Next Saturday ushers in the first wave of the small-game seasons here in Pennsylvania as hunters will head to the woods in pursuit of squirrels and grouse. In general, participation in small-game hunting has declined noticeably over the past 25 years or so, but each of these forest-dwelling species continues to attract their share of hunters each year.
Squirrels are often regarded as an "entry level" species because many first-time hunters are introduced to the sport by bagging a few squirrels. First, squirrels are not difficult to find. Almost any woodlot that includes a few oak or hickory trees will be likely to harbor an ample number of bushytails. Squirrels are typically quite active during the fall, diligently caching away nuts and other food items for the upcoming lean days of winter. Pick a comfortable spot in the squirrel woods and sit still. It usually won't be long before a squirrel or two makes an appearance.
The youth squirrel season began yesterday and runs through this Friday. Hunters from 12 to 16 who have completed a Hunter-Trapper Education course and are accompanied by an adult can participate in this special hunt and no hunting license is required. Kids under 12 are also eligible to participate in the youth squirrel hunt under the Mentored Youth Hunting Program.
My personal preference for hunting squirrels is with an accurate-shooting .22 or .17 HMR rifle topped with a good scope. With such a rig, I enjoy still-hunting many of the same spots where I also hunt deer, which allows me to do a little preseason deer scouting and bag a few squirrels in the process. The rifle-shooting practice is also a worthwhile tune-up for deer season as well.
Game Commission sources generally rate the northwest and northcentral regions of the state as the best areas for grouse right now. Here in the southcentral region, the overall outlook for grouse is rated as fair.
"Conditions for over-wintering, incubating and brooding should have supported good reproduction this year," said Lisa Williams, Game Commission grouse and woodcock biologist. "However, our Game Commission field staff observed fewer adult grouse and grouse broods this summer compared to prior years. Those sightings are often the best predictor of the season, so I advise hunters to hope for the best but keep their expectations realistic. Find areas of good dense cover and abundant food supply and you'll put yourself in the best position for success."
Of course, most experienced grouse hunters know there are always a few spots that seem to attract or hold a few birds even in lean years. Such special grouse covers have usually been discovered over the course of many seasons and represent countless hours of tramping about the ridges and hollows each fall. As you might suspect, such grouse hotspots justifiably will be closely guarded secrets, so if a grouse fanatic offers to share one of his favorite covers with you, realize how special that is.
In spite of the less-than-optimistic forecasts for grouse hunting this season, one thing grouse hunters have going for them now is much less competition from other hunters compared to just a couple of decades ago. According to Game Commission estimates, Pennsylvania had about 400,000 grouse hunters during the mid-1980s; currently, that number is now just 80,000.
The Game Commission has conducted a Grouse Cooperator Survey for many years using volunteer grouse and woodcock hunters to monitor such things as hunter effort, flush rates and number of birds bagged. The data provided by the survey participants helps the agency to examine population trends and other vital information about these game birds. Grouse and woodcock hunters of all skill levels are encouraged to participate in the survey regardless of how many days they hunt grouse or woodcock during the season. Participating hunters will be asked to record the county and number of hours hunted, and number of grouse and woodcock flushed and bagged.
If you are interested in participating in the Grouse Cooperator Survey, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Bureau of Wildlife Management at 717-787-5529, or by writing to: Pennsylvania Game Commission, ATTN: Grouse Cooperator Survey, 2001 Elmerton Ave., Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797. New Cooperators will receive a copy of the annual newsletter provided to all survey participants and all forms needed for the upcoming season.