Your deer license and pheasant stamp expired on Dec. 31, but that small game license in your wallet is still valid. In fact, for some small game enthusiasts the best two months of hunting are January and February.
Rabbit and squirrel seasons both run through the end of February. Cold weather keeps many hunters out of the woods, but the late season can provide the hottest action of the year for these often-overlooked small game species.
A Minnesota resident small game license costs $20 for hunters age 18 to 64, $13.50 for hunters age 16, 17 and 65 and over, and is not required for hunters under age 16. Hunters age 13 and younger are not required to have a Firearms Safety Certificate when they hunt small game while accompanied by a parent or guardian. The daily limit for rabbits is 10, and for squirrels it's seven. Possession limits are twice the daily limit.
Finding places to hunt small game is easier than you might think. While squirrels are most closely associated with oaks, the versatile tree squirrels of Minnesota can be found in most deciduous forests in the state, including on public lands where they do not receive the same hunting pressure as some of the flashier game species. Information on public lands in Minnesota can be found on the DNR's on-line Recreation Compass, or in the Public Recreation Information Maps available from the Minnesota Bookstore and many sporting goods vendors. Go to www.dnr.state.mn.us for more information.
Private land is another good option. Landowners who may be protective of their resident deer population are more likely to grant access to a parent and child out for an afternoon of small game hunting. Farmers with corncribs or standing corn are often happy to have hunters trimming the local squirrel population. Hunters who are polite and ask permission will probably get access to some great hunting locations this time of year, and building relationships with landowners now can lead to other opportunities in the future.
Finding a squirrel hunting location in January and February is well worth the effort. According to Dr. Evan Hazard in his book Mammals of Minnesota, gray and fox squirrels start their breeding cycles in late January. Mating chases mark this period, and hunters who take advantage of the squirrel rut can find tremendous action.
Ryan Bronson, DNR hunter recruitment and retention coordinator, said treeing multiple squirrels during this period is fairly common. Often, several males will be pursuing one estrous female, giving the hunter an opportunity to bag several squirrels in short order.
"Going out on a relatively warm sunny day in January or February to hunt rutting squirrels is a tremendous opportunity," Bronson said. "I don't think many hunters realize what they're missing."
Introducing young hunters to the sport is a priority for Bronson. He maintains that squirrel and rabbit hunting are one of the best tools to accomplish that mission.
"We're competing against video-games for kids interest, where in the span of an hour they can experience nearly non-stop action," Bronson said. "The squirrel woods are one of the few hunting opportunities where hunters can go out for an hour or two and realistically expect some consistent action."
But Bronson emphasizes that squirrel hunting isn't just for kids. The opportunity to expand the hunting season for adults, develop woodsmanship skills and do off-season scouting are all benefits of late season squirrel and rabbit hunting. Plus, small game provides excellent table-fare.
Recent surveys indicate small game hunting, particularly squirrel hunting, may be gaining in popularity. DNR data on hunting participation found that approximately 29,000 licensed hunters pursued squirrels in 2003-2004, an increase from 25,000 the previous season. These numbers don't account for youth hunters, who are not required to purchase a license.
Small game hunting is open daily from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset through Feb. 28.
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