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Small-game hunting not what it used to be

The traditional fall small-game seasons will get underway next Saturday with the opening of the squirrel, rabbit and grouse seasons statewide.

Pheasant season will begin a week later on Saturday, October 26. All the seasons for these popular species have been extended in recent years, including the two weeks or so between the end the regular deer season and Christmas.

And the after-Christmas seasons for squirrels, rabbits and pheasants now run until the end of February. But even with those expanded hunting opportunities, participation in hunting for most species of small game has declined as much as 80 percent for the last 25 years or so.

During the early years of my hunting career, my hunting buddies and I looked forward to the opening of small-game hunting with the same anticipation as deer season.

The memories of bagging my first pheasant, grouse and rabbit are still as fond and vivid to me as the morning I shot my first buck. And some of my most lasting and cherished hunting memories are struggling struggled through a favorite grouse cover, watched the flush a ring-neck from behind a pair of bird dogs or kicked a bunny from a fencerow, all shared with some great hunting partners. Hunting small game was always more fun with a good friend or two.

Small-game hunting was also one of the best ways to introduce young hunters to the sport of hunting. A day tramping the fields and forests for birds or bunnies can be an engrossing social experience that allows young hunters to learn and bond with their mentors.

When hunting small game with one or more partners, everyone works in concert to work the cover and flush game. Most of the time, everyone is within sight of one another and will at least be able to watch other members of the hunting party when they have shooting opportunities. Everyone in the party is involved regardless if he is the one who actually makes the shot or not.

There are any number of reasons for the decline in the numbers of small-game hunters over the past generation. Loss of habitat and access to once productive fields and fencerows is another impediment to the quality of small-game hunting currently.

Several of of my favorite hunting places for small game have been devoured years ago by housing developments or an on-ramp for I-99. Archery hunting for deer with its six-week fall season has become wildly popular and consumes the attention of many hunters nowadays who chose sitting in a tree stand during October waiting for a chance at a nice buck rather than beating the brush for birds or bunnies. That also brings up the fact that small-game hunting can often be hard work that requires a lot of walking around or through all sorts of cover.

That idea might irritate some folks, but it seems to me that quite a few hunters nowadays are unwilling to make that kind of effort and are much more inclined to favor a more sedentary hunting style that can be employed for deer or turkeys.

Of course, one of the overriding factors in the declining participation for small-game hunting is the unfortunate overall decline in the populations of most of our popular small-game species. Even the most dedicated hunter must begin to question the amount and time and effort spent afield for what has become very little potential return. I also believe the lack of small-game hunting opportunities has contributed greatly to the recruitment and retention of hunters here in Pennsylvania.

Ruffed grouse thrive in heavy cover that makes these fast-flying gamebirds a challenge to even a seasoned wing-shooter. Grouse populations have always been cyclical to some extent, but these great gamebirds seemed to become scarcer for the past decade or two.

Recent research has now revealed that West Nile virus is taking a toll on our state bird. Wild pheasants are now all but a memory in Pennsylvania and have been for more than a generation now. I feel fortunate to have experienced the twilight of wild birds in the southeastern part of the state during the late 1970s and early 1980s. That was truly incredible.

I truly feel sorry for the younger folks who never had the chance to experience what it was like to hunt wild pheasants and probably never will. Even rabbits don’t seem to be near as plentiful in any of the places where I started my hunting career. Back then, it seemed like I could kick out a bunny or two almost every afternoon, even without a dog.

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