By Jim Casada
In today's hunting world, once the last day of whitetail season has come and gone, all too many sportsmen clean their rifle, wash their camo, waterproof their boots, take down tree stands and stow away their gear. These post-season chores duly completed, they proceed forthwith to become couch potatoes. They watch outdoor shows on TV, curl up in an easy chair with a book or magazine containing the scribblings of sporting scribes like yours truly, grumble about the weather and make life miserable for everyone in the household. They figure on several months of the misery of cabin fever before finally the greening-up time of spring brings gobbling turkeys and signals a welcome opportunity to be afield once more. Simply put, those who follow this all too predictable and prevalent path need to take a cue from the words of one of Hank Williams, Jr.'s songs: They require a little bit of "attitude adjustment."
Or, to look at matters another way, they just need to turn a page back to the past, when mixed-bag hunts were commonplace and when small game furnished the primary focus for hunters over much of the country. The good news is that what my Grandpa Joe used to style "pot-luck pursuits" are still readily available pretty much everywhere in America. About all that varies are the types of small game to be hunted and the weather conditions in which the hunter takes to the field. Whatever the situation though, and wherever you might be in the country, chances for taking to the field with a shotgun (or maybe a .22 rifle in certain situations) and putting some welcome heft in the game bag of a hunting coat are excellent. If you have a canine companion to tag along-perhaps a beagle, a mixed-breed squirrel dog or what old-timers like to refer to as "just a meat dog," so much the better. What follows is an overview of some opportunities beckoning hunters in the depths of winter, January and February, and a suggestion that they offer a sure-fire cure to the wintertime blues.
Cottontails or one of their cousins-swamp rabbits, ridge runners, jack rabbits and snowshoe hares-are found pretty much everywhere. Hunt them with a pack of beagles singing a canine hallelujah chorus, track them in the snow, undertake a one-man "jump and shoot" expedition, take to the field with a jump dog which works close or maybe even look for tell-tale chinquapin eyes and shoot them in the bed (a meat-on-the-table approach in which the sport mainly involves sharp eyes and sharpshooting)-there are approaches aplenty when it comes to the quest for rabbits. One nice sidelight is that tearing through briar patches and broom sedge fields, walking fence rows and cutovers or exploring woodland edges and old home places can produce sidelight action. This may involve flushing a covey of quail, rousting a wary old cock pheasant from his hiding place in a thick bit of cover, spotting a bushytail scurrying up a tree, getting a shot at a spiraling woodcock, maybe having a go at doves speeding overhead or even getting a snap shot at a grouse. Just know what is in season, stuff your scattergun with an all-purpose load (high brass number 6 shot are a good choice) and take shank's mare to sport.
Most anywhere there are mature trees, whether sizeable patches of hardwoods, small tree lots dotting hilltops or pastures, tree-lined fence rows or vast national forests, you will find squirrels. They may be grey ("cat") squirrels or fox squirrels, and their numbers may rise and fall from season to season according to the mast crop, but whatever the currently prevailing situation they can offer great sport. Especially appealing is the fact that bushytails lend themselves to so many different techniques. They can be hunted with a treeing dog (arguably the finest way to put squirrel meat on the table), still-hunted or stalked when the forest understory is damp.
They offer the additional virtue of being a grand way to introduce a youngster to sport. Squirrel hunting offers a wonderful training ground in all the skills which define a consummate woodsman-stealth, patience, ability to read sign, marksmanship, understanding one's quarry and more. It's even a history lesson in the field, as exploits of famous squirrel hunters such as the "Overmountain Men" of the American Revolution and Sgt. Alvin York of World War I fame remind us. Add to these considerations the fact that there's every likelihood of action, and realization dawns as to why this was, two generations ago and before the great saga of the whitetail's comeback, the most popular of all types of American hunting.
Depending on the area of the country, you can pretty well count on opportunities to hunt something that flies as a part of winter small-game outings. While numbers of the noble little bobwhite quail, that wonderful game bird Havilah Babcock once described as "five ounces of feathered dynamite," have declined dramatically, they still bring an adrenaline rush with every covey rise, and thankfully other species of quail are doing somewhat better. Stumbling across them can "make" one's day. Then there are other game birds, a whole bevy of them, which can figure into the all-purpose hunt mix. Depending on geography they include pheasant, ruffed or spruce grouse, doves, woodcock, Hungarian partridges, snipe and more. On an all-day ramble chances are pretty good that there will be an opportunity or two for some snappy wingshooting and, if Dame Fortune deems you to be her favored child on a given day, feathers will mix with fur in the game pouch.
One of the beauties of old-fashioned mixed bag hunting is that you are truly the sporting equivalent of footloose and fancy free. You aren't stuck in a blind or tree stand, the likelihood of competition from other hunters is minimal and while you may have a specific quarry in mind, the possibility of encountering various small-game birds and animals always lies in the back of your mind. Such is the essence of mixed-bag hunting. You venture afield knowing opportunity can knock in any of many ways. You wander and wonder, pause and ponder, all the while with high hopes of action. Nor should little fillips or extras such as opportunities to find antler sheds, the possibility of noting good locations for deer stands come next fall, some useful pre-season scouting for turkeys, a day of fine exercise and promise of a small game feast be overlooked. In short, pot-luck pursuits bid fair to produce an ample measure of sporting pleasure.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer who cut his sporting teeth hunting small game. For a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter or to learn more about the many books he has written or edited, visit his website at www.JimCasadaOutdoors.com.