Don’t pack it in just yet. Some of the funnest hunting you’ll have all season is right now!
by Larry Case
About this time every year, outdoor writers offer a lot of well-intentioned but, I think, misleading advice to outdoors enthusiasts. The hunting and fishing scribes start telling you how to clean and stow away your firearms and other gear until next hunting season. For much of the country (they claim), deer season is over, and you may as well pack it in, lay on the couch, and watch the Outdoor Channel while your dog gets fat.
If you think all the hunting is over after deer season, you are really missing the boat. In most states, there is a wealth of small game hunting through the month of February and sometimes into March. Rabbits and squirrels can offer you a lot of wintertime fun, so let’s take a look…
Bushytails, a long season with lots of opportunities.
So long as it is not “blue” cold, you can still go after squirrels and have a lot of fun doing it. Many states keep squirrel season open through February. A break in the weather, some sunny warm days with temperatures getting more hospitable, brings out the bushytails for some hot squirrel action. Finding a concentration of tree rats is just like finding any other game, such as deer, turkeys, or bears. Find the food and you will find the squirrels. It’s the middle of winter, so most of the soft mast (grapes, dogwood berries, and the like) is gone, so squirrels are living mostly on acorns, walnuts, and hickory nuts, if any are left on the ground. When snow is on, look for squirrel tracks on logs lying on the ground. The little buggers will run every one of these in the area.
Just like skinning cats, there is more than one way to pursue winter squirrels. Hunting squirrels with a dog may be foreign to some but in much of the southeast it is an old tradition. If you have never hunted squirrels in this manner, I suggest you go today and find someone in your area with squirrel dogs and invite yourself for a hunt. Hunting should be fun, and few things as pure fun as hunting with a good squirrel dog. It is low key, low stress, and a great way to spend a day in the winter woods. In fact, it’s tailor-made for kids.
Stay with the basics of an open-sight .22, and if your buddy carries a shotgun, this can be a deadly combination. Once the squirrel is spotted, the rifleman gets the first shot, but if he misses and the squirrel starts to vacate the premises, the shotgunner gets a turn. I would plan on a big squirrel dinner soon after the hunt—fried squirrel, biscuits, gravy, and all the fixings. Those who missed any shots during the hunt should be ready to be roasted.
Hop down the bunny trail.
Across much of the country, the cottontail rabbit is the staple for wintertime small-game hunting. Like squirrels, there are several ways to go after bunnies, but the best is probably with a pack of beagle hounds. Jumping rabbits on a winter day and listening to a gang of the little hounds unravel the track is something special, and just like the squirrel dog hunt, you owe it to yourself if you have never done it.
Rabbit hunting with beagles usually calls for a shotgun, and many figure a 20-gauge is fine. I wouldn’t go too tight on the choke for this; A modified or improved cylinder will do, and low brass game loads of #6 or #7 ½ shot is all you need. Rabbit hunting often involves several hunters and you are usually in thick brush. I always encourage rabbit and bird hunters in these conditions to wear blaze orange. It’s easier to see your buddies in the thick stuff and lets you know when to take a shot on a rabbit or not.
Another method for wintertime bunnies without hounds can be done in a two-man team; one carries a shotgun and the other a .22 rifle. Unlike the noise and revelry of the beagle hunt, we are going slow and steady here. You and your buddy are sneaking quietly through the brush, pausing every few minutes. We are trying to spot the cottontail in his bed crouched in the briers. If a little tracking snow is on the ground, it is a big advantage. What you are looking for is the large dark eye of the rabbit, and it takes some practice to do this. I know some guys that are good at this and can spot rabbits when I cannot see them. If the rabbit is spotted sitting, the rifle guy may get a shot. Often, of course, the rabbit rockets away and then it is up to the shotgun.
Back to basics – a case for open sights.
Sometimes, I think that shooting a rifle with open sights has become a lost art. Many new shooters and hunters seem never to consider a rifle without a scope or some form of optic. Time was when a shooter learned to be proficient with open sights and then moved on to a scope. Now, don’t get me wrong here. There are a lot of great telescopic sights and red dot optics out there and I use them. What I am saying is that shooters need to learn to use open sights. It is a basic skill that all shooters and outdoors enthusiasts should have, and the earlier they learn, the better.
After graduating from a BB gun (see our Daisy Red Ryder article), the natural progression for most young shooters is to move to a .22 rifle. Little or no recoil, not much noise, and the low cost of ammo make the .22 a perfect tool for the young shooter (actually, any shooter regardless of age) to learn basic skills. These basics include controlling breathing, trigger squeeze, stance, sight alignment, and follow-through. In my not so humble opinion, all these skills are learned better with the use of open sights. Just as a hunter who started out still-hunting squirrels makes a better deer hunter, any shooter who learns to shoot well with open sights makes a better shooter when they move to a scope.
