Thinking Small

Hunting in Iowa has changed significantly during my lifetime. Four decades ago wild turkey and deer were scarce or non-existent in much of the state. Most hunters started out shooting squirrels and rabbits before moving on to pheasants and/or waterfowl. Only then did they graduate to larger game, if they had access to it at all.

Since then turkey and deer restoration efforts have been beyond successful, and youth seasons offer beginning hunters first crack at both. Many youngsters, some not yet school-aged, get their start in the field taking advantage of this big-game bounty.
Both species lend themselves to hunting from a ground blind, eliminating the need for stealth or silence. Youngsters lacking the strength or maturity to carry a loaded weapon afield can utilize a shooting support under the watchful eye of a mentor who is able to offer advice about safe and appropriate shot selection.

While it’s hard to fault anything that gets youth involved in hunting early, this new emphasis on bigger game has come at a cost. Having cut their teeth on deer and turkeys, many younger hunters never “regress” to hunting small game. When they in turn become parents and mentors, they have no upland tradition to pass on to the next generation.

That’s a shame. Upland game offers hunters the opportunity to extend their season while honing woodsmanship, marksmanship, firearm safety skills and patience. Rabbits and squirrels are abundant and underutilized in most places, while pheasants are rebounding from recent historic lows.

Minimal gear is required to hunt upland game, and most hunters needn’t travel far to find it. Bag limits are generous, and all three species make outstanding table fare. Hunters who have forgotten, or never experienced, the simple joy of pursuing upland game should consider giving it a try. The following tips will help.

Go Nuts!
Finding gray or fox squirrel habitat is as simple as locating nut-producing trees. Oaks and hickories are most abundant in Iowa and are highly favored by both species, although they’ll also utilize walnuts, beechnuts and several others if available. When nut trees are lacking or unproductive squirrels will readily turn to waste grain.

In addition to making dens in tree cavities, squirrels will build nests using sticks. These are easy to spot, while more attentive scouting will reveal cut nutshells or crop remnants where bushytails have been feeding.

Squirrels generally favor areas where mature trees create a closed canopy to shade out undergrowth. This allows them to find nuts more readily and to see approaching danger when on the ground. Such areas also make it easier for hunters to spot squirrels and offer clean shooting lanes.
When I was a youngster the oak woodlot next to our farm doubled as a cow pasture. The bovines kept the ground-level vegetation manicured like a golf green. While the plot offered minimal habitat for most other game, it was a squirrel-hunting Mecca.

Having identified a good spot, many hunters simply slip in quietly at dawn, take a seat against a tree and wait for action. Wearing appropriate camo, including a facemask, is helpful.

Commercial squirrel calls are purported to generate a response from curious or territorial animals. Some old-timers also recommend tapping two quarters together to imitate the sound of a squirrel cutting nuts. I’ve admittedly had limited success with squirrel calling, however.

Late-arriving or restless hunters may prefer still-hunting. Some veterans recommend slipping noiselessly among pockets of cover while stopping frequently to look and listen, just as when deer hunting. Others suggest trudging through the woods in a straight line like a nature lover on a Sunday hike, reasoning that squirrels accustomed to human intrusions are unlikely to flee from a hunter who doesn’t behave like a predator.

Two or more hunters working as a team can use a combination approach by posting one partner while having the other still-hunts through the area. Squirrels on the ground frequently offer a shot to the poster when fleeing the mobile hunter, while treed squirrels may show themselves to one hunter when moving to hide from the other.

Some purists insist using a .22-caliber rifle is the only sporting way to hunt squirrels. While this does test marksmanship, launching a bullet into the treetops presents significant safety concerns, particularly on public land. As such I prefer a scattergun. Most public areas require non-toxic shot, and many hunters (myself included) choose to use it exclusively.

A .410 loaded with #4 or #6 lead-equivalent shot is ideal, but for simplicity’s sake I utilize the same 3-inch 12 gauge shells with #3 steel shot I use for almost all upland and waterfowl hunting. The larger shot size provides adequate penetration on tough-skinned squirrels while minimizing the number of pellets to be extracted during cleaning.

The 2016-2017 squirrel season opened September 3rd and closes January 31st. The daily bag limit is six and the possession limit 12.

