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Small game animals are a great introduction to hunting

Steven Felsher, Brett Pratt and Chester Thompson look for squirrels in a grove of towering white oaks. Squirrels like hardwood trees that produce abundant nuts. Photo by John N. Felsher

By John N. Felsher

Many young sportsmen begin hunting by accompanying a father, grandfather, other relative or friend looking for small game. Young hunters usually see more game and fire their guns more often when hunting small game than when sitting still and quiet for long hours in a deer stand. Following behind an experienced hunter, youngsters also learn valuable woodsmanship and stalking skills.

“Small game hunting provides a great opportunity to engage new hunters in active pursuit hunting methods without being confined to a shooting house often associated with deer hunting,” says Steve Barnett, an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division biologist. “Roaming the woods for small game with a mentor hones woodsmanship skills and provides an outdoor classroom for plant and animal sign identification as a bonus.”

In Alabama, squirrel and rabbit seasons run concurrently. They open on Sept. 15 and run through March 3, 2019. People can bag up to eight rabbits and eight squirrels per day.

“Most regions of the state have good, stable numbers of rabbits and squirrels,” Barnett says. “Areas managed for mast producing hardwoods such as oaks provide some of the best habitat for squirrels. Open habitats such as fallow fields, new clear-cuts and brushy openings are havens for rabbits.”

When looking for squirrels, move slowly through forests. Take a few steps, then stop, look and listen. Watch trees for movement or anything unusual. Periodically, sit on a log or lean against a tree to listen for claws scratching on bark, objects dropping or branches shaking. Also listen for barking squirrels.

Many sportsmen hunt squirrels in teams, an excellent idea with accompanying youngsters. When teams detect a squirrel, but can’t quite locate it, one person can remain motionless while the other walks around the tree. Squirrels frequently try to keep tree trunks between themselves and danger. If the squirrel reacts to the person walking, it might present a shot to the other sportsman.

For fox squirrels, sportsmen might head to Oakmulgee or Blue Spring Wildlife Management Areas. One of the oldest and perhaps the most scenic WMA in the state, Oakmulgee covers 44,500 acres of Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties about 25 miles southeast of Tuscaloosa. Part of the 392,567-acre Talladega National Forest, the habitat consists mostly of hills covered in mature open longleaf pine forests with periodic upland hardwood forests and swampy drainages. People can also hunt the surrounding national forest.

Blue Spring WMA covers 24,783 acres of pine flatwoods periodically dotted by hardwood strands in the Conecuh National Forest near Andalusia. Other WMAs that offer good squirrel hunting include Black Warrior near Moulton, Barbour near Clayton, the Jackson County WMAs, James D. Martin-Skyline near Scottsboro, Upper Delta by Mobile and William R. Ireland, Sr.-Cahaba near West Blocton.

Since the seasons run concurrently, many people lump squirrel and rabbit hunting together. True, squirrel hunters occasionally kick up a cottontail while walking along the wooded edge of field or jump a big swamp rabbit in a hardwood thicket, but people hunt squirrels and rabbits in completely different ways.

Most people use trained beagles to flush rabbits from impenetrable thickets. When a rabbit bolts from cover, shooters must react fast. Difficult, but not impossible, some hunters bag rabbits without dogs by taking turns smashing through thickets, kicking grass clumps or fallen logs as others watch for anything that might run out. Chokepoints that limit where rabbits can run, such as openings in fences or narrow strips of high ground in a flooded wetland, also make good places to hunt rabbits.

Many WMAs across the state allow rabbit hunting. Some better ones include Choccolocco near Heflin, the Jackson County WMAs, Lowndes near White Hall, Sam R. Murphy near Guin and Skyline. For the best chances at bagging a swamp rabbit, visit the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

“There are ample hunting opportunities on all WMAs that have rabbit and squirrel seasons,” Barnett says. “Most areas are underutilized for small game.”

In addition, several Special Opportunity Areas will hold small game hunts. Fred T. Stimpson SOA in Clarke County will hold special youth squirrel hunts. Other rabbit and squirrel hunts will be held in Cedar Creek and Portland Landing SOAs in Dallas County and Uchee Creek SOA in Russell County. For details, see www.outdooralabama.com.

John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.