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Late-season hunting often pays off

Most hunters hunt only early in the season. Some are in the woods and fields opening weekend and that's it. Others are good for a couple of weeks. Still others will hunt the first half of the season, and then gradually quit.

There are a few diehards like me who stick it out until the last day. For us who do, we find a completely different kind of hunting experience — game behaves differently, and habitat conditions are vastly different.

Hunting success varies, too. Opening day success is usually good, decreasing as the season progresses until it hits a slump about mid-season.

That slump generally holds until near the very end — but toward the season's end, success almost always — picks back up. In fact, final days can be very good. I have made it a practice for years to try to hunt the last day every year.

Why do hunters quit before the season's over? First, I think most just get tired of it. After a few days of getting up at 4 a.m. or earlier the energy level and pursuit instinct tend to wane. Add to that, freezing weather and a complaining spouse — and well — that warm, comfortable bed just seems to put a stranglehold on their ambition.

There's less game later in the season, too. Hunters are part of the reason, but nature takes a bigger toll — much bigger. Other predators take some of the fall bounty, but when game numbers get scarce, wild predators simply shift their effort to mice, songbirds, and other more abundant, easier-to-find critters.

The biggest reason for less game in late winter is less available food. What fall foods aren't eaten often rot or are covered under snow and ice.

Some animals, like black bears and groundhogs seem to say, “to heck with it — I'm going to sleep until things get better.” Others whose biological clocks don't afford them that luxury adapt in other ways. Some load up with fat during fall food abundance and gradually burn it off during food shortages. If fall foods aren't plentiful, they don't put on enough fat, and they may die before the winter is over.

Another adaptation for animals in late winter is to concentrate around a food source. Deer, for example, concentrate in “deer yards” up north, usually in an area of low quality coniferous browse. These deer yards are often traditional places, where their ancestors gathered, and deer will starve to death rather than move to another area with more food.

Deer in the south don't yard in the traditional sense, but will nevertheless still concentrate around a food source. Cornfields, livestock feed troughs, and other grain sources are a good example.

But in areas of big woods with no grain, honeysuckle patches are a favorite late-winter food source. Not only does such a place provide food, but a place to hide as well — a welcome place for hunter-weary deer.

Rabbits concentrate in honeysuckle patches too. A University of Tennessee radio-telemetry study in the 1970s found large concentrations of rabbits in such patches.

Still another adaptation for late winter survival is to move less and thus conserve energy. Concentration around food sources when food is scarce is one way to expend less energy. But even in situations where there is no concentrated food, many animals just seem to move less. Perhaps it's due to lower metabolism, a biological factor — or maybe they don't feel like moving as much because they don't have the energy.

I squirrel hunt with dogs in late winter — the leaves are off then and a treed squirrel is easier to see. I wait until deer season is over for three reasons. First, I don't want to interfere with deer hunters. Second, I don't want me or my dogs to be mistaken for deer — and third, nobody else is out there, and the woods are quiet and peaceful.

Late winter squirrel hunting is a boom or bust affair. Success on some days is good, on some it's average and on others — well, I get a lot of exercise and relaxation and that's about it.

If you ask me to predict on which days success will be good, I can't. As a general rule, on really cold days squirrels seem to hang close to den trees, and even if treed, they quickly retreat to the den. But that rule of thumb isn't always dependable. Some late winter days, squirrels just don't move much at all.

Often I squirrel hunt in places where, earlier in the fall while deer hunting, I would see a dozen or more squirrels around my deer stand. Yet on returning with my dog a month or two later, we often can't find a squirrel. Did they move, or are they denned up?

A couple of years ago, I went with one friend on a three hour morning trip, and we killed one. Three days later, another friend, his son, and I hunted the same route in the afternoon and killed seven. It was the same route, different time of day.

Speaking of time of day, in late winter, I have killed squirrels with a dog every hour of the day, but just before dark is always best, and early mornings are next best.

Several years ago, I took Penny out early one morning — crusty snow on the ground and the temperature was about seven degrees.

As we entered the woods, Penny looked at me as if to say, “boss, you've got to be kidding.” She was right, we didn't find a squirrel until about 10 a.m. Suddenly, I noticed Penny watching a tree intently with her head cocked sideways.

I looked to see a full ear of corn (with shuck) inching its way up a gnarly old oak.

As I eased around the tree, the big fox squirrel stopped long enough for me to line up the sights of my little single-shot Sevens. I was relieved. I had finally restored a little of my dog's lost confidence in my sanity — for the moment anyway!

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