For most hunters the fall is their favorite time of year. The first biting frosts of the year glisten on the brilliant foliage above our heads and as we take it all in, a fervent desire to hunt takes hold. We love the autumn as it’s a time of plenty. In fact the only bad thing about the fall is that it has to end, leaving hunters with a cold, gray, wet ball of despair in the woods and in their hearts. While this feeling lessens throughout the year as spring approaches, the early winter is the worst for us as we put our guns and hunting clothes away for the season. Yet for the savvy and, frankly, addicted hunter, all hope is not lost. There are actually many winter hunting opportunities for those willing to brave the elements.
The thing about winter hunting is the challenge: Winter is a time for survival, when every creature found in the forests and fields is in a frantic scramble to find food and avoid becoming food. Animals become especially wary during this time of year, and so the hunter must be especially clever to be successful. What’s more, the elements can be extreme, so all of your equipment, from your clothing to your weapons, need to be adjusted and adapted to whatever conditions you may face. Although most traditional hunting seasons take place between September and November, winter hunting opportunities exist in almost every state in the country. Whether you prefer big game, small game, waterfowl, or upland birds, there are chances to extend your season no matter where you live.
Small-game hunting during the winter can be the most productive of the year. Animals like rabbits, hares, and squirrels become frantic in the early-mid winter, often moving continuously throughout the day in search of food. They tend to be most active in the late afternoons, the warmest part of the day. So for hunters who enjoy sleeping in a bit they are a perfect pursuit. For squirrels, look in areas with plentiful food supplies: Cruise hardwood ridges with nut-bearing trees such as oaks and beeches. Search for food caches in these areas. They will appear as small holes in the ground where squirrels store their winter feed. Once you find these, have a seat and wait for your prey to come along. Rabbits and hares are similar to squirrels in that they move most often during the late afternoon. Unlike squirrels, however, hunting rabbits in the winter requires a lot of movement. Search for paths in the snow, as rabbits will often use the same routes throughout the day. Walk them slowly and remain observant. Pay close attention to areas of thicker brush or high grass where rabbits will retreat when they hear you coming.
Bird hunting in the winter is incredibly fun. Game birds such as grouse and pheasant remain active in the winter months and can often be tracked throughout areas with a lot of snow. Pay attention to the trees when searching for birds, as most prefer to nest and roost in lower branches rather than in the snow. Ducks and geese in the winter are a different challenge entirely. Although most of the birds will travel south in the autumn, there will be some late travelers or even large flocks that overwinter in areas with good feed and open water. Search for them in places with open water, such as rivers with strong currents that don’t freeze or marshes with groundwater springs. Your best bet for success is to try jump-shooting birds from the shore or a boat. Ducks and geese have limited movement in the cold months so waiting in a blind for them is often a fruitless venture.
Hunting big-game animals in the winter is a touchy subject. After the long fall hunting season, one where they’ve been pursued by hunters constantly, animals like deer, elk, and moose are on edge and extremely difficult to approach. What’s more, with the rut over and food becoming scarce, the animals tend to herd up, making for a lot of eyes, ears, and noses hunters need to fool or evade. The key to hunting big-game animals in the winter is movement. Deer, elk, and moose will gather in small areas with plentiful food called “yards.” To find these yards, hunters have to cover a lot of ground, following trails and looking for spots where animals are gathered. Approach yarded herds slowly and carefully, and make sure that your target is clear from the others around it before taking a shot.
In all cases of winter hunting, it is essential to check the legality of hunting the game you’re after before ever setting foot in the woods. Most states have late-season primitive weapons opportunities for big-game animals, and in the case of western states there are “shoulder seasons” that allow winter hunting opportunities in specific regions where big-game animals are overpopulated. Many states permit small-game hunting year-round and have long gamebird and waterfowl seasons. Still, it is important to know your state laws and limits before any winter hunting venture.
As long as it’s legal, winter hunting can present some of the most thrilling days in the woods a hunter can have. Hunting season never truly ends for those who love the woods.