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While deer hunts dominate outdoor television programming and gobble up the lion’s share of print coverage, small-game hunting has, over time, taken a back seat. That’s a shame, because small game animals have a lot to offer.

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Jason Olinger breeds and trains hunting beagles in eastern Ohio and spends much of the winter following his dogs in pursuit of rabbits. He is shown here listening to his dogs on the trail and watching for the rabbit to return.

For me, it’s largely become a welcome relief from the pressures of pursuing larger animals. After a week of getting up before dawn, checking cameras and spending hours in a cramped tree stand, I appreciate the chance to wander through the woods with friends, listening to a band of beagles howling or taking aim at bushytails with a rimfire repeater. Plus, squirrel and rabbit make outstanding table fare, and it’s far easier to find permission to hunt small game than deer.

If you’ve never hunted small game, it’s worth trying. Odds are you’ll come to enjoy it very quickly. And if you’re a seasoned hunter who hasn’t chased small game in a while, maybe it’s time to dust off your plaid coat and remind yourself of the big fun you had chasing bunnies and bushytails.

Jenny and Jason Olinger with a big Ohio cottontail. Rabbits are plentiful in most areas, and access to hunt them is widely available on both public and private grounds.

Jenny and Jason Olinger with a big Ohio cottontail. Rabbits are plentiful in most areas, and access to hunt them is widely available on both public and private grounds.

Bouncing Down the Bunny Trail

Patches of snow still clung to the edges of thorn thickets, but the sky was a cloudless blue. I was perched high on a railroad track and was part of a line of hunters that included Jason Olinger (who has set himself apart as one of the top young hunting beagle breeders and trainers), Jason’s wife, Jenny, and several of their friends.

Two of Olinger’s beagles waiting for the hunt to start. Beagles don’t “circle” rabbits; they follow a scent trail instead. A rabbit typically runs a large circle around the perimeter of their territory and often ends up right where they were jumped.

Two of Olinger’s beagles waiting for the hunt to start. Beagles don’t “circle” rabbits; they follow a scent trail instead. A rabbit typically runs a large circle around the perimeter of their territory and often ends up right where they were jumped.

Chasing cottontails with beagles is a wonderful pastime for friends and family groups. It’s more social than big-game hunting. It’s also the perfect way to introduce new hunters to the sport, because you can coach them in the field.

Chasing cottontails with beagles is a wonderful pastime for friends and family groups. It’s more social than big-game hunting. It’s also the perfect way to introduce new hunters to the sport, because you can coach them in the field.

On that particular day, we were hunting one of Jason’s favorite places along an old railroad bed. It wasn’t long before Jason’s dogs cut loose, the whole pack turning into the chase. Soon, the pack was in full voice and motion, and the woods echoed with their howls.

The dogs’ howling soon fell away and became a faint echo and then rose again in volume as the pack followed a rabbit back towards us. A shotgun cracked, and the cottontail went down; and in a few minutes, the whole pack came boiling along the trail, where the hunter stood holding his prize. The dogs bounded up with excitement before disappearing back into the briars.

As much fun as it is to hunt with beagles, you don’t necessarily need a dog to successfully pursue rabbits; nor do you have to use an expensive gun.

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A light, subgauge shotgun is perfect for rabbit hunting. This cottontail was taken using a Weatherby SA-08 28 gauge—an excellent upland and small-game gun.

A light, subgauge shotgun is perfect for rabbit hunting. This cottontail was taken using a Weatherby SA-08 28 gauge—an excellent upland and small-game gun.

In the winter, rabbits spend the day holed up in cover, and that’s the best time to conduct spot-and stalk hunts. Your choice of weapon depends upon your tactics: If you are kicking brush piles in the hopes of stirring up a bunny, a small-bore shotgun is your best bet. On the other hand, if you prefer to take the time to visually inspect each brush pile to determine whether or not there is a rabbit inside (the trick is to look for that glossy, black eye. The rest of the animal blends in perfectly with the brush), a .22 rimfire is probably the best option.

I’d wager that the number of cottontails harvested with a Ruger 10/22 closely matches the number taken with Remington 1100s—and both numbers are pretty high.

“In the winter, rabbits spend the day holed up in cover, and that’s the best time to conduct spot-and stalk hunts.”

Bushytail Bonanza

Squirrel hunting is to big-game hunting as elementary school is to master’s-level coursework. Most hunters learn their craft in the squirrel woods, and even after moving on to larger and more glamorous game, there’s still an undeniable appeal to hunting bushytails.

A big fox squirrel in the early-morning light. Squirrels can be hunted by simply sitting under a mast tree, but calling is another effective method.

A big fox squirrel in the early-morning light. Squirrels can be hunted by simply sitting under a mast tree, but calling is another effective method.

The most common form of squirrel hunting involves simply leaning against a tree or log and waiting for the animal to come to you. And relaxing peacefully in the shade of a mast-producing tree, rimfire across one knee, waiting for a big gray or red fox to show itself is certainly one of the greatest ways to hunt squirrels.

But an often-overlooked method of squirrel hunting is calling. Squirrel whistle calls that imitate the cry of a distressed baby squirrel have been around for decade. Blowing the whistle and rustling the leaves elicits a response from nearby bushytails. That response is often a bit overwhelming to new hunters. Sometimes, the squirrels approach cautiously, but more often than not, they come barreling in at full speed and are suddenly and shockingly quite close.

“Squirrel hunting is to big-game hunting as elementary school is to master’s-level coursework.”

Nevertheless, because I am a dog person, I absolutely love hunting squirrels with dogs.

Allan Franklin, another Ohioan, has amassed more than 20 world championships with his bloodline of mountain cur dogs. He points out that there is a fundamental difference between squirrel dogs and hounds such as beagles.

“A good squirrel dog has to hunt with its eyes,” Franklin explains. That means heading into the woods with their head up, relying on all their senses to find prey.

Franklin values “prey drive” in his dogs, but even an intelligent squirrel dog will help you reach your bag limit in a hurry. And, unlike most hounds, the curs don’t bark until the quarry is treed.

Allan Franklin with a fox squirrel that his dog treed. Squirrel hunting with dogs is low impact and can be very exciting. It is a great way to introduce new hunters to the sport.

Allan Franklin with a fox squirrel that his dog treed. Squirrel hunting with dogs is low impact and can be very exciting. It is a great way to introduce new hunters to the sport.

The Great 28

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Like rabbits and squirrels, the 28 gauge is underappreciated. This subgauge does a nice job balancing recoil with sufficient powers for hunting and clay target shooting. It’s more efficient than the .410, which requires a 3-inch load to match the 28 gauge in terms of shot charge and killing power, and the 3-inch .410 will, in light guns, actually produce recoil levels that are higher than the 28. On the other end, the 28 gauge will do almost everything that the 20 gauge can accomplish with far less gun weight and recoil.

My personal 28 gauge is a Browning Model 12—a clone of the Winchester Model 12 that Browning released in the early 1990s—but the new Benelli Ethos offers a light (5 pounds) gun that is dead-nuts reliable. In addition, for the first time, this company offers a 28 gauge with a 3-inch chamber.

If you’re looking for something less costly, check out Weatherby’s SA-08 28 gauge. It is a classy, lightweight semiauto game gun that handles extremely well.

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the October 2016 print issue of Gun World Magazine.