Here comes another think piece on small game hunting, but that’s only because we’re in the middle of January and there’s nothing else to hunt!
At least for me.
Yes, Mountaineer Heritage Season is taking place right now, but I don’t have the primitive weapons to hunt them with. Yes, bobcat and coyote are in season, too, and it’s not that I’m opposed to it, but I haven’t been home to pitch the idea to my brother or been asked by my land-owning friends to come out and knock a few off their property. Aside from family, I’m not one to ask that either – in my experience, some people can be vehemently against killing predators unless they attacked their pet, then they’re typically the ones to do it.
Waterfowl is in season, too, for a little bit longer and I will be taking part in that over the coming weeks, but I’m without decoys to go at it alone. If it were the early season, I could probably get by with waving a goose flag and honking with my call, but the birds are smarter now and would see through my plan a mile above me.
So here we are, left with small game. In the late season, tactics have to drastically change for some animals. Squirrel hunting requires sitting still under a tree with a .22 for some time or silently walking through the woods with your eyes to the leafless canopy hoping to spot one. You can sometimes catch them foraging on the ground or eating on a log, but this is the time of the year you’ve got to catch them going to or coming from their nests. Like most animals, it’s easy to kill a few if you find a lot of sign around like areas devoid of leaves with scratch marks where the squirrels have been digging around for food, dead trees that have hollowed-out spots and trees with nests in them (that’s an obvious one) or if there’s snow on the ground, footprints. It helps to call them, too, to try and pull them from their nests or hiding spots. They’re quite curious, and a few barks or distress calls can be favorable for a hunter.
Rabbits are also a great animal to hunt. Their populations tend to swing every so often, but if you find areas with plenty of food, likely, you’ll still come home with a few in your game bag. Think of rabbit hunting this way: What makes them so annoying in towns, or even for farmers and deer hunters? They ravage gardens and food plots. When trying to identify great rabbit habitat, look for clover, alfalfa and soybeans, or if there’s a lack of those in your area, broadleaf weeds are a source of food. Once you’ve identified those, look for cover. Are there large briar patches, brush or large clumps of deadfall? Then you’ve likely found a spot that holds cottontails. Like most animals, right-of-ways are also great areas to look for rabbits but stick along the tree lines. If you have dogs, your hunt will be even easier, though everything above still applies.
Upland birds are trickier in West Virginia. I’ll exclude doves for this one and touch on those in a second, but ruffed grouse are having a hard time in our state. If you’re going at it alone, look to the southern half of the Monongahela National Forest in areas 2,000 feet above sea level or more. My friend David Schlake told me to keep my eyes peeled around conifer trees in a mixed stand, which is sound advice, but also consider hunting in areas that are being actively managed for timber. We have a serious problem with timber management, in which the lack of it is crippling native species like grouse. With so much mature forest in West Virginia, we, the public, need to take a long look in the mirror and understand if we don’t start taking this seriously our animals will be in an even worse spot as the years go on. We also need to pay attention to forest management projects and fight for them to go through, as many conservation groups would like to see the forest loved to literal death or make a dollar off suing government agencies, and if we don’t stand up for proper timber management we’ll be in a terrible position.
I’ll end on a good note: Doves. The season is open until Jan. 24, and while most birds are likely in their southern wintering zones right now there are still some hanging around. I see them on telephone poles in town and saw some when I was hunting at Little Indian Creek WMA the other day, though I didn’t have a shot on any. For this time of the year, though, it’s best to walk and flush the birds or hang out near a field in the afternoon. In my experience, the birds begin to feed between 4 and 6 p.m., which means there’s little time to work. In a 2019 Project Upland article, Edgar Castillo notes this about late-season doves:
“Just because it’s the late season doesn’t mean you get rid of the best tool you have working for you: camouflage! Wearing camo will allow hunters to get closer as they walk-up doves. Don’t forget, the doves that are being hunted have developed into wary birds and are keen to flushing at a moment’s notice if they detect danger. Migrating doves flying into the area most likely have been shot at and will be looking for anything out of place. Movement as seen from the air is exaggerated and doves will flair off. … The best tactic to use during the late season is to walk and flush. But a secondary strategy to use with “walkin’ up” doves is to follow the birds and flocks as they relocate to another part of the field. It has been my experience that the doves are there to feed before roosting. It’s late enough in the day that they are not going to leave. Flocks have been observed moving their dinner plans to other parts of a feed field.”
To end, it’s likely you’ll be putting in the miles just for a few animals. While this can be discouraging, it’s still worth the work.