About this time every year, most outdoors and guns writers do the same thing — publish a column or article about putting away all your guns and gear. There will be a lot of talk about cleaning weapons and making sure it is done right, cleaning boots and packing away gear we seemed to get out of storage only a few weeks ago. The writers offer a lot of weak (I think) advice about putting it all away until "next hunting season."
Those of you who are brave enough to read my words regularly should know by now that I don't usually follow the crowd. Maybe that's good and maybe not; I don't know. But one thing is for sure: This ain't the run-of-the-mill outdoors column.
So while the other guys are telling you to pack up your boots and guns and camouflage gear, I'm saying, "No, it's not over till it's over." Most of my readers have a lot of hunting season left, so let's talk about some of the game you can still pursue on the trail.
Squirrels. As long as it is not "blue" cold, you can still go after squirrels and have a lot of fun doing it. Many states in the Southeastern United States (plus Pennsylvania) open squirrel season through February. A break in the weather — some sunny, warm days with more hospitable temperatures — brings out the bushytails for some hot squirrel action.
Finding a concentration of tree rats is just like finding any other game (deer, turkeys or bears, for example): 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 because 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. If you have followed me on these pages, you know I am very partial to hunting them with a dog. If you have never hunted squirrels in this manner, I suggest you go today and 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 low-key, low-stress and a great way to spend a day in the winter woods that is great for kids.
I like to use a scoped .22 rifle, and if your buddy carries a shotgun this can be a deadly combination. 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.
Rabbits. Over much of our listening area, the cottontail rabbit is the staple for wintertime small-game hunting. 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 as with the squirrel dog hunt, you owe it to yourself to try it.
Going after rabbits calls for a shotgun, though which type you carry is not too important. A 20 gauge is fine — and 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.
Rabbit hunting 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 not to take a shot.
Grouse. Like squirrels and rabbits, most states leave the grouse season open through the end of February, though you should be sure to check your state's regulations for all of this.
Now, I must say I have mixed feelings about grouse hunting lately. In many areas the grouse population is at record lows, but there are still loyal grouse chasers out there tramping the hills in pursuit of the brown bomber. These grouse-crazed hunters tell me they can still find huntable numbers in some places. They won't tell you where that is, but they say the grouse are there.
Most locations where you can find grouse these days involve timber cuts eight to 10 years old. If the cover is easy to walk through, it's probably not good grouse habitat.
Well, as usual we have run out of time and not covered everything I wanted to.
How about coyotes? Most states allow coyote hunting year-round. Don't forget the old offseason standby — crows. You can have a lot of fun calling in these flying varmints and practice your wing shooting. Pursuit of coyotes and crows will bring you right up to scouting time for spring turkey season, and that begins in late March in Georgia and in late February in Florida if you're willing to travel a little farther!
It ain't over till it's over.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.