Jim Casada

Small game: The forgotten face of hunting

Count me among the guilty ones. At this point in late autumn I haven't done any small game hunting. I missed the opening of dove season while on a trip to Canada, was away at a conference when another dove hunting opportunity was offered, and I've done nothing to thin the bushytail population.

In other words, I've temporarily forgotten my roots, which are squarely set in small game hunting. When I was a boy, deer were virtually nonexistent in the part of the Smokies where I grew up, but squirrels, rabbits, quail, and grouse pretty much got my undivided attention from the first of October through the end of February. In all likelihood, I'm a better woodsman for those experiences, because they taught me patience, marksmanship, how to read sign, stealth, and much more.

That brings me to the present and the above mentioned admission of guilt. Thus far this fall I haven't done a lot of hunting of any kind, thanks to singularly poor planning which required getting a lot of magazine assignments done during October and early November, along with the final stages of seeing a book through the press. But when I have gotten into the woods, maybe eight or 10 times, my time has been spent in a deer stand.

Don't get me wrong, I greatly enjoy whitetail hunting, but the same is true of small game hunting, and in many ways it is more appealing. I just mentioned deer "stands," but they are actually deer "sits." Unless you use grunt calls or do some rattling, neither of which, in my experience, is particularly effective in this part of the world, the deer hunting game is a passive wait, watch, and listen activity.

There's none of the hurried scramble to get to dogs on point, little of the sneakiness involved in trying to get within shooting range of a bushytail, and a lack of the special kind of excitement involved when a bunch of bugling beagles are hot on the cottontail trail. Deer hunting is a stationary sport, while the others involve movement, exercise, and expenditure of considerable energy, with the exception of still hunting for squirrels.

Youngsters find all of those things enjoyable, because they like to be active. I'm not sure that deer offer the best introduction to hunting for youth. If so, it's best done by sharing a stand with an adult many times, ideally over several years, before hunting alone or even taking a shot. Meanwhile, a beginning hunter can learn a lot about gun safety, sporting ethics, marksmanship, and woodsmanship by hunting small game.

That's why the vanishing face of small game hunting troubles me. An adage suggests "you can't know where you are going if you don't know where you've been," and America's sporting roots like in small game hunting. Closer to home, I can virtually guarantee that anyone who reads this and is over the age of 50 and has hunted since adolescence got their start on small game. They really had no choice -- that was the only game in town.

That leads to the question as to whether or not youth is best served by jumping headlong into deer and turkey hunting without an apprenticeship on small game. In general, I think not. There can be exceptions, particularly when a wise, dedicated mentor takes plenty of time in training and educating his young understudy before allowing them their first trigger squeeze on big game. Generally speaking though, all of us overlook something special when we focus almost exclusively on big game.

Mind you, later today (this is being written on Thanksgiving morning), full to the brim with the bounty of the season, I plan to be in the deer woods. Yet as I watch and wait, rest assured my thoughts will turn back to yesteryear and family rabbit hunts, a Thanksgiving Day when a sudden snowstorm caught Dad and me in the woods while squired hunting (he killed two grouse on the way back to the car), and all those countless days filled with joy I set out alone to hunt squirrels.

Think about it, and if nothing else, remind yourself that the season doesn't have to end of January 1. There will still be two full months of hunting opportunity left, with seasons for rabbits, squirrels, quail, woodcock, and waterfowl open for part or all of that period.

The primary rut is dwindling down even as the days shorten. That will mean less likelihood of coming to grips with a really fine buck, but persistence in terms of building time can still have its special rewards. In particular, take advantage of cold snaps, the aftermath of heavy rain (providing we ever get any), and the last 30 minutes of light in the evening. Beyond that, as today's column suggests, don't overlook the fun offered by small game hunting.