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Stay Sharp with Winter Small Game Hunting

Snowshoe hare, which is plentiful around Idaho for winter small game hunting

By HOLLY ENDERSBY

“Ro-dents, he’s feeding me ro-dents!” said the very southern voice on the phone. 

My soon to be daughter-in-law uttered these words 27 years ago when my son cooked a stew with Eastern gray squirrel as the meat. Luckily, since then, Claire has learned to love wild game, including the squirrels and rabbits my son and grandson continue to add to the meal plan. 

Many of us put our rifles away now that most big game seasons are over. But enjoying time in the woods and fields doesn’t have to end in the fall. Winter small game hunting is a great way to keep your outdoor skills sharp and the stew pot full. It’s also a great way to mentor a new hunter, whether they are young or older. 

We started our grandkids out hunting by sticking to small game until they felt confident with their shooting skills. Each rabbit they shot and cooked was dutifully declared “the best meal we’ve ever eaten!” Small game was also a great way to introduce them to field dressing before taking on the task with deer, elk, or bear. Because rabbits and squirrels can carry tularemia, although it’s very rare in Idaho, be sure to wear gloves while cleaning the critters. This bacterial disease can be transmitted when skinning and butchering, especially while handling organ meat. 

If you haven’t eaten rabbit before, you’re in for a treat. The meat is delicious and mild and does well with long, slow cooking, to make meal planning easy. The same is true for squirrel: this game meat just loves the crockpot.

Idaho has plenty of cottontail rabbits near agricultural land as well as jack rabbits in dryer, brushier locations and snowshoe hares in forested areas. A friend uses beagles to hunt rabbits and has great success, but you don’t need a dog to fill the stew pot with rabbit. Jack rabbits (which are hares) and snowshoe hares are a lot faster than cottontails, due to their large feet, making them a challenge to shoot. 

In winter the snowshoe hare turns white, helping to camouflage it. But in snow, it’s easy to track these hares simply by following their footprints. Rabbits are fairly habitual and will stay in the same area all year. The average home territory for snowshoe hares in winter is about 20 acres. You can look for tell-tale signs of rabbits in the vicinity by looking for chewed bark on aspen and conifer, or evidence of twigs and buds being eaten on bushes. Each state has different license and regulations for hunting rabbits, so be sure to check the most recent game rules. In addition, Idaho has a third rabbit, the pygmy rabbit, but hunting is prohibited of these smaller creatures, so be sure you can identify them. 

Rabbit populations can swing wildly, with some seasons showing a 90-percent mortality rate in specific populations usually due to environmental fluctuation that impairs local food sources. When this happens, predators that depend on rabbits for food—such as bobcats, coyotes, or golden eagles—can suffer as well. 

You’ve probably run into red or pine squirrels letting all the other critters in the forest know you’re around when hunting in the fall. Idaho has healthy populations of pine squirrels. These noisy little creatures are highly territorial, and they let you know it. 

In the summer, they are busy gathering pine cones, which they stash in a large pile—it’s called larder hording—near the middle of their territory. 

They lay down multiple layers of fresh, unopened cones, which stay moist and edible a long time. Pine squirrels are also fond of mushrooms, and you may find these morsels drying in trees and on bushes, which the squirrel then stores in tree trunks for winter eating. 

These squirrels usually have a territory of about two to three acres, so finding these stashes is relatively easy, and a squirrel is sure to be close by. Pine squirrels are relatively small when compared to the eastern gray squirrel, but they are just as tasty. 

Being in the silent forest with snow on the ground is a wonderful experience. Strapping on a pair of snowshoes and moving quietly after small game is an excellent way to keep your hunting skills sharp even in the depths of winter. And once you try it, you’ll be hooked on winter small game hunting. ISI

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