A couple of years ago, two buddies and I met up to chase cottontail rabbits around on a mild February weekend. It was mostly an effort to stave off cabin fever after a long Minnesota winter and to put a few bunnies in the cooler. As we moved from one chunk of public land to the next, we managed to move enough rabbits to keep things interesting.
One of the spots that we hunted, a huge tract of land that is mostly full of cattails but does have some pockets of higher cover, was full of deer. In one patch of phragmites, we pushed 17 out, which is not nothing when you’re on public dirt.
That one rabbit mission actually changed the arc of my home state hunting for the last two seasons. While I haven’t killed a buck in the cattails there, yet, I did have one of my most exciting deer hunts of the season there. I got close to several bucks, including a really solid 10-pointer, and do you know where he was bedded? In the cats, right next to a vein of plum and dogwood. (Or, right next to a patch of cover we busted through while trying to get a bunny to panic and show itself.)
Small-game hunting isn’t all that popular in a lot of deer hunting circles, but it should be. Most folks won’t winter scout enough to develop a baseline plan on how to find a buck this season, but getting out after rabbits and squirrels a few times can change that. It’s kind of like finding a really good podcast to listen to when you’re trying to stick to your New Year’s resolution to get in shape. Something engaging enough to distract you from the misery and keep you on the treadmill for another mile or the stair climber for another 10 flights.
If you want to find where big bucks live, rabbit hunting is the move. Squirrel hunting is a great wintertime activity, but it’ll keep you in deciduous forests that are more conducive to a spring turkey hunt than an all-day sit during the rut.
But it also doesn’t matter too much because time in the woods is your friend. Too many folks think that putting out some trail cameras and staying out of the woods is the way to kill big deer, but mostly, it’s not. Learning the lay of the land, where the soft edges are, locating subtle ditch crossings, and just getting an advanced look at where deer live is huge.
The key is to pay attention. A few years ago, while toting my .17 around in an attempt to snipe a few bushytails, I dropped into a valley to hike to an oak-covered ridge on a farm I’ve hunted for 25 years. The route I took was different from the route I always take on that property, and I happened to find a series of rubs leading straight down to a pounded crossing. It was located right in the middle of a drainage that I’ve hunted so many times, but always when I was posted at the top or the bottom of it.
That fall, I sat on that crossing during the rut and had a couple of small bucks walk through it like the whole thing was scripted. I didn’t kill a deer there either, but I will. It’s too good of a funnel to not produce at some point.
The thing about small game hunting, aside from the fact that it’s pretty damn fun, is that it helps develop woodsmanship. That vague, long-mostly-lost skill that the hunters of yesteryear supposedly possessed. Squinting into the tree tops to find the fuzzy outline of a squirrel's tail, or wading into a morass of cover to find a rabbit run will both help you be a better deer hunter.
It’s not only about finding spots deer like to spend their time, or where they made some sign last fall, both of which are valuable in their own right. It’s also about going where deer hunters typically don’t go at a time of the year when deer hunters are mostly not in the woods.
If you struggle with motivation when it comes to winter scouting, or you just find yourself needing some time in the woods, small game hunting might be the ticket. At worst, you’ll spend the day sneaking around looking for something to put in the crockpot. At best, you’ll get that and some intel into big bucks.