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Tips for Spotting Small Game

Posted by on April 26, 2018

First look for the right habitat and signs of quarry (tracks, droppings, scrapes, feeding), then carefully and slow survey the area.

I recently posted some videos of rabbit hunts I’d done out in Texas, and received a lot of questions that I thought I’d answer here on the blog. Small game hunting is a lot of fun, and is a good place for new hunters to get started, a way for experienced hunters to get in a lot of field time to keep sharp, and for everyone, a great hunting experience that stands on its own.

Small game can be easier to locate than larger game like deer or turkey, at least in part due to the much higher populations and a propensity to come out in the open. Smaller game animals such as rabbits and squirrels depend on speed or camouflage to protect them. But much of the mail I receive comes from new hunters that are having trouble locating quarry when they get out in the field. In this week I will give you a few hints that can help.

The first one sounds way too simple …… hunt where animals are. If you go into the wrong habitat, or to a place that is over pressured, you are not going to be successful. When hunting public land, get as far from roads and easy access as possible, since many people don’t want to work to fill their bag. I’ve seen many areas in the high desert where nothing is around within half a mile from a dirt road, but hike in a mile and you’ll start to see jackrabbits in numbers.

Also, look for signs of activities: cuttings on the ground when squirrel hunting, droppings scattered about the area, jackrabbit scrapes under cactus or mesquite brush. Often you can find tracks, so know what the prints of your quarry look like, imprinted in soft sand or snow. Look for the types of cover your prey prefers: cottontail rabbits like brush piles, fence lines, and abandoned buildings and equipment they can hide around or under. Jackrabbits like to lay at the base of mesquites on a slight rise that allows them to watch danger coming, with adjacent flats with sparse cover where they can open up when the need comes to flee.

And importantly, when looking for game do just that……. look! It’s not just new hunters I see ignoring this rule, I see guys that get out into the field and just start plowing ahead burning up ground. There are times you want to motor ahead, when getting from one likely spot to another but when you are actually on the hunt you should move slowly. Very slowly, stopping often to look at your immediate surroundings, then looking further ahead to where you are headed to survey all likely looking spots along the way. A set of binoculars can be very helpful, even if your eyesight is good, you might be surprised how much more game you can glass than see with the naked eye. This is especially true in lower light conditions early in the morning, towards evening, or when looking into shadowed areas.

Rabbits and other small game often require on camouflage before relying on speed…. look closely!

When you spot an obvious target, look for others before starting your approach. I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost tripped over a rabbit while fixated on approaching another.

When searching an area, look for telltale signs: a smooth contour that doesn’t quite fit in, a bit of hair being blown at a different speed than the surrounding grasses or leaves, a slightly different color of fur or the amber glow of sunshine passing through a rabbits ears……… and the big one, look for any motion that is inconsistent with the majority of motion. What I mean is that if the wind is blow the grass to the right, and you see something move to the left, zero in on it.

Your objective is to see game and get into range, while your preys objective is not to be seen and to stay away from perceived threats. When everything in your environment wants to put you on the menu, staying alert becomes the key to survival. Rabbits and squirrels see better than you, tend to always be on high alert, and has a safe zone they will try not to let you intrude on, and this is the game you need to play to be consistently successful in the field!

Move slow and use natural cover to your advantage

I hope if you’re just starting out this helps, it is more important than with traditional firearm hunting because your ranges are a bit closer and shot placement more critical. The main thing is don’t get frustrated and/or give up. When I first moved to the Midwest and started hunting tree squirrels, I’d been hunting all my life. But I didn’t have the skill set to consistently go out and limit. Sure, I bagged a few, but it wasn’t until I started watching really experienced squirrel hunters in the woods, that I progressed. They moved much more slowly through the woods than I did, were much more methodical in scanning the trees, and more cognizant of signs than I’d been when small game hunting. Even though I knew how to hunt, modifying my field behavior to slow down, look more, and be more specific in what I was looking for…… paid off in results!

Keep at it and think through your hunts: where to hunt, how to cover the landscape, look at habitat and figure where you’d go if a jackrabbit (view of incoming danger with cover to hide, but enough open ground to take off if spotted).

I just got back from another small game hunt in Texas over the weekend, and though brought back a case of flu, had a great time in the field. In a couple weeks we’ll be heading down to South Dakota on our (now) annual prairie dog shoot with several other Airgunners, which is going to be a blast if last year was anything to go by. Seems like winter is finally over up in the fast north, and I look forward to a summer of varminting, shooting, and getting out for some fishing! Catch up with you all next week!

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