You can stay on the couch if you want to, but don’t claim that hunting season is over. In most areas, you can find rabbits and squirrels. You may even kick up the odd grouse. Also, there is lots of public land for small-game hunting, and you might have most of it to yourself. Pack a big lunch, grab the dog, and get out there. You might be amazed what you will find.
Finally, don’t listen to the guys telling you it’s over, cause it ain’t!
Small Game Pick #1:
Rossi RS22 .22 semi-auto
The Rossi RS22 is a great first rifle option for the new shooter. The heart of the RS22 is a blowback bolt system housed in a lightweight aluminum receiver. This is joined to an 18-inch blued steel barrel that is button-rifled and free-floats in the stock. The RS22 has a crisp 5.5-lb. pull trigger assembly and a manual cross-bolt safety. The magazine release lever is conveniently located in front of the trigger guard, simplifying the reloading process of the included 10-round magazine. The rifle has a “grippy” feel and is easy to hold onto as textured panels along the grip and the back of the forend provide positive retention and control for both large- and small-frame shooters.
I like the Monte Carlo-style stock on this little rifle and cheek weld is assisted by this style of comb. The angled profile of the lower buttstock gives access to the non-shooting hand when shooting on a bench or field rest.
The RS22 comes with factory-installed front and rear adjustable fiber optic sights, so the rifle is ready to shoot right out of the box. For those who prefer an optic, the RS22 receiver has a 3/8-inch dovetail to accept scope mounts. With a suggested retail of $139.00, the Rossi RS22 will not break the bank when you need a .22 rifle for rabbits, squirrels. and plinking.
Small Game Pick #2:
CZ-USA 457 Training Rifle
If you are looking for a .22 rifle to train a new shooter or would just like an accurate .22 to scalp squirrels and do some intricate plinking, consider the CZ-USA Model 457. The 457 comes from a long line of accurate .22 rifles that have been used for training and competition for years. The original 452 was first dubbed the “Military Training Rifle” and thousands of riflemen (and women) have learned to shoot on this gun. The 452 evolved into the Model 455, and for years was the rifle of choice for many shooting programs in the .22 rifle world.
CZ-USA rifles have always been known for accuracy and reliability, with excellent barrels and triggers. The shooting instructors in school, 4-H, and Hunter Education programs wanted more, however, and CZ listened, transforming the Model 455 into the Model 457 with several changes. A push-to-fire safety is a feature that most shooting programs want, plus the ability to have the safety on when the action is open. (“Bolts open and safeties on” is a standard range command). CZ reduced the bolt rotation to allow for a lower-mounted scope and down-sized the action length to reduce weight. A “cocked” striker indicator was added as well as a bolt release button, which takes out the need to pull the trigger to remove the bolt. The Model 457 features a fully adjustable trigger and a Nitride finish (more durable than standard bluing) round out the package.
The CZ-USA 457 Training Rifle is made to shoot with open sights. The 24.8-inch barrel gives a long sight radius and the tangent rear sight is adjustable out to 200 yards. The sights on the 457 are crisp. Burning powder with the 457 just may show you how much fun open sights can be. MSRP $449.00.
Small Game Pick #3:
CZ-USA Upland Ultralight
As noted earlier, when a shotgun is called for in the small game smorgasbord, a 20-gauge may fill the bill. As with any shotgun you will carry all day in the squirrel woods or the rabbit thickets, weight should be a primary factor. No matter how good the hunting is, you will carry the shotgun a lot more than shoot it. The CZ Upland Ultralight 20-gauge comes in at an amazing 5.4 pounds. The Upland Ultralight employs a manual tang safety with integrated selector switch. Like most over and under shotguns, this allows you to select which barrel will be fired first. This can be handy in the field as you may change which barrel you chose to shoot first depending on the choke and type of cartridge you have loaded.
The Upland Ultralight sports a Turkish Walnut laser-cut-checkering stock and ships with five flush-mounted screw-in chokes: Full, Improved Modified, Modified, Improved Cylinder, and Cylinder. The Upland Ultralight is available in a matte black finish on the receiver or a handsome OD Green. The new All-Terrain model features rare earth magnets in the ejectors, which will retain the cartridges even when the gun is open and held upside down. The All-Terrain Upland Ultralight includes a tough, muted green Cerakote finish, extended choke tubes, and factory sling swivels. Standard Model Upland Ultralight MSRP $786.00; All-Terrain Model MSRP $828.00.