Don’t hang your bow up now! Stay sharp in the off-season with these small-game bowhunting opps.
There was a time when the bowhunting tyro earned his stripes the hard way; through hard-knocks, trial-and-error experience. When I was young, my way of becoming a bowhunter involved a long succession of starlings and semi-tame vacant-lot quail, farmland cottontail and jack rabbits, desert prairie dogs and rock squirrels. It was only after I’d learned to achieve some small amount of success on such small game that I graduated to desert mule deer found at the edge of Eastern New Mexico suburbia, then eventually more exotic game such as pronghorn, black bears and elk—with plenty of small-game excursions wedged between to help me maintain my edge and confidence.
There is no doubt, small game offers the bowhunter the perfect avenue for sharpening the hunter’s eye, learning to stalk effectively and the intricacies of shooting under pressure (or at least the weight of the responsibility that comes when shooting at any living target). But small game hunting is also about pure fun, especially during late-winter months between January and March.
Small game hunting often involves a specific species, like the snowshoe hares or ruffed grouse we pursue in northern Idaho after whitetail season closes. We chased winter cottontail bunnies with great enthusiasm while I still lived in western New Mexico. I’ve had a blast bowhunting with Eastern friends for gray and fox squirrels. I’ve even entertained myself during many spring and summer months with non-game prairie dogs, rock and ground squirrels, woodchucks and jack rabbits. Every state has its own rules, and thoroughly poring over game proclamations is in order to avoid inadvertently breaking the law. But odds are good you have some manner of small game in your backyard to keep you busy—and sharp—during the off season.
Some of this stuff—game birds, snowshoe hares and cottontails in season, even southern armadillos (really)—can offer exceptional table fare and a welcome addition to the larder as well. A fat snowshoe hare, quartered, marinated in soy sauce and chopped garlic and quick fried in smoking-hot olive oil is a real treat. Hoard a half dozen, and you have an entire family meal and the makings of German Hasenpfeffer. As a destitute college student, my main source of protein was the abundant cottontails that prospered in West Texas CRP fields. And, yes, a skinned (shelled?) and quartered armadillo tossed on a hot grill and slathered with barbeque sauce is finger-licking good; greasy, white meat closely resembling wild pork. Some of the other stuff—non-game ground squirrels, woodchucks, prairie dogs and jack rabbits—are considered vermin by most landowners, providing an easy way to get your foot in the door to private lands.
Hunting approaches are essentially wide open. I generally prefer still-hunting through likely coverts (farm or ranch “bone yards,” with heaps of discarded junk and defunct equipment, are some of my favorite small-game spots), slipping along slowly and quietly, pausing periodically to have a thorough look around, hoping to spy a crouched or feeding rabbit or squirrel or catch a telltale bit of movement tipping me off to the presence of game. This kind of hunting instills patience and sharpens the eye—skills that come in handy while bowhunting deer or elk later. In other habitats, particularly in Western or Plains states, or Eastern woodchuck pastures, classic spot-and-stalk ploys work well. This includes setting up on a vantage (including haystacks or windmills) and patiently glassing for game shaded beneath squat brush (or farmland debris), coming into the edge of agricultural fields with coming evening or poking their heads from burrows, and planning a careful stalk. I’ve even set up pop-up blinds amongst prairie dog towns, ground squirrel colonies or near active woodchuck burrows to await shooting opportunities.
Depending on terrain conditions and targets, the small game bowhunter could go at this with field points or even broadheads (using old, dull blades that are of no use for serious big-game hunting). Generally a specialized small-game point is better suited. If nothing else, small-game-specific points reduce the number of lost arrows, quickens arrow recovery, result in less skipping, and do a job on small game on impact. To that effect I also wrap small-game arrows in bright wraps and fletch them with the most glaring fletchings possible. This simply helps me recover arrows with less searching.
Steel and rubber blunts are a classic small-game option and work well in the right habitats. The Game Nabber from Precision Designed Products(www.pdparchery.com), is a tough, all-steel blunt that includes a sharp point flaring into a flat, shock-inducing frontal face, with trail cutting edges. Keith Jabben, who invented this patented tip, is an avid rabbit and tree-squirrel hunter and designed the point to reduce skipping, sticking into high tree branches, and produces deadly results. Rubber blunts, like Bludgeons from Saunders Archery (www.sausa.com), are best in hard or rocky soil, as they absorb some of the shock that would otherwise be suffered by the arrow, saving many shafts from breakage. They’re offered in 65- and 100-grain slip-on, and 80-, 100-, 125- and 145-grain screw-on models.
In areas where thick grass or weeds result in arrows lost to burrowing, I prefer spring-arm points like 100-, 125- and 145-grain Zwickey Judo Point (www.zwicketarcheryinc.com) or Carbon Express’ 100- and 125-
grain Shocker (www.carbonexpressarrows.com). The head features spring-loaded arms that grab passing grass, weeds and soil to put the brakes on speeding arrows, often causing the arrow to flip over and lie on top of vegetation. More recently a couple companies have begun offering points that grab passing vegetation after a miss, but rip small game for quick kills with rigid steel arms or blades. G5 Outdoors’ S.G.H.—Small Game Head—(www.g5outdoors.com) is one of these, with a nail-tough, one-piece-molded, 100-percent steel point with three ripping claws built in. The newest is Slick Trick’s RipTrick (www.slicktrick.net). The head features cross-locking blades set in an all-steel ferrule, making it tough.
Of course, small game hunting with your official big game bow is par, providing additional experience and confidence in the bow you’ll carry into the field come fall. I prefer traditional recurves and longbows while small game hunting. They’re simply more fluid and better accommodate quick point-and-shoot, point-blank shot opportunities often presented.
Small game bowhunting, for the sake of small game hunting in and of itself, isn’t as popular as it once was. This is a shame, as nothing prepares you more thoroughly for dead-serious big-game hunting as well as small game. It sharpens your eye, instills patience, helps you become intimately familiar with your hunting setup, and just might open doors to a new deer or turkey hunting spot. Many small-game critters taste really fine, too! And besides, during these off-season months, what else have you got to do? Archery league? Not for me. Call me bloodthirsty, but make mine small game!