Written by Bowhunting.com contributor….Brodie Swisher
With most of the best days for bowhunting big game now a distant memory, it’s amazing how quick cabin fever can begin to set in. The “off-season-bowhunting-blues” affects different hunters in different ways, and at different times. However, the best cure I’ve found to maintain sanity until spring turkey and black bear seasons begin to unfold is to take advantage of small-game bowhunting opportunities that abound across the country.
Having grown up in the south, I’ve had my share of rabbit hunts with the use of hounds. The action is fast and furious, making it the ideal sport for the shotgun hunter. When I moved to Montana, and mentioned the thought of hunting rabbits to a few of the locals, I quickly heard, “Why would you wanna hunt those things?!?!” There’s no season for rabbits in Montana. They seem to be considered more of a nuisance critter than a game animal. And that’s exactly why they make the perfect off-season target for winter and early spring bowhunting. My pursuit of rabbits has now transitioned from the use of hounds, to spot-n-stalk methods. And the challenge and testing of my stalking and shooting skills continues to lure me back each season. Cottontails, jack rabbits, and snowshoe hares, continue to humble archers across the country in search of winter-time targets.
Squirrel hunting is one of Brodie’s favorite ways to break in a new bow each season. Moving slowly along the edges of thick cover around agriculture fields or timber can often produce shot opportunities at cottontails as they remain motionless, hoping to go unnoticed. And don’t overlook haystacks and barn lots for an abundance of rabbits hanging out close to the farm. Jackrabbits can be found across the western states and across the plains. Jackrabbits can also be found on the edge of thick cover, sunning at the base of a tree or bush, or in open sage flats. Considering the jackrabbits heavy appetite, landowners often allow hunting of these nuisance critters to avoid damage to farmlands.
Rockchucks and groundhogs make for some pretty fat targets as winter gives way to spring. Snowshoe hares can be found at higher elevations in forested country. The tiny black blink of snowshoe hares eyeball will likely be the only clue to their whereabouts as they sit motionless against the snowy landscape. Again, move slowly. Rabbits will often allow you to walk within “spittin’ distance” before busting out for safer cover.
I know of few things as challenging as hunting predators with a bow. So many elements must come together perfectly for success to happen when hunting bobcats, coyotes, or fox with a bow. Liberal seasons in many states allow for ample opportunities to hunt these crafty critters in the off-season. Long-range shooting is gaining popularity with each passing year, and predator hunting seems to be the perfect outlet to put long-range skills to the test. But for the bow-packin’ predator hunter, the challenge is cranked up considerably. Shots at 60-600 yards are not what we’re after. We must bring them closer. I’ve found no better way to get predators in to bow-range than with the use of a decoy.
Live targets always prove to be more fun than punchin’ paper or foam targets.
Few hunting experiences compare to that of a coyote charging hard to the decoy. With proper decoy placement, shots within archery range are not uncommon. One of my closest encounters with a coyote came as I videoed a buddy killing a coyote charging the decoy at just 8 yards! The key to such success is greatly attributed to a motion-style prey decoy. I’ve found that few predators can resist a motion decoy once they lay eyes on it. A motion decoy will not only get the predators attention, but hold its attention making shot preparation much easier. The motion decoy also allows the hunter to direct the coyote’s path of entry to a pre-determined area for the kill. They never take their eyes off of it!
When hunting coyotes, bobcats, or fox, make sure to put the decoy where you want your shot to be. With the use of a motion decoy, you can literally “place” the predator where you want it for the shot. I like my decoys set up at just 12-15 yards in front of my setup. I place the decoy on the highest terrain available for maximum visibility in every direction possible.
Snowshoeing into the backcountry in search of snowshoe hares will help beat a case of cabin fever like nothing else.
An extensive new line of predator decoys is now being offered by the folks at Primos Hunting (primos.com). Everything from rodent decoys to fawn decoys is in the lineup, all featuring lifelike motion. When hunting in a clean, un-obscured agriculture field, I like hunting with a smaller rabbit or rodent-style decoy. They are very easy to stick in your pocket or pack. The Primos Sit’n Spin Crazy Critter and Whobblin’ Whabbit are perfect for such sets due to their smaller size and “packability”. However, when hunting in fields where the terrain features ground cover, brush, or growth, I like to switch to a fawn-style decoy like the Frantic Fawn or Wooly Bully that are easily adjusted for greater visibility in taller landscape. These decoys are sure to grab the attention of approaching predators from great distances.
It seems that ridding my neighborhood of tree squirrels with my first bow was honestly what I felt my calling in life must be. That challenge spilled over into a love for slinging arrows at “wilder” grey and fox squirrels in places far beyond the backyard. Small game seasons typically last well into the first months of the new year; offering plenty of opportunity to drop the string on squirrels. When I moved out west, I was quickly introduced to the challenge of hunting ground squirrels with my bow. I remember a friend telling me that hunting for ground squirrels would be the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my hunting career. I remember laughing and thinking, “He must be joking!” But sure enough, after countless hours in the field, and thousands of arrows flung, I’ve become a ground squirrel hunting addict. For shear fun and unlimited shooting opportunities, it’s hard to beat.
Judo-tipped arrows are sufficient for hunting tree squirrels or ground squirrels and will aid in easier recovery of arrows after the shot. Shooting ground squirrels with archery gear can be quite the challenge. The pursuit will test your shooting skills like no other critter can. Precision shooting is a must for success on eliminating your share of these ground-dwellers. Missed shots are simply part of the game. Don’t get frustrated. Focus on the shot like you would with any big buck or bull. Take your time as you stalk from one den to the next. Again, practice as if you were putting a stalk on a world class animal. Diligent shooting practice on jumpy ground squirrels is the perfect off-season training for the upcoming season.
Other parts of the country feature groundhogs, marmots, rockchucks, etc. These sharp-eyed, larger-bodied pests offer the ultimate in spot-n-stalk bowhunting opportunities as the warmer months of spring draw near. Look for these guys around old barns, log-piles, rocks along river banks, etc.
Don’t be lured into believing that there is an off-season for bowhunters! While some hang up their bow and wait for warmer weather to arrive once again, others will take advantage of a plethora of bowhunting opportunities that are sure to help carry you through the winter and early spring months. Rabbits, squirrels, and predators are just a few of the many live targets that await avid archers looking for a good reason to get out of the house. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with the bowhunting blues this year! Stay in the hunt with small game!
Brodie Swisher is a world champion game caller, outdoor writer, and seminar speaker. Check out his web sites…brooutdoors.com and realitbowhunting.com.
*Be sure to check your local hunting regulations for info on small-game (and non-game) animals in the areas you hunt.