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Hunters: Find the Food, Find the Game


It's going to be a difficult hunting season for the same reason deer are going to have a difficult winter: food is scarce. That's the main point in this year's hunting season cover story in the Jamestown Gazette. Whatever you're hunting, find the food and your odds of success go way up. Click here to read "Find the Food, Find the Game" in the Jamestown Gazette.


Photo: The area’s waterways abound in waterfowl. Here, a few female mergansers float by a mallard drake and hen. (Steve Sorensen photo)


Photo (below): When it comes to squirrels in the woods, it’s feast or famine. You’ll find squirrels where squirrels find food. (Steve Sorensen photo) .


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To access more of my writing on hunting topics, go to the home page of my blog, Mission: Hunter.


Hunters: Find the Food, Find the Game

Steve Sorensen

In years when forests offer plenty of food, hunters get excited. In years when the woods don’t produce much food for wildlife, hunters are at a loss. This may be one of those years, but if you put in the effort you can be successful.


For the second consecutive year oak trees are barren of acorns. Red oak, white oak, it doesn’t matter. Last year’s gypsy moth infestation apparently sapped the trees of enough energy to nullify the acorn crop in our region for a second year. That means the wildlife that depends on it won’t be easy to find. (Sorry, the word “gypsy” is now on the lingua non grata list, so we need to get used to calling them “spongy” moths.)


Squirrels – You might see plenty of squirrels in your yard, but they might be scarce in the woods. Squirrel hunting is a great way to introduce new hunters to the sport, so the fact that they are hard to find this year has a two-fold effect. Seasoned hunters are eating less squirrel pot pie, and fewer new hunters are finding enough success to generate interest in hunting.


Squirrel hunters benefit from a leisurely style of hunting. Get into an area where bushytails are feeding, and sit. In a good year, a hunter can limit out in a few acres. When the hunt is over, a half dozen in your game bag adds only a few pounds, which means an effortless stroll back to your truck. This year, you’ll work harder for squirrels. The perimeters of cut cornfields would be worth checking and hickory groves, though scarce, seem to be the most likely nut producer.


Rabbits – Hunters of my generation cut our hunting cuspids on rabbits. A rabbit hound was a plus, but not a prerequisite. Stomping on brush piles often sent a scared bunny off to some other cover, usually offering a shot from the scattergun.


Today’s farming practices have changed much of that. Fifty years ago, most farm fields had wide hedgerows separating them. This is where farmers of earlier generations stacked rocks that dulled and damaged their plows. Brush grew up there and provided cover for rabbits and birds. Walking the edges of hedgerows often pushed out a cottontail. Today these game-rich hedgerows have decreased in size to increase the farmers’ arable land. Can’t blame farmers for being economically efficient, but modern farming practices have altered small game habitat.


Rabbits thrive in habitat residential neighborhoods provide, so look for similar habitat with grasses, berries, shrubs, and scattered cover. A beagle is a greater asset to the rabbit hunter than it has ever been.


Upland Birds – Ringnecks don’t do well over winter in our region. One reason is that these captive-raised birds are highly vulnerable to predators. Those that survive the winter don’t often produce surviving offspring because they have little defense against airborne predators. It’s not just hawks; crows can devastate a brood of ringneck peeps.


Ruffed grouse are a different story. Populations of these wild, rugged and adaptable birds rise and fall in cycles and are highly dependent on young trees for survival. Aspens are a primary food source in winter as grouse feed on the buds waiting to open in the spring. You’ll often find good grouse habitat along forest roads.


Waterfowl – Since waterfowl is migratory, their food sources are steadier. The trick is to be there when they pass through. You’ll probably find them at the same stopping-off places from year to year. Shorelines of rivers, streams and swamps are good bets before ice. Canada geese will likely land near waterways, especially if they’re not far from cut cornfields. Get there early and make yourself invisible from above.


Turkeys – Fall turkey hunting is a completely different game than spring turkey hunting. In the spring, gobblers announce where they are. In the fall they’re far less vocal, and you’ll need to burn boot leather to find them. While males are the only legal targets in spring, any bird is legal in the fall.


This year’s absence of acorns is a challenge to turkey hunters. Hunting them is a game of miles because it’s difficult to know where they’re feeding or what they’re feeding on. The ones I’ve found are eating seeds from the tips of grasses and scratching the ground for the roots of grasses and other plants. You might find these food sources anywhere, or nowhere at all.


Some turkeys stay close to roads where they can pick up grit from the berms. The grit goes into their gizzards which function as grinding stations for their food. If you see turkeys near roads, be assured other hunters see them too, and you’ll need permission to hunt them where the land is privately owned.


A young flock will be either the survivors of a single hen’s brood, or a larger group of combined broods with two, three or four leading hens. Most hunters succeed by finding a flock and scattering them in every direction. Then sit down to call one back to the shotgun. Young birds are anxious to rejoin the flock, so they come willingly to the call after a good scatter. Mature gobblers are much less lonesome.


Bears – Bear hunting is another game of miles. If you aren’t walking, someone else is and they may push one to you. Drives are popular during the main Pennsylvania season, and in New York they’re legal game in the southern tier during the firearms season for deer.


Bears are putting on fat for winter’s hibernation so they need a lot of food. In years when acorns are plentiful, packing on the fat is easy. Since that layer of fat probably won’t come from acorns this year, they may stay out of the den and forage longer, offering hunters more opportunity.


Deer – Finally, the game animal that drives wildlife funding and the hunting industry. I say that not because it’s the species I’m most interested in, but because deer hunters finance the lion’s share of wildlife in North America. This year deer are not scarce at all, but it might be difficult to find them where you hunt.


Drive the rural roads and you’ll see plenty of deer in fields. They’re feeding on grass because open timber has produced little food this year. Deer are likely to be near farms, residential areas, and recent timber cuttings where the tips of new growth provide nourishment and will sustain them through the winter. In years like this, deer often congregate in lowlands where cover is thick, and browse is more varied and abundant.


Wherever and whatever you hunt, hunting season is a rush in two senses. First, the excitement of a year-long wait is rising to a crescendo, and second because it will be over before you know it. Capitalize on the short daylight hours for scouting and sighting in, and spend a few evenings getting your gear ready. Watch the forecast; it will determine what you should wear.


Hunting season is a traditional memory maker, so share it with committed friends or a newbie. Another person or two will make the experience richer, and safer. And as you hit the area’s woodlands, be mindful of hunting ethics, and of what’s behind your target.

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When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com.