Thursday, February 12, 2015


In early February, the out-of-doors can be an inhospitable place, and with deer season long concluded, many outdoorsmen hang their hat and dream about spring by the fire.  However, thanks to last year’s regulation amendment, squirrels remain in-season with rabbits, until the last weekend in February.  Pursuing either may provide enough adrenaline to ward off winter’s chilly advances.

Photo by Matt Reilly

Two Triples

    After a 25-fish morning on a Blue Ridge brook trout stream with my older brother, Phillip, I embarked on my drive home with the sun in my eyes.  The warm mid-day sun had raised the mercury almost 20 degrees since dawn, and I knew the woolly bushytails in my favorite woodlot would be drawn up into the hardwood canopies to soak up the rays.  My trigger finger itched, and I pressed a little harder on the gas pedal.

    Dead oak leaves crunched under my boots with just a few hours of daylight left.  I couldn’t blow any shots and expect to leave the woods with my limit of plump squirrels.  Luckily, I thought, with the winter mating season in full swing, my quarry would be a bit distracted.  Sneaking to within range of a playful bunch might present multiple shots for my 20-gauge scattergun.

    I crossed a small creek at the base of a ridge and paused, listening for activity.  Nothing.  Continuing up the ridge on heel and toe, I made two steps before a gray missile bolted from the trunk of a white oak and began scaling another.  I shouldered my shotgun and landed the bead on the hesitating, spread-eagle gray.  A squeeze of the trigger cashed #6 shot for the evening’s first bushytail.

    I hadn’t shucked the spent shell before two more squirrels fled from the creekbottom.  One made an acrobatic attempt to find safety in an adjacent tree, and a report from the 20-gauge dropped it as it struggled for footing.  The other made an athletic departure along a fallen oak tree, but the third and last shell in my chamber stopped it short. 

    A half hour later I found myself running out of light.  At the base of the next ridge, I could hear the scampering of multiple squirrels in the dense creekbottom, hidden only by a small rise.  When I was sure they were distracted with each other, I closed the distance to a wide oak trunk over the rise in quick bursts, imitating the sound of a pouncing bushytail.

    The first shot was presented when an alarmed gray jumped from the trunk of an oak into the branches of another.  Peeking around my temporary cover, I took aim and sent it tumbling.  The next peeked around the base of another oak, presenting a head shot that didn't go unclaimed.  A third held tight on the forest floor for several seconds before making a mad dash up the nearest hickory tree.  I ran forward ten feet before he began his assent up the trunk and, taking a quick knee, fired a rising shot for a second triple and the last of my limit.

Rabbits in the Open

    It was in the final week of the 2012-13 deer season that I was perched high in a tripod overlooking a food plot of clover, radishes, and alfalfa.  The green lanes were cut from the surrounding pine and rose thicket, which I knew to hold scores of cottontails.  In fact, it was rare that I made the walk to my stand without jumping a rabbit or two, and any time spent in the camouflaged perch was likely to see regular bunny traffic coming to the wood’s edge to feed on leafy greens.
    A .22 in the place of my .243 would have filled the pot, but instead, at a later date, I approached the thicket with a shotgun and small game loads.  Countless rabbit trails emerge where the pine-needled edge meets grass, so I surveyed for concentrations of traffic before diving into the tangle.

    Once inside, potential rabbit hide-outs are easy to spot.  Bent over cedar trees, hollow logs, rose bushes, tree piles—each should be approached, gun at the ready.  I proceeded in this manner for two hours, and jumped a total of five cottontails.  In each case, it escaped without injury with no shots fired.

    It is typical of spooked rabbits to return to their individual piece of cover when danger has moved on.  However, keeping a tight eye on return routes, I could detect no movement after several minutes of waiting. 

    Regardless, there is no better way to jump-start your heart in the frozen February woods than with the spirited exodus of a fleeing rabbit.  With any luck, next time’s score will lean in my favor!

Originally published in the Rural Virginian 

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