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Mixed bag of winter: Tis the season for a bounty of game
11/30/2020 9:56:06 AM
By MDWFP

Cold weather, holiday gatherings, and favorite hunting seasons make winter a greatly anticipated time. For many of us, the opportunity to go afield in pursuit of a mixed bag of game is deeply cherished. Further, these seasons offer great opportunities to introduce someone to hunting or spending time with a loyal canine companion.

In Mississippi, we are fortunate to have great public lands that are rich with wildlife.  Whether anticipating a quail covey rise, listening to the howl of beagles chasing a rabbit, or tipping through the hardwoods for a limit of squirrels, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ (MDWFP) Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) offer it all. This winter, we hope you will explore the opportunities.

Rabbit

Species status

Mississippi is home to two types of rabbits: the Eastern cottontail (an agile and adaptive little bundle, often called a “hillbilly”) and the Swamp rabbit or Cane-cutter (larger, more secluded, and challenging). The two share some habitat preferences and both will run in circles at the sound of beagles in pursuit. While they are different, both are exciting to hunt and welcomed in the bag.

Habitat

Rabbits favor dense cover. Mississippi WMAs have plenty of places where rabbits can feel secure, where briars, weeds, bushes, and the like have flourished.

Hunting considerations

A scrappy pack of beagles is the top choice of rabbit-hound hunters. Some even use mixed breed dogs with a propensity for trailing small game. Hunters typically stand along lanes or openings and wait for the dogs to jump the rabbits from cover. As the rabbits race to safety, the hunters are offered a quick shot. Kicking brush piles is another way to flush a rabbit. Often a stroll through the woods will offer opportunities to jump rabbits. Seldom do these run far before stopping, thus offering a hunter a shot.

WMA Spotlight

Charles Ray Nix, Black Prairie, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) areas. Charles Ray Nix and Black Prairie WMA are both managed for early successional habitat that is beneficial to rabbits. A primary management tool used is prescribed fire, which promotes native grasses, shrubs, briars, and beneficial food plants. These WMAs experience some of the best rabbit hunting in the state.

Small game hunting is in the fabric of our American hunting heritage. It has taken a backseat to the lure of antlers and spurs over the years, but there is a new generation of hunters joining the ranks and small game hunting is an easy entry point. 

Quail and Woodcock

Species status

A thriving population of bobwhite quail was once common in Mississippi. Loss of habitat has been the primary culprit in the quail’s demise, along with increased predation by a host of enemies. However, active habitat management on WMAs has resulted in huntable populations across the state. The winter migration of woodcock allow wing-shooting enthusiasts an added thrill.

Habitat

During fall and early winter, areas of forb and grass cover (e.g. edges of old fields) provide beneficial food and cover for quail coveys. In late winter, cover and food resources decrease so birds seek out more dense cover such as plum thickets or briar patches. The long-billed woodcock are frequently found in wetter areas where the ground is soft and they can seek and find worms.

Hunting considerations

Trailing behind a graceful pointing dog can be a rewarding time. However, it is better to be behind one that is properly trained. Quail tend to be found in coveys, but can separate following a flush. Hunters can mark “singles” and then follow up with the bird dog for another chance at a shot. Woodcock are found individually and  fly erratically when first flushed, making them tough to hit. A good strategy is to wait until the woodcock’s flight is stabilized before shooting.

WMA spotlight

Copiah County, Marion County. While there is no doubt private lands are the key to achieving any wide-ranging success with bobwhite recovery, MDWFP has emphasized quail habitat on some of its public WMAs. Areas such as Copiah County and Marion County have active timber management and frequent prescribed burning. These practices provide suitable habitat for bobwhites and other small game such as rabbits. Hunters can have a great day afield chasing quail and woodcock on these and other WMAs.

Squirrel

Species status

Two species of squirrels are found in Mississippi: Eastern Gray and Fox. Both species are found throughout the state, but gray squirrels are the most widely distributed and numerous. Gray squirrels, as the name implies, are predominately gray, but grizzled with red, black, and white hair. They are sometimes referred to as “cat” squirrels. The Bachman or “Hill Country” fox squirrels inhabit more open, upland areas throughout the state. The fox squirrel’s body is a combination of black, brown, and orange, with a black mask and white colorations on the nose, ears, and paws. The Delta fox squirrel is limited to the Delta and its fringes. It has both a solid black and rusty red color phase, lacks a mask or white colorations, and is slightly smaller than the more upland subspecies.

Habitat

Both squirrel species eat a variety of plants, fungi, nuts, seeds, and fruits (mast) from numerous trees. Oak, hickory, beech, pecan, and black walnut mast are highly desirable squirrel foods. Pine seed is also an important squirrel food, especially when acorns and other hardwood mast are scarce. Fruits of black and tupelo gums, dogwood, black cherry, wild plums, mulberry, and paw-paw are also highly desirable. Larger tracts of mature hardwood and mixed pine-hardwood forests will typically support more gray squirrels than forests comprised predominately of pines. Long-leaf pine forests can provide good habitat for the Bachman fox squirrel. Longleaf pine seed is an important food resource when available, and the fox squirrel is adept at manipulating the large, longleaf pine cones. Delta fox squirrels primarily use mature hardwood forests or woodlots in that region.

Hunting considerations

Squirrel hunting with a dog is a traditional method that keeps a strong following. The social aspect of squirrel hunting is enhanced when a dog is doing most of the work. Hunters have a chance to chat and enjoy the sights in the woods. Once a squirrel has been treed, two or three hunters can surround the tree and have a better chance at spotting their prey. This simple sport is a fantastic means of introducing a new hunter to outdoor activities. However, opportunities abound for the hunter desiring a quiet stalk in the hardwoods.

WMA Spotlight

O’Keefe, Pascagoula. Many of the 55 WMAs across the state offer excellent squirrel hunting. Some of these, such as O’Keefe and Pascagoula, are large contiguous blocks of predominately bottomland hardwood systems that provide preferred squirrel habitat. In 2011, MDWFP initiated a new ecologically based timber harvest program that optimizes wildlife habitat and promotes healthy forests. Native wildlife populations have in-creased because of increased food and cover availability in bottomland forests.

Waterfowl

Species status

As the relatively cooler weather returns, migratory waterfowl will once again make their way into Mississippi. The state is rich with an abundance of diverse, quality waterfowl habitat, and hunters should investigate public waterfowl hunting opportunities around the state, particularly in the Delta.

Habitat

Ducks use different wetland types for roosting, loafing, and foraging throughout the day. Furthermore, different species of ducks use structurally different habitats based on food preferences and foraging strategies for that species. For example, mallards generally like broken-up habitat with a lot of interspersed or scattered vegetation, whereas pintails typically like more open, shallow habitat with less standing vegetation.

Hunting considerations

Be sure to check the specific regulations ahead of time for the public area you plan to hunt, as regulations vary from area to area. All migratory game bird hunters must possess a current Mississippi hunting license (Small Game, All Game, or Sportsman), complete with Harvest Information Program (HIP) certification. HIP certification is required for hunting all migratory game birds, and must be completed in each state you hunt. If you are pursuing any waterfowl, you must also possess a state and federal waterfowl stamp.

WMA Spotlight

Malmaison, Sunflower. MDWFP manages and maintains a diversity of WMAs across the state with more than half of them providing some form of public waterfowl hunting opportunities. Multiple WMAs are managed specifically for waterfowl and have approximately 16,000 acres of wetland habitat.

MDWFP operates 55 WMAs across the state, with all offering public hunting opportunities. For more information on hunting and WMAs visit mdwfp.com.

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