Mid-Winter Small Game Hunting Fun
This time of year, many people tend to get a little depressed. It’s probably because deer season is done, the holidays are mostly wrapped up, and the long winter months lie ahead of us. Not too encouraging, right? Fortunately, there are lots of great activities we can keep busy with over the cold, dark winter. Small game hunting is one way to satisfy our need to do something fun during this time frame. It keeps us active outdoors and can allow us to still do some hunting during a time when most hunting seasons are closed. Let’s dive in and discuss the species to hunt, habitats to find them, gear you need, and hunting methods.
Why Small Game Hunting?
As we mentioned above, there are so many reasons to hunt small game animals this time of year. First, you’re probably bored of watching television already and looking for something to do. Chasing small game critters is a way to spend an invigorating day outdoors. In fact, the cooler weather and lack of vegetation can make walking much more pleasant and increase your opportunity of spotting game before they flush. Second, it’s one of the few hunting seasons that are still open for most hunters to capitalize on. Small game animals are usually very plentiful and can be hunted for extended seasons in many areas. Additionally, small game hunting keeps your hunting and shooting skills sharp so you don’t have to wait as long until next season. Just because there are potentially a lot of small game in the woods doesn’t mean they’re easy to get. Some of them can really take a calculated plan of attack or catch you totally off-guard. A day of hunting small game animals in the woods will almost always teach you something new, so it’s really a good learning opportunity if you look at it that way. If you hunt with a dog in the fall, it’s nice to give them some extra exercise and practice by getting out during the extended small game hunting season, especially if you’re training a new puppy. Finally, very few people actually go out this time of year for hunting purposes. Nine times out of ten, you’ll probably have the public land woods to yourself instead of constantly running into other hunters.
Small Game Species, Habitats, and Seasons
So what animals are we talking about for small game hunting? It all depends on where you live and hunt, but these will generally consist of birds (e.g., ruffed grouse, woodcock, pheasant, waterfowl, quail, doves, etc.), squirrels (i.e., gray or fox squirrels), and rabbits (e.g., cottontails, snowshoe hares, jack rabbits, etc.). Of all these types of game meat, the larger birds and rabbits will easily provide a great dinner for two, while a few of the smaller birds and squirrels are great in a slow cooker together.
The bird species are found in all kinds of different habitats. Upland bird habitats can overlap a little in some locales. Grouse and woodcock prefer dense, brushy thickets of dogwoods or alder. Pheasant, quail, and doves prefer agricultural fields and grassy swales. Waterfowl species obviously prefer waterbodies, such as rivers, sloughs, or ponds. Go to your state’s natural resource website and you can easily find a list of game birds for your area.
Squirrels can be found in many places across the country, but both gray and fox squirrels require mature deciduous forests to really thrive. They use the mature trees to nest in and depend on the nuts and seeds they gather from them for food, though they will also happily raid bird feeders and corn cribs.
The three primary rabbit species all use very different habitats. Cottontails and snowshoe hares can overlap their ranges a little. But wherever winters are tough and snow really piles up, snowshoe hares are more common than cottontails because of their adapted feet that keep them on top of the snow drifts. They also prefer conifer and aspen forests, while cottontails prefer dense brushy woodlots, shelterbelts, and overgrown fields. Jack rabbits are usually found out west in deserts, farm fields, and scrublands.
As we said, many small game hunting seasons extend for another couple months. Most of the bird hunting seasons tend to wrap up pretty quickly as the New Year approaches, so you don’t have much time to still capitalize on that. But keep it in mind for next year, as late December bird hunts can be a lot of fun. Fortunately, squirrel and rabbit seasons are often open through mid-winter, which allows you plenty of time to still stretch the legs and put some more meat in the freezer.
Best Small Game Hunting Gear
Obviously things will vary a bit depending on how far north or south you hunt and what kind of environment you’re in. But the basic hunting gear you need is pretty similar no matter where you hunt. You probably have a lot of it already, so the gear shouldn’t take you long to gather.
