About this time every year, outdoors writers offer a lot of well-intentioned but — I think — misleading advice to sportsmen (that means women, too).
The hunting and fishing scribes start telling you how to clean and stow away your firearms and other gear until next hunting season. For much of the country (they claim), deer season is over and you may as well pack it in, lay on the couch and watch the Outdoor Channel while your dog gets fat.
If you think all of the hunting is over after deer season, folks, you are really missing the boat. In most states there is a wealth of small game hunting through the month of February and sometimes into March. Rabbits and squirrels can offer you a lot of wintertime activity, so let's take a look.
Long season, lots of opportunities
As long as it is not "blue" cold, you can still go after squirrels and have a lot of fun doing it as many states keep squirrel season open through February. A break in the weather — some sunny, warm days with temperatures getting more hospitable — brings out the bushytails.
Finding a concentration of tree rats is just like finding any other game such as deer, turkeys or bears: Find the food, and you will find the squirrels. It's the middle of winter, so most of the soft mast (grapes, dogwood berries and the like) is gone, so squirrels are living mostly on acorns, walnuts and hickory nuts if any are left on the ground. If there is snow, look for squirrel tracks on logs lying on the ground as the little rodents will run every one of these in the area.
Just like skinning cats, there is more than one way to pursue winter squirrels. Hunting them with a dog may be foreign to some, but in much of the Southeast, it is an old tradition. If you have never hunted squirrels in this manner, I suggest you find someone in your area with squirrel dogs and invite yourself for a hunt. Hunting should be fun, and few things are just as much pure fun as hunting with a good squirrel dog. It is a low-key, low-stress, great way to spend a day in the winter woods that is just made for kids.
Stay with the basics of an open-sighted .22 rifle, and if your buddy carries a shotgun, this can be a deadly combination. Once the squirrel is spotted, the rifleman gets the first shot, but if he misses and the squirrel starts to vacate the premises, the shotgunner gets a turn.
I would plan on a big squirrel dinner soon after the hunt: fried squirrel, biscuits, gravy and all the fixings. Those who missed any shots during the hunt should be ready to be roasted.
Hop down the bunny trail
Over much of the country, the cottontail rabbit is the staple for small game hunting in winter. Like squirrels, there are several ways to go after bunnies, but the best is probably with a pack of beagle hounds. Jumping rabbits on a winter day and listening to a gang of the little hounds unravel the track is something special, and just like the squirrel dog hunt, you owe it to yourself if you have never done it.
Rabbit hunting with beagles usually calls for a shotgun, and many figure a 20-gauge is fine. I wouldn't go too tight on the choke for this; a modified or improved cylinder will do, and low-brass game loads of No. 6 or No. 7 1/2 shot is all you need. Pursuing rabbits often involves several hunters — the more the merrier — and you are usually in thick brush. I always encourage rabbit and bird hunters in these conditions to wear blaze orange, because it makes it easier to see your buddies in the thick stuff and lets you know when to take a shot on a rabbit or not.
Another method for wintertime bunnies without hounds can be done in a two-man team as one carries a shotgun and the other a .22 rifle, similar to the squirrel method. Unlike the noise and revelry of the beagle hunt, we are going slow and steady here. You and your buddy are sneaking quietly through the brush, pausing every few minutes, trying to spot the cottontail in his bed crouched in the briers. If a little tracking snow is on the ground, it is a big advantage.
What you are looking for is the large, dark eye of the rabbit, and it takes some practice to do this. I know some guys who are really good and can spot rabbits when I cannot. If the rabbit is sitting, the rifle guy may get a shot; often, of course, the rabbit rockets away — and then it is up to the shotgun. It is a great way to spend a winter day.
A case for open sights
Sometimes I think that shooting a rifle with open sights may become a lost art. Many new shooters and hunters it seems would not consider a rifle without a scope or some form of optic. Time was when a shooter learned to be proficient with open sights and then moved on to a scope.
Now don't get me wrong here, there are a lot of great telescopic sights and red dot-type optics out there, and I use them. What I am talking about is the need to learn to use open sights because it is a basic skill that all shooters and outdoorsmen should learn, and the earlier the better.
After graduating from a BB gun, the natural progression for most young shooters is to move to a .22 rifle. Little or no recoil, not much noise and the low cost of ammo make the .22 a perfect tool for the young shooter (actually any shooter, young or old) to learn basic skills. These include controlling breathing, trigger squeeze, stance, sight alignment and following through. In my not so humble opinion, all of these skills are learned better with the use of open sights.
Just as a hunter who started out still hunting squirrels makes a better deer hunter, any shooter who learns to shoot well with open sights makes a better shooter when they move to a scope.
You can stay on the couch if you want to, but don't claim that hunting season is over. In most areas you can find rabbits and squirrels — you may even kick up the odd grouse — and there is lots of public land for this, which you may have all to yourself. Pack a big lunch, grab the dog, and get out there; you may be amazed what you will find.
Don't listen to the guys telling you it's over. It ain't over till it's over.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.