February 21, 2023
When I was a kid, I hated the month of February. Christmas had come and gone, school dragged on and the arrival of spring and being able to get outside seemed impossibly far away. But now, as an adult, February seems filled with fabulous things to do afield. Yeah, I know deer season has concluded and the spring turkey opener isn't exactly imminent, but in most Eastern states, small game seasons remain open and both public and private lands in our region receive light hunting pressure now. Let's explore what's available.
PUT THE SNEAK ON SQUIRRELS
During the winter months, Carl Absher of Catawba, Va., relishes the experience of pursuing squirrels. "Food is the most important consideration now, and it's still acorns and hickory nuts that squirrels are most likely eating," he says. "But hunters have to realize that the types of acorns and nuts squirrels are searching for now are very different from what they were back in September and October.
"For example, early in the season you can find squirrels in white oak groves and around mockernut and pignut hickory trees," Absher says. "But just about every game animal favors white oak acorns, and the squirrels hit the mockernut and pignut trees hard early on until the nuts are all gone. So you have to figure out what other nuts are left."
In the hickory family, that means nuts from shagbark trees. Their long, gray strips that hang down—and stand out in the winter landscape—are diagnostic, as are the nuts themselves, which are almost golf-ball size. Shagbark nuts ripen later than mockernut and pignut ones do, and if you can find a grove of these trees, you can enjoy superb bushytail sport.
Concerning late-season oak groves, Absher says that chestnut oak stands are the place to concentrate on. "Chestnut oaks are in the white oak family, but their nuts are much higher in tannin than other white oak species, so game animals avoid them until late in the season when those acids have bleached out some," he says. "Chestnut oak acorns are also very large, so that's another reason why squirrels will be after these nuts. A handful of acorns are a good-sized meal for a squirrel this time of year."
Absher says red oak acorns are also high in tannic acids, so are largely avoided during the early season in good hard mast years. But come late season, squirrels will consistently visit groves dominated by red oaks. In our region, common red oak family members include the Northern red, pin, scarlet, black and blackjack. Learn where stands of red oak family members exist in your local hunting area, and you should find plenty of squirrels.
Absher says that in poor hard mast years, hunters may have to really lean on their woodsmanship to locate squirrels.
"During hard times, squirrels will eat pinecones," he says. "Their meat doesn't seem to taste as good when they've been feeding on cones, but it is what it is as the saying goes. Another thing to watch for is squirrels searching for cached nuts under the forest floor. Early in the season, when acorns and hickory nuts are readily available, squirrels will dig holes and hide large numbers of nuts.
"I don't think squirrels can remember where they hid those nuts, but I do believe they can smell where they are underground," Absher continues. "I also think that's a major reason why you see far more squirrels feeding on the forest floor than in trees now. Another place to look for squirrels is in edge habitat like between woods and overgrown fields, agricultural areas and food plots."
In those areas, silvertails could be feeding on menu items as diverse as waste corn, other grains, fungi and wild mushrooms. Because of the variety of foods that squirrels could be consuming, Absher favors being on the move come winter. "I'm a big fan of still-hunting now with a .22 rifle with 40-grain hollow points," he says. "I restrict myself to 50-yard head shots, and my basic game plan is to move 50 yards at a time, taking about 3 to 5 minutes to walk that distance. I think still-hunting is much more effective than taking a stand. Plus, the moving about keeps me from getting so cold."
KICK UP RABBITS AND GROUSE
Delbert Dudding, a retired sheriff's deputy from Botetourt County, Va., rates rabbits as his favorite small game animal. Dudding maintains that whether hunters are going afield with or without a canine, they have to concentrate on the densest copses that remain.
"During the late season, you have to find those places that are choked with briers, brambles, stickweed and other really thick vegetation," he says. "Another thing to keep in mind is that rabbits typically breed during February. Normally, a rabbit that's been busted out of cover might run only a hundred yards, then circle around and go back into cover. Many rabbits never travel more than a few hundred yards from where they were born.
"But during the breeding period, buck rabbits might run a half mile or even farther," Dudding continues. "They're ranging pretty far after does right now anyway. Another factor is snow cover. If there have been heavy snows, there will be even fewer places where rabbits can hide."
Other spots to check include fence-rows, recent cutovers and controlled burn areas that have been allowed to regenerate for several years. These same places will also draw grouse. Dudding prefers to go afield with beagles but maintains that lone hunters can experience success.
"Whether you're going after rabbits or grouse, two people without dogs can work together to have success," he says. "The key is for one person to assume the role of a dog. That hunter should carry an 8-foot-long stick and aggressively hammer every little bit of ‘rabitat' that the two hunters come to. Don't just kick a brush pile; get inside it and beat the brush until something pops out.
"Rabbits are often very good at holding tight until something gets into their brush pile and forces them to get up and go," Dudding continues. "I've seen rabbits sitting still when I was within 5 feet of them. I believe the sound of a stick whacking away is scarier to them than somebody moving among them."
Dudding doesn't believe there is a definitive answer to which type of gun is best for late-season cottontails. He knows of one sportsman who prefers a .22 rifle for bunnies because of the long-distance capability. Others among his peers advocate for a range of chokes for both 12 and 20 gauges. I typically still-hunt for rabbits and grouse simultaneously and prefer a 20 gauge with a modified choke. However, I'll admit that I shoot far more bunnies than ruffs, which always seem to either flush well out of range or practically in my face, leaving me too startled to even squeeze off a shot. Dudding's advice about two hunters working together for grouse is sound, but only if one member of the duo has better reflexes and anticipatory skills than I do.
Whether I return home with a full game bag or not, I truly enjoy late-season outings for small game animals. The month of February is an exhilarating time to be outdoors, despite what I thought as a kid.
Keep an Eye Out for Oysters
Oyster mushrooms are a delicacy of the winter woods.
While searching for small game this winter, consider seeking out the premier wild edible mushroom available in our region, the oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus). Oyster mushrooms, so named because they have the same fan-shaped appearance as the shell of their namesake seafood, can be up to 7 inches wide, although the majority are half that. Most of the winter ones I’ve come across have been light to dark brown, though creamy white ones exist.
Another trait is a pleasant anise-like or fruity smell. This fungus grows on a wide variety of hardwoods; I’ve found them on mockernut hickories, red maples, white ashes and red oaks, just to name a few. The common trait of all these trees is they were either dead or dying—a prerequisite for oysters. However, I must emphasize that lookalike mushrooms exist, and I recommend never harvesting and eating any wild mushroom until you’ve had an expert identify it. Additionally, wild mushrooms should be cooked before consumption; my wife Elaine stir-fries them for several minutes. The first time you consume any edible wild mushroom, try just a small portion, as some people experience gastrointestinal problems.
Last winter, Elaine fixed several delicious oyster-based entrees. On one occasion, she prepared some delightful tomato soup that consisted of squirrel meat, deer heart and tongue, broccoli, carrots and asparagus. The heart, tongue and squirrel legs had simmered in a slow cooker for 4 hours beforehand. Another dish involved venison burgers baked in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, then topped with melted cheddar cheese and stir-fried oysters.