Into the briar patch
Those unfamiliar with “rabbitat” would do well to think of cottontails as pint-sized deer and look for appropriate bedding areas. Thickets, shelterbelts, overgrown fence lines, blowdowns and brush piles all fit the bill, although during warmer weather they can also be found in stands of upland grass. Habitat needn’t be pristine: rabbits will gladly utilize fallen-in buildings, junked cars or farm machinery, wire piles, etc. as well.

Cottontails have a varied diet including grasses, forbs, grain and woody browse. Many gardening and landscaping enthusiasts consider them a serious pest and will gladly offer hunting access. Areas where rabbits have gnawed on vegetation are easy to spot, as are their distinctive raisin or pea-sized and -shaped droppings.

Stand hunters can watch for rabbits sunning adjacent to bedding cover or moving to nearby feeding areas, particularly early or late in the day. Stomping through bedding and loafing habitat to flush rabbits is effective, particularly when hunting with a human or canine partner. Posting one hunter near escape cover while another does the stomping often works well.

Rabbits aren’t particularly thick-skinned, meaning a .22 rifle or smaller-gauge shotgun is adequate. As with squirrels, larger shot sizes help to minimize meat damage. Headshots should be attempted whenever possible, as most of the meat is in the back half of the rabbit.
The cottontail season opened September 3rd and closes February 28. The daily limit is 10 and the possession limit 20. Jackrabbits have been all but eliminated from much of Iowa and are not legal game.

Comeback King
Pheasants were once the king of Iowa gamebirds. Hunters over 40 likely remember when the Iowa harvest exceeded a million roosters annually during the heyday of CRP in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Some past 60 once enjoyed even greater pheasant densities when northern Iowa was dotted with cattail sloughs and checkered with hay and small grain fields.

Habitat loss and several consecutive years of unfavorable weather caused a pheasant population crash from 2007-2011. Hunter numbers followed suit, leading to several years with a harvest below 300,000 birds.

More recently habitat loss has slowed and weather has improved. Although they haven’t reached “glory day” levels, DNR officials believe pheasant numbers have rebounded sufficiently to support a harvest of over 600,000 given adequate hunter participation.

Pheasants live primarily in open grasslands, preferring diverse native or restored native-type prairies. They will also utilize brome-alfalfa or alfalfa-clover stands. During wet or harsh weather birds normally move to heavier cover such as thickets, shelterbelts, cattail sloughs or switchgrass stands.

Pheasants often pick grit along gravel roads in the early morning and then feed in harvested grain fields before returning to roosting or loafing cover for the remainder of the day. They repeat this pattern in the late afternoon.

Most pheasant hunters use dogs to point or flush roosters and to locate downed birds. Hunters without dogs should walk slowly through likely cover in a zigzag pattern, stopping and/or doubling back frequently. This approach will often unnerve birds that might otherwise sit tight and let the hunter pass by.

It often works best to begin by hunting the edges of larger habitat blocks. Pheasants are as apt to run as to fly, so hunting the borders first may force them into flushing or push them to the middle of the plot where they can be flushed on subsequent passes.

With linear strips of cover such as fencerows, ditches, shelterbelts, etc. it often works well to post one hunter near the end of the cover while the other(s) push it towards the poster. For small cattail sloughs or similar round pockets of habitat, having one or more hunter working away from each other (one clockwise, one counterclockwise) will often result in flushes when birds are squeezed together as the hunters come together on the other side.

Pheasants are tough, particularly later in the season when fully grown, fully feathered and sporting a layer of fat for winter. Skilled marksmen exercising disciplined shot selection can certainly kill pheasants with a 28 gauge, but the average hunter should use the largest gun he or she can carry and shoot effectively. A 20-gauge is a reasonable minimum, with a 16 or 12 being preferable.

Shot size of #6 to #4 is best for lead or lead-equivalent non-toxic loads, while #3 or #2 is recommended for steel. As mentioned earlier, I use 3-inch 12 gauge shells loaded with #3 steel for most all of my upland and waterfowl hunting.

Pheasant season opens October 29 and closes January 10. The daily limit is three roosters with a possession limit of 12. Hunters are required to wear at least one visible article of blaze orange clothing when pursuing upland birds and should seriously consider doing so when hunting other small game in a group and/or on public land.