Spruce Grouse

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Whether it’s hunting squirrel, grouse, rabbit or hare, there’s winter opportunity for both new and experienced hunters

Although most big game seasons are wrapped up for the year, there are open hunting seasons for small game throughout the winter months. North-central Idaho has some great woodland-agriculture interfaces that provide excellent habitat for small game animals, such as squirrel, rabbit, hare and grouse.

Here are five reasons why small game hunting might be the winter time activity for you:

Reason #1: Great for new or experienced hunters

Hunting small game, including squirrel, snowshoe hare, cottontail and forest grouse, presents excellent opportunities for new hunters to develop their skills and confidence without breaking the bank. The best part? Good hunting for all of these species can be found on public land.

It doesn’t take specialized or expensive gear to hunt them: the basic essentials are a .22 long rifle and/or any shotgun, and clothes and boots suitable for winter hiking. It can be done with or without a dog, and with a little bit of luck, good timing, and know-how, you can be successful.

Many of the skills you will learn while hunting small game — including observation skills, handling and shooting a firearm, field dressing and cooking the animals you harvest — will translate directly to big game hunting.

While hunting with a small-caliber rifle like a .22 (which has almost no recoil), it’s the perfect time to work on shooting mechanics in a real-world setting. Focus on building muscle memory for proper grip, trigger squeeze, and obtaining a sight picture from various shooting positions — all without the recoil of a larger, centerfire rifle.

If you are an experienced hunter and pursued big game during fall, don’t store your hunting gear away quite yet. If you have not taken the opportunity to hunt small game, now is the time to extend your season and try something new!

Reason #2: Provide some fresh and nutritious game meat for your dinner table

Cleaning small game helps new hunters understand the basics of field dressing before they move to larger game. Once you get these small game species on the dinner table, there is a good chance they will want to keep hunting them. It’s a chance to take pride in providing for your family while knowing where your food came from---the forest grocery. Fresh, nutritious quality lean meat is hard to beat.

Reason #3: Great way to continue to hone your shooting skills

New or experienced hunters can benefit from hunting small game. A small game animal, such as a rabbit or grouse, is a much smaller target than a deer or elk, so making clean shots can be challenging. You should always sight in your firearm and practice shooting before going into the field. Take your time, don’t rush your shot, and be confident with your abilities before pulling the trigger. Make sure you take the time to identify your target and be certain that it is a safe shot to take. Is the animal in range? Is there anything in front of or beyond the target that could result in an unsafe shot?

This is also a great time to practice estimating target distances. While out in the woods and fields, take the opportunity to estimate how far you are from a rock or tree or clump of brush. Then, pace off the distance, or use a range finder to check your estimate. Hunters are often surprised at how poorly they estimate distances under various field conditions. You may do an excellent job in the woods, but require more practice over water or agricultural fields. Winter hunting allows you an opportunity to sharpen your shooting skills after other seasons are closed.

Reason #4: Fun to find animal sign in the snow

There is a lot to learn about animal activity from studying their sign in the snow. While you are chasing bunnies or grouse, bring along a pocket book to help identify tracks and scat that you find. You can learn where an animal is traveling to, what habitat it is using, what it has been eating, and times of peak movement. Animal tracking in the snow is an easy way to learn how to track animals and, with practice, can lead you to tracking on more solid ground.

Note the general size of the animal and their track pattern. Is it hopping, bounding, trotting, or walking? You can also study the sign and make a guess at how fresh it might be. Has it snowed recently? Is there fresh snow in the tracks? Kids love to investigate animal sign, so this is a great way to get them inspired in the outdoors.

Reason #5: Break the cabin fever

If you’ve been feeling a little cooped up lately, a trip out of the house to hunt small game might be just what you need. Break out the sled, skis, or snowshoes, bring along a Thermos of hot chocolate or soup, and bundle up for some fun, family, winter recreation. Make sure to bring extra warm clothing (gloves, hats, good boots), hand warmers, and waterproof layers to keep everyone comfortable in the snow. Breathe in the fresh cool air and get some exercise while making memories!

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