First and foremost, you need the right gun for small game hunting. Everyone likes to choose their own small game hunting weapons, but there are some recommendations. If you’ll be bird hunting, you definitely need a shotgun because any bird you hunt will almost never be sitting still when you shoot. They’ll likely be flying by your head in a feathery blur. For smaller birds like quail, dove, and even some grouse situations, you can get by with a 20 gauge. But for shooting at flushing pheasants, waterfowl, or grouse, a 12 gauge is a solid option. Provided you have the right ammunition, it has the power you need to knock them down quickly. In fact, it’s probably the best shotgun gauge for small game in general. The Remington 870 Express Tky 12 gauge is an attractive gun for small game hunting. It’s got a camouflaged synthetic stock and has a 21-inch barrel, so you can sneak it through the woods easily. But because it can handle 3-inch shells, you can also hunt larger waterfowl species and pheasants with no problem.
For rabbit and squirrel hunting, you have another option. If you’ll be stalking up on squirrels and rabbits, you could also use small game hunting rifles. Typically, the best small game caliber is a .22 since a clean head shot won’t ruin any meat like a shotgun will. The Henry Classic Lever Action 22LR is a fun and fast-shooting rifle due to the classic Western style action. While the open sights are accurate for close-up shots, you could always add a scope for tack-driving shots at further distances. This could make it the best rabbit gun for these situations. The only downside with rifles is that you really need the animal to be holding still to make any ethical shot. Sometimes rabbits and squirrels will run a short distance and freeze, relying on their camouflage to hide them. This is the perfect scenario for the .22 mentioned above or even a small game air rifle.
Other than small game guns, you’ll also require some of your basic outdoor gear, including good boots, warm clothing, and a hunting vest. There really aren’t many specific small game hunting accessories you need. Depending on the conditions, you should have performance clothing to keep your body warm and dry through whatever weather you might encounter. A vest with an over-sized and waterproof back pouch is nice since rabbits tend to make a mess and fill up space quickly.
Small Game Hunting Methods
Now let’s dive into some small game hunting tips you can use to put some winter meat in the freezer. For winter bird hunting, it can be really difficult to hunt by yourself simply because they will rarely flush unless you almost step on them. It’s best to bring a family member or hunting buddy along. Walking side by side, spaced about 30 yards apart can be useful for flushing birds to your partner. It’s critical when hunting with someone else to always know where they are and which direction is safe to shoot. This can sometimes be difficult if you’re hunting in dense conifers or brushy areas. But flushing a bird and passing on the shot is still better than walking around all day by yourself and not seeing anything.
With winter rabbit hunting, you can be successful by yourself or with a partner. If you’re by yourself, walk along key winter habitat areas (e.g., dense brushy areas or low-growing conifers) and pause frequently with your gun ready. This will often scare a rabbit into flushing out of cover. If you have a shotgun, point and shoot as soon as you can, trying to lead the rabbit a bit. If you have a rifle, wait and see if they stop. If they do, you’d better be quick and take a head shot right under the ear. For small game hunting with a friend, you can either use the same upland bird hunting approach above, or make miniature drives for each other. One person basically stands in a spot where they can see a distance or along a dominant rabbit trail. The other should make a big circle through thick cover no more than 50 to 75 yards away to try to flush a rabbit towards their friend. Again, knowing where the other hunter is at all times is critical.
For squirrel hunting, you can easily hunt by yourself. Start your hunt by quietly walking through a mature forest, keeping an eye on the canopy. You may startle a feeding squirrel from the ground, but by the time you notice them, they will likely already be up in a tree. When you see one, try to close the distance as best you can since they will already be 40 to 50 feet up in a tree before you even approach. Use other trees for rests if you’re using a rifle so you can get an accurate head shot.
This winter, get outdoors and do some small game hunting while you can. It’s a surefire way to beat the winter blues and cabin fever if you’re feeling a little claustrophobic inside. And you might luck out with some extra wild game meals.