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OUTDOORS: It's a perfect time for small game hunters

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

January 15 marks the end of another deer season. After that date, more than a few area hunters will hang up their firearms and begin longing for springtime turkey season. Perhaps some will even stop seeking game altogether until it is once again time to pursue and thin South Georgia's ubiquitous whitetail herds. That is where the ever-increasing popularity of deer hunting has taken a lot of us, it seems.

Such an attitude is puzzling, especially when one considers that the time span between the end of deer season and the final days of fall and winter hunting seasons in general is a great time of year to hunt.

Small game hunters in particular find the few weeks left after deer season ideal days to take to the woods in pursuit of other worthy, albeit smaller quarry.

Though dedicated deer hunters -- and possibly waterfowlers -- may wonder how anyone can possibly get excited over anything in season after the middle of January, it must be remembered that there is actually other game out there besides whitetail bucks and flocking mallards.

Likewise for turkey hunters, who oftentimes sit back and wait for March as though that anticipated trophy gobbler is the only game in town.

One major reason the small game hunter gets excited about hunting this time of year is the fact that he can now feel more at ease when he enters the woods. Most small game seasons are open during deer season, but few hunters feel comfortable or completely safe in most areas knowing deer hunters with big-bore rifles are sitting in the trees while they are busily stalking squirrels, rabbits, or other critters. After deer season, there is little need for such concern.

There are a number of small game species available to hunters from January 15 through most of February, including raccoons, opossums and quail. Of these, coons and 'possums are popular only among "specialty" hunters and quail hunting all but requires the use of a dog and is seldom a worthwhile pursuit for those not well versed or well prepared.

For many hunters late-season small game means two animals: the rabbit and the squirrel. These two plentiful critters abound in the Southwest Georgia region and can provide many pleasant sporting hours as hunting seasons draw to a close. Squirrels and rabbits are traditional little-boy's game animals that, fortunately, some of us never outgrew.

Squirrels are easily hunted this time of year. The leaves of the deciduous hardwood trees are for all practical purposes gone and few have begun to put on any but the skimpiest spring foliage. Thus, the bushytails are not difficult to spot and follow as they scamper among the denuded boughs.

Seek squirrels early in the morning and late in the afternoon as they become active. Walk slowly through the woods in a start/stop fashion, pausing every five or six steps to scan the surrounding forest for squirrel activity. Squirrel hunting is an easy pursuit and it takes no expert to be successful, but stalking squirrels can be challenging. The hunter unskilled in stealth and patience is seldom successful.

Often, after a few trips into a particular area, one can actually pattern the squirrels' regular route through the trees each day. In this situation the hunter can put the odds more in his favor by stand-hunting rather than stalking. Position yourself inconspicuously along the animals' aerial "highway" and enjoy some relaxing shooting topped off by what is among the tastiest wild meat in the woods.

Stalking squirrels in a hardwood bottom or creek swamp will sometimes produce a bonus in the form of a flushed marsh rabbit, colloquially called "swamp rabbit," "swamper," or "canecutter." A decidedly more deep-woods species than the more commonly seen cottontail, a fat marsh rabbit makes a welcome addition to the gray squirrels in the game bag. Many squirrel hunters habitually carry shotguns rather than .22 rifles when hunting in areas they know contain good swamper populations.

Running cottontails with beagles or other rabbit-hunting breeds of dogs remains a relatively popular Deep South sport. Unlike the bobwhite, however, cottontail rabbits can be quite successfully hunted without the aid of canine companions. There are even those who say jump-shooting rabbits is among the most challenging of all shotgun sports, since the game usually appears suddenly and stays in the hunter's general vicinity only briefly. Ultimate challenge or not, it is always, without fail, a great deal of fun.

To jump-shoot cottontails, hunt field edges near wooded areas, weedy ditch banks, or thickets near piney-woods firebreaks. Move slowly, walking directly into potential rabbit cover whenever possible. A good pair of "briar britches" or chaps is a plus. Also, use caution. The latter part of hunting season can also be a good time of year to "flush" rattlesnakes as well as bunnies.

For some late-season small game hunters, even more pleasant than bagging a lion's share of rabbits and squirrels is the pleasure of simply being in the woods and afield this time of year. In many locales, small game hunters can have Mother Nature all to themselves and experience her at their leisure. In the late-season woods there is usually little human activity to interfere with one's outing.

Late post-deer season hunting is a storied time, a time when sights and sounds and the occasional whiff of spent powder can be savored in peace. Full game bag or not, you will likely go home wondering what happened to all that stress you had mere hours before.

Give it a try. It's worth your time.