So how is it going out there? Right about now, some of my brothers and sisters in camo are feeling a little let down and discouraged.
Why is that? Some of you are under the false pretense that your favorite season, hunting season, is about over, and so you are working up a good case of the postseason doldrums.
Sorry, but as your humble outdoors scribe it is my duty to inform you that you are way off base here, and dare I tell you something we don't seem to tell people anymore: You are wrong.
Sometimes I think the whole concept of hunting seasons and how we see them approaching in the early fall may be likened to dating the prom queen in high school. (OK, you can use the quarterback, head cheerleader or whatever high school celebrity you wish, but stay with me here.) We anticipate the coming of the season during late winter, then spring and all summer. The tension and expectations continue to mount, and (just like our date with our teen idol) we don't think it will ever get here. Then, boom, it's here, the season starts, we are not ready, and it doesn't go like we had envisioned. (Just like that long-awaited date. Getting the picture here?)
Well, my fellow nimrods, take heart. In much of the greatest country in the world, hunting season is far from over. I know some of you think that it is indeed over simply because the big show, the rifle buck season, has ended or will end soon in some areas. That may be true, but there is much more to look forward to after the main event is over. (Just like there was more to life after that ill-fated date in high school.)
Herewith are a couple of reminders and ideas to keep you on track and in the woods — which is where you belong, per Case's Outdoor Theorem No. 17.
As long as it is not blue cold, you can still go after squirrels and have a lot of fun doing it. Many states keep squirrel season open through February. A break in the winter weather with some sunny days and more hospitable temperatures will bring out the bushytails for some hot squirrel action.
Finding a concentration of tree rats is just like finding any other game such as bear, deer or turkey: 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) are 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. Hunting squirrels 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 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 just made for kids.
Stay with the basics of an open-sighted .22, 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 as well.
Over much of the country, the cottontail rabbit is the staple for small game in the 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 a beagle 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. 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. 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: One carries a shotgun and the other a .22 rifle. 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. We are 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 at this and can spot rabbits when I cannot see them. If the rabbit is spotted sitting, the rifle guy may get a shot. Often the rabbit rockets away, though, and then it is up to the shotgun. It is a great way to spend a winter day.
Now see, I am already out of time and space, and I have not even begun to cover all the possibilities for your continued hunting season. In many areas there will be more deer seasons in the form of late doe days where you can put some venison in the freezer and have a lot of fun doing it (you don't have to hunt for horns all the time). Here in the Mountain State of West Virginia there is a "Mountaineer Heritage" hunt with muzzleloaders in January. How could I forget this? Waterfowl season is open in many areas for much of the first month of a new year.
So now we know that limiting our joy to just a few days of a perfect buck season is not realistic. Get out there and enjoy the wilds and all it has to offer.
It's much more attractive than the prom queen or the quarterback ever was. I saw both of them the other day down at the Piggly Wiggly, and the years have not been kind.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.