It was mid-January and snow blanketed the ground. The high temperature hovered around the low 20’s. Arctic air had pushed down into the lower 48 making for brutally cold conditions. Snow flurries blew throughout the morning and trees were popping from the winds and cold. I trudged through the crusty snow stopping ever so often to scan the brush ahead. No other souls roamed the expanse of public land I was on. No fresh tire tracks marked their passing either. They had no need to rove about. Most of the hunting seasons had closed up and it was ice fishing time. So what was I doing out there? I trudged, bow in hand, through the snow that day so I could stay sharp for next fall’s hunting seasons. I was small game hunting.
Small game hunting is a simple pleasure people seem to overlook and it provides a great way to extend your hunting season and stay sharp. In the past, hunters had no problem staying sharp, and really had no offseason. Native American hunters lived with their bow in hand, and never fell out-of-sync with their weapon. Each day their survival was often linked to their effectiveness with a bow and their ability to provide meat and fend off enemies. It is no small wonder many tribes had expert bowers and hunters. We can also see the importance of staying sharp with the often-publicized 13th century English law requiring archery practice on Sundays and holidays. Kings seemed to have followed the adage “you are either getting better, or you are getting worse. You don’t stay the same.” They knew if their serfs could not wield a bow competently, the King’s lands and riches would be at stake. In later years, frontiersmen roamed America with flintlock rifles to feed their families. The survival of all of these people depended on their competency with their weapon of choice. If we, in the modern world, want to carry on our hunting heritage, we must stay dedicated to our craft. To truly committed hunters, there is no offseason.
One way small game hunting allows us to stay sharp is by following sign. Now, I’m not talking about tracking rabbits through the brush. Some guys might do that, but I have never met any. While out on small game forays I always scan the terrain for signs of other animals. Scrapes, deer trails, sheds, and bedding areas found while small games hunting might tip you off about next season’s big buck. Scouting never really stops for the hunter who doesn’t want it to. The same can be said for turkey sign. I know I am not the only guy who looks forward to spring big game hunts, and small game hunts can tip me off about where to chase longbeards come opening day.
Looking for sign can be especially beneficial for public land hunters like myself. Public lands experience a lot of pressure, which leads to a great deal of movement by game animals. If you get out during the winter months it will allow you to notice any changes in pattern by animals and glean a deeper knowledge of your hunting grounds. Hunting small game often takes you into the nooks and crannies of a property, and just might open the door to a new and unexplored area.
Hunting and the outdoor lifestyle in general have many additional benefits aside from the obvious enjoyment of sport. Some of the finest side effects of an active outdoor lifestyle are the added health benefits that come along with it. Humans were perfectly created for the task of hunting wild game. These days, most of us don’t do our bodies justice. We were born to walk and run miles everyday. Today, engineering has taken most of the physical activity out of our lives. Many hunts require us to be fit, so staying physically fit should be a priority if we want to continue to enjoy our great sport in our golden years. Small game hunting is a great way to keep your body tuned up for hunting shape. It’s all about staying active year round.
Trudging through snow, climbing steep ridges, walking open grasslands, and crawling over logs and limbs keeps your blood moving and muscles firing. By getting out for a few hours over the weekend you can go a long way in giving yourself the best chance for success come spring or fall. If you enjoy hunting from the ground on your big game forays you can’t afford to miss out the opportunity to stay in hunting shape. Hunting from the ground requires physical stamina, strong legs, lung capacity, balance, and coordination. While most small game hunts won’t get you in marathon shape they will keep you moving. I remember talking to a friend in college about his granddad that was in his late 80’s and still rode a horse everyday. The Granddad knew if he ever quit riding he would never ride a horse again. Young hunters and aged hunters would all do well to remember that an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
Maybe the most obvious reason small game hunting is so beneficial for hunters is the shooting practice. Rabbits, squirrels, game birds, and furbearers all offer small targets. I shoot many weapons including a traditional bow. “Aim-small, miss-small” was the shooting motto I took up while learning to shoot a traditional bow and can be applied to all weapons. Aiming small is the only option while hunting small game. These animals also offer chances to practice shots and build confidence for your more anticipated hunts. I’ll guarantee if you can hit a running cottontail, that statue-still whitetail will seem a very easy target. Shots on small game are often made more difficult by surrounding bushes or vegetation as well. Taking tough shots requires practice and practice builds confidence. With practice like that, come fall, not only will you pack your weapon along with you, but you will carry added confidence as well.
Even the greatest hunters use small game hunting to keep their shooting skills sharp. One such hunter was the archery legend Howard Hill. Hill’s book, Hunting the Hard Way, chronicles many of his hunting adventures. A reader cannot read this book without spotting Hill’s passion for small game hunting. Hill’s book records numerous stories of the hunting of rabbits, birds, and other small game. He devotes one complete chapter to rabbit hunting trips he would take with his wife and friends. Hill seemed to be enthusiastic about anything related to his bow. In his book he touts stories of 100+ yard duck shots and 60-yard rabbit shots as if they were front cover monster bull elk. You can understand his pride. These are great achievements. If you desire to become the best hunter you can be, you would be advised to emulate one of the best archers in recent history, and perhaps ever.
So this January when you catch yourself dreaming of the rustling of autumn leaves, remind yourself that hunting season never really ends. Your success in September can be linked to those cold days in January when everyone else has hung up their gear. Hunting can be a full-time obsession for a person dedicated to mastering their craft. We can learn our hunting areas better, stay in hunting shape, and hone our shooting skills all year round. Hunters all dream of success, whatever that may be to each individual hunter, and by taking advantage of each day we can give ourselves an edge for that success. By capitalizing on offseason small game opportunities we can be like a freshly sharpened broadhead ready for action.