Continue your time in the outdoors with small game hunting.
Deer hunting receives a fair share of attention throughout the hunting seasons causing hunters to spend a large number of resources and effort chasing deer. However, small game hunting can still offer big rewards and put a variety of meat in the freezer.
Only a few decades ago, rabbit hunting held the top spot for the most popular game animal in the Cotton State. Squirrel hunting and quail hunting were not far behind. Many aspiring young hunters and old-school traditionalists would venture out to fields and forests for some small game hunting action.
For some, it was a means to put food on the table. For others, it offered an opportunity to get outdoors and hone their hunting skills.
Small game hunting may have taken a back seat in popularity to deer hunting, but it still can offer plenty of shooting action, tasty meat, and plenty of fun.
Revival of the Bobwhite Quail
The quail population across the U.S. began to plummet in the late 1970s. In that era, Alabama had approximately 100,000 quail hunters taking 2.5 million quail per season. However, changes in farming and forestry techniques changed the quail habitat.
“It’s the disappearing quail habitat and the fragmentation of that habitat that has changed,” comments John Doty of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI). “Many areas across the region have seen a decline in the family farms that once provided quail habitat. Today, we have 25 state agencies we coordinate with and help plan areas for quail.”
Today, quail are on the comeback trail, thanks in part to NBCI and its programs to coordinate with state wildlife agencies in reestablishing quail habitat. The NBCI works at the regional and national level for opportunities and obstacles to quail restoration.
Several of the Alabama Wildlife Management Areas (WMA) have implemented quail habitat improvement programs. Working with landowners and biologists has added, and/or improved, areas for the bobwhite. Fortunately, control burns, pine stand improvements, and wildlife plantings have helped to begin the increase in quail populations.
“Native grasses and longleaf and shortleaf pine initiatives have garnered a lot of attention,” Doty said. “With help of the Farm Bill program, we hope to see an increase in quail habitat.”
Where to Hunt Quail
While some public lands like WMAs and national forests have harvestable populations of wild quail, a majority of quail hunting is done on preserves with release birds. Luckily, there are many quail hunting preserves are located around the state. Most offer other types of hunting, such as pheasants and wild hogs.
“We can provide a variety of hunting packages for quail, pheasants, chukar, and hogs,” mentions Keith Wade of Piney Woods Hunting Lodge in Baker Hill, AL. “Also, we offer horses and wagons for the old-time southern style quail hunts.”
One advantage of licensed quail preserves is that the season extends to March 15, whereas the season ends on February 29 on other lands.
Some of the quail shooting preserves offer the opportunity for hunters to use their own bird dog. These can be self-guided or a guide can be provided. Most offer complete hunts with a guide, dogs, and bird prep at the end of the hunt. Also, half-day or full-day hunts are an option.
Quail are fast-flying birds and the action can be brisk. Hunters will want to be at the ready for the electric eruption of the covey rise. Quail shooters may want to practice a few rounds at clay targets before taking aim on live birds.
Most hunters will opt for a 12 gauge scattergun semi-automatic with an improved cylinder choke. This setup should provide accurate shooting for short and midrange action. Some hunters prefer a double-barrel with an improved cylinder choke alongside a modified one. This, too, is a fine combination for shooting quail.
Shells and shot size may be a personal preference. However, shot size in the No. 7 1/2 or No. 8 is effective on quail at any range. Hunters will want to carry plenty of shells afield to remain in the fun until the end.
At one point, rabbit hunting was the top game species in Alabama.
Hunters would release a couple of beagles around a small farm or woodlot and the chase would be in high gear. Today, rabbits are plentiful across the state. There are some fluctuations in the bunny population, but for the most part, they are plentiful.
“However, a good pack of dogs can push the rabbits from their hiding spot and make for some quick shooting action.”
“I probably enjoy small game hunting for rabbits more than deer,” says Chris Smith of Ashland, AL. “I like hearing the dogs chasing and working with them to get the rabbit in front of the hunters.”
Where to Hunt Rabbits
Rabbits can be found in a wide variety of habitat. This includes fields and cutovers to backwoods swamps. Because of this, rabbits are common throughout Bama.
However, a good pack of dogs can push the rabbits from their hiding spot and make for some quick shooting action.
One area that is sometimes overlooked for rabbits is food plots or greenfields. Many deer hunting leases have plots that were planted for deer but are also home to many rabbits. With deer season completed, these food plot areas are prime spots to kick up a rabbit.
“We like to run the edges of cutovers and fields,” explains Smith. “But, if there is a planted plot for deer with some cover close, the rabbits will be there.”
Listening and watching the dogs work a thick patch of brush is a big part of small game hunting. Each dog has a different personality. Some dogs are trackers, while others are chasers. But when one strikes a trail, all of the dogs in the pack will join in on the chase. Most rabbit dogs will have the instinct to hunt; you just have to get them on the right trail.
Smith says the hunters can spread out some when the dogs strike upon a rabbit. The dogs will push the rabbit. Most rabbits will circle around back close to the spot where the jump began. Hunters should hold their position and wait for the rabbit to return.
Shotguns are the preferred choice for rabbit hunters. Any gauge will work fine and standard game loads are sufficient to take a rabbit down. Shot sizes in No. 5, 6 or 7 1/2 are the choice for any hunter. The larger shot size does perform better if shooting rabbits in thick brush and briers.
A late-season squirrel hunt can be a challenge. Some hunters may opt for a small breed dog like a Jack Russel or a Feist. The dogs can tree a squirrel and will bark to signal the squirrel’s hiding tree. This is a great method for small game hunting squirrels, but an old-fashioned stalk hunt can be fun as well.
February squirrels may act a little different than the ones back in October. By now, most deciduous trees have shed their leaves. This can be a plus and a minus. On the plus side, the squirrels are easier to spot high among the branches. On the minus side, the squirrels can see you better, too.
Many acorns have been consumed or they are no longer edible. During some years, water oaks will hold their acorns a little longer than the white or red oaks. Savvy squirrel hunters will want to check out areas of water oaks in search of acorns.
Where to Hunt Squirrels
“Wide, flat hardwood hollows and creek bottoms are good areas to begin a search for squirrels,” says Brad Stone of Munford, Ala. “There might be a few acorns left on the ground as squirrels comb through the leaves.”
“One method for taking squirrels in the late season is arriving at your hunting spot at daybreak”
Stone also suggests looking for den trees. Large diameter trees with hollowed-out holes in the trunk of limbs are top hiding spots for squirrels. Hunters can tell if the tree is active by the worn-off bark around the hole. Squirrels will use these types of large trees for shelter and to hide a few nuts.
Another tip Stone offers is to look for several squirrel nests together in the same area. A bunch of leaves and sticks in the fork or upper branches of trees signals a current nest. This will indicate a group of squirrels are living in the area.
One method for taking squirrels in the late season is arriving at your hunting spot at daybreak (first light). A pair of hunters can spread out about 15 to 20 yards apart, take a seat, and wait for the squirrels to begin their search for breakfast.
“Don’t shoot at the first squirrel you see,” Stone advises. “Wait a few minutes and see if another squirrel appears.”
Also, Stone says don’t rush to retrieve a shot squirrel. Mark the spot where it went down and watch for other bushy tails on the move. Oftentimes, other squirrels will freeze momentarily at the sound of the shot before continuing their feeding.
A standard .22 caliber rifle or a .22 magnum is the gun of choice for late season squirrels. Both of these offer plenty of accuracy and power to down any squirrel.
For some fun in February, choose small game hunting and have a great day outdoors.