
Vermont's wild turkey population is one of the largest in the Northeast at an estimated 55,000 birds and is still growing. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department offers a variety of fall turkey-hunting seasons for archery and shotgun hunters. Some of these seasons are open statewide while others are open only in selected WMUs.
As is the case in neighboring New Hampshire, hunters looking for solitude, privacy and wide-open spaces need only look at Vermont's Green Mountain National Forest and its 400,000 acres of primarily forested habitat. The GMNF is open to hunting under general state regulations. Last season fall turkey hunting in Vermont started Oct. 2 for bow hunters and oct. 23 for shotgun hunters, but there are a variety of season splits each year by both weapon and location, so check the regulations before heading out.
The forest is an ideal destination for fall turkey hunting because it gives sportsmen plenty of room to find, scatter and call feeding flocks back to the gun with little chance of being interrupted by another hunter.
Hunters who prefer the challenge of a WMA might want to consider the 624-acre White River WMA off Route 14 in Sharon. The White River forms most of the eastern and northern border of the WMA, providing a great fall hunting corridor on the high ground bordering the river.
Another good WMA hunt in Vermont's productive central region is Bird Mountain WMA in the Rutland District. This WMA covers about 770 acres with a broad variety of clear-cuts, hardwoods, softwoods and brush. Bird's Eye Road off state Route 4A provides access via a parking lot at the base of Bird Mountain. Hunt north or west of the parking area and along Gully Brook.
The Green Mountain National Forest is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. For maps, forest regulations and more information, contact the Green Mountain National Forest office, 231 North Main Street, Rutland, VT 05701; or call (802) 747-6700.