Yes, there’s still a little time left to hunt a few other game and nongame species, but I feel safe in saying that once the seasons on glamour species like quail and deer close, rabbits and squirrels, which were already high on the lists of most of Missouri’s small game hunters, inherit center stage by default.
That’s fine by me for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact I can be confident my readers can find huntable numbers of both species with easy day-trip distance of home no matter where they live, not just in Missouri but anywhere east of the Great Plains.
What at least seems like a lot of rabbit hunters here in the middle of the state – and probably elsewhere – have discovered that beagles and bunnies go together like ham and eggs. I’m one of them, and I can scarcely imagine being completely happy hunting rabbits without Happy, my 12-year-old, but still going strong, four-footed partner.
But be that as it may, dogs are not an essential prerequisite to successful rabbit hunting. In fact, under some conditions, not having a pack of hounds keeping everything – if you’ll pardon the pun – hopping will put more bunnies in the bag.
A sunny, but below freezing, afternoon with a few inches of snow on the ground is my favorite example, because that’s when spot-and-stalk hunting really comes into its own. The basic technique involves nothing more complicated than slowly – and I do mean slowly – walking along hedge rows, brush piles, field edges and other good habitat, searching for rabbits that have moved out of the heavy cover into small openings where they can sun themselves. Don’t look just for whole rabbits. Instead, look for part of a rabbit – an ear, a tail, an eye or the rounded curve of a back.
It’s both legal and ethical to shoot sitting rabbits with a shotgun, and the shotgun’s advantages when you goof up and spook your target are undeniable. Even so, when I’m spot-and-stalk hunting, I reach for a semi-auto .22 rifle I inherited from my father. I topped it with a red dot sight, so I can shoot with both eyes open.
I grew up in the heart of pheasant country, and, to be honest, I hated the large group method of hunting them and proved time and time again that two hunters and one good dog could bag more roosters per hunter/hour. That’s not always the case with rabbits. A group of 10 or more hunters working together to stomp out an old field on a conservation area can be very effective.
Turning from the open fields to the not-necessarily tall timber, the last month of Missouri’s longest edible game season can be a rifleman’s dream about bagging limits of every small game hunter’s favorite rodent come true. Note that I said “can be.” Line of sight runs both ways, and the bare tree limbs that let a hunter spot his prey long before it’s in range also allows a squirrel to spot and to react to a two-legged predator at the same distance. Therefore, the ability to shoot within minute-of-angle accuracy at the outer limits of a rimfire rifle’s range is a skill worth cultivating during the off season.
Not all shooting at late season squirrels is done at long range, of course. Squirrels are always tied to their food sources, and by mid-January those food sources have become severely limited. In many habitats, the fruit of the Osage orange tree, which almost every animal disdains if given a choice, is a major winter food source. Taking a stand near a grove of Osage oranges that squirrels are using – the signs are unmistakable – is virtually certain to produce action.
Squirrels don’t like extreme cold and will stay denned up for several days to avoid being out and about in it. Normal and above normal temperatures, on the other hand, put them back on the early morning and late evening feeding schedule they follow the rest of the year. For reasons perhaps not known even to them, sometimes squirrels will stay active most of the day, but don’t count on it.
All of us get an automatic confidence boost when we’re hunting private land. If you’re lucky enough to be able to do so, thank your host and treat his property at least as well as you would your own.
If you don’t have access to private land, don’t despair. The majority of Missouri’s many conservation areas offer good to excellent hunting for rabbits, squirrels or both. Very few of them are overhunted, but, if you’re in doubt, check with the area’s manager.
I’m a passionate deer hunter and would feel the same way about quail if there were enough of them around to be passionate about. That said, having the fields and forests to myself for a month is more than just OK.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]