In case you haven’t noticed, it’s cold outside. We have been spoiled somewhat this winter thus far, but now it is our turn to watch the mercury drop in the back-porch thermometer. For those who choose to live the outdoor lifestyle, living the sporting life can be a touch tricky this time of year. Sure, we can perform wintertime maintenance to our equipment like oiling our rifles or respooling our fishing reels, but that will only take you so far on a Saturday afternoon. Getting lost in a good book can help, especially a collection of turkey hunting tales, tactics and techniques — but again, that can only tamp down your outdoor appetite for so long.
Or, if you are like me, the best way to keep cabin fever out of your life is to simply get out and do it — no matter what the weather forecast states. If you need an excuse to get out of the house to take a walk, a hike or a stroll, may I suggest you do so with hunting license in your pocket and shotgun in your hand. Pick a place in your hunting ground collection of lands you have permission to hunt that might just hold a squirrel, rabbit or grouse or two.
To give you some motivation and some education on the hunting outlook on these species, I turned to the experts at our Division of Natural Resources for guidance through flipping through the pages of their 2019 West Virginia Mast Survey and Hunting Outlook. Here is what they had to say.
Cottontail Rabbits — Hunters should experience lower harvests in 2019-2020. We experienced good growing conditions throughout July and August. However, September has been brutal on rabbit habitat. Elkins and Charleston experienced 0.00” and 0.09” of rain between Sept. 1 and Sept. 22. Vegetation really dried up and has limited cover for cottontails at this time. Hopefully we will get a good soaking soon and may get some growth before the end of the growing season. In addition, West Virginia is a very forested state and needs younger habitat to ensure good bunny hunting.
Gray and Fox Squirrels — Hunters should expect higher harvests for the 2019-2020 season. The factor influencing squirrel numbers more than any other is the hard mast production in the previous year. Squirrels usually produce a summer litter, but the spring litter is dependent upon overwinter food availability. In 2018, good hickory and white oak production produced favorable conditions toward spring litters. Hickory and white oak production throughout the state is lower than last year. However, red and black oak production is significantly higher. Hunters wishing to fill a limit should find this season to be exciting.
Ruffed Grouse — Hunters should expect lower hourly flushing rates and lower grouse harvest statewide during the 2019-2020 hunting season. Grouse populations are strongly influenced by mast conditions, brood production and overwinter survival; production and survival are largely predicated upon quality and quantity of habitat. Grouse require young forest growth and dense understory cover for optimum brood production and adult survival. The decline of timber management in the state since the 1990s and the maturation of young forest stands that were created by previous, extensive timber management actions has likely driven a decline in grouse abundance and production within the last decade. Decreasing availability of young forest cover in West Virginia has had a pronounced affect on grouse populations and populations of many other young forest obligate wildlife species, including Appalachian cottontail, golden-winged warbler and others. Healthy forest stands should feature a diversity of cover types in a mosaic of multi-tiered vegetative structure, but most forests in West Virginia are currently closed-canopy, mid- to late-successional; as such, they offer little cover diversity grouse require for population growth. While an increase in timber management on public lands — state forests, wildlife management areas and 15 national forest lands — may provide some habitat for young forest obligate and young forest associated species, increased timber management on private lands across the state presents the sole hope for sustaining these species into the future. Statewide bird surveys indicate grouse populations continue to decline steadily.
All these seasons are open until the end of February.