In 2019 I spent fewer days far afield, in the wilderness and on big destination hunts, than any year since I started hunting. Nights in a tent backpacking while hunting were in single digits, which is a drastic reduction. When I’ve written these year in hunting posts in the past my predominant recent conclusion has been to favor quality, by which I’ve meant big remote keystone trips, over quantity. This year that just didn’t happen. Or rather, I chose to prioritize non-hunting big trips. Isle Royale took the late September place of a week chasing elk in the Bob, and a week in Utah over Thanksgiving took the place of prime mule deer rut hunting. Fortunately, the quality and variety of hunting within a 30 minute drive of our front door is fantastic, and being able to have a relative few, quality and intense days chasing elk and deer, with minimal driving, made it a big game hunting season to remember right along with any other.
What I did do a lot of in 2019 was go squirrel and small game hunting. Rightfully or otherwise, all squirrels, rabbits, and hares are in Montana classified as non-game species, meaning one can hunt them any day of the year. This is convenient, especially in the eyes of a four year old who routinely requests episodes of Meat Eater, loves to shoot stumps and imaginary deer with his little fiberglass bow, and struggles to walk fast up big hills in the snow and cold. The pace of small game hunting is a better fit, as is the regularity of the practice. My primary hunting goal for 2020 is to no longer have much of a hunting season, and for it to rather be a regular, weekly practice.
Hunting is a curious thing generally, in that so much time and energy can be put into preparation for so few days actually doing it. Between spring bear and turkey, elk shoulder seasons, and the generous regular fall big game seasons one could theoretically hunt big game 8 months a year, though half that period is a more realistic prime time. Most states in the west measure far less, to the point where in states like Arizona and Utah a hunter, despite all available planning and dedication, still might have a season in the field measured in weeks, rather than months. This difference in volume makes the analogy between hunting and other potentially opportunity starved outdoor pursuits like skiing, whitewater boating and ice climbing a poor one.
Big game hunting is also in the midst of a crisis of opportunity. It’s not clear that overall hunter numbers are increasing, but the knowledge economy and social media are reshaping what hunting, especially western hunting, will look like for the hard core. While there is more than enough hunter opportunity in the west when taken as a whole, the focus on iconic species like sheep, and on trophy experiences in limited opportunity areas seems certain to continue to make these more and more difficult to attain. All the more reason for me to be grateful about the abundant options available locally, because hunting big critters like elk and bison is just different, and perhaps inherently more profound, than smaller creatures, even deer.
All of that said, hunting is still hunting, which is to say that it is a great and singular way to experience a landscape, as different from the rest as hiking is from mountain biking is from paddling. My project, over the next few years, is to focus on small game hunting, specifically on the more experientially outstanding hunts available in the western US, on not just dedicating time to these, but on better exploring the aesthetic and spiritual things they have to offer. Their is great irony in publicity, especially as an active alternative to big game options, which are expensive and potentially difficult to access precisely because the internet has made them easy to conceptualize and plan. With destination small game hunting this difficulty cannot just be ignored, but like with publicizing a heinous bushwack or a scary backcountry river, the pool of probable applicants blunts the danger of fame.
That said, here is an incomplete list of small game hunts that promise to showcase wild places and creatures. For the sake of discussion the game must be smaller than a turkey, native to the place it will be hunted, and exist well apart from excessively civilized landscapes. They must in short provide as many of the virtues of the destination big game hunt as possible, while being cheaper and more logistically accessible. A cheap or cheapish license and tag, no need for specialized packout gear, and being doable with a ~$150 singleshot shotgun are all great virtues for beginning and experienced hunters alike.
All the (many!) virtues of squirrel hunting, in a particularly outstanding location and with the most unique squirrel species. I finally did this one, and am psyched to go back. Currently an Arizona nonres small game license is $20/day, with a season running from the first Friday in October through the end of the year.
Montana grouse trifecta
There are a number of places west of the Continental Divide in Montana where one might, with proper habitat selection and luck, see spruce, ruffed, and blue grouse in one day without having to drive or even walk enormously far. The current daily bag limit of three grouse allows for exactly zero wiggle room in the ultimate Montana grouse project; shooting one of each species in a single day without traveling by car in between. This is a time consuming project. In years past, when I was able to put a lot of days into walking for grouse, I came close multiple times, shooting each 2x combination in a day at least once, and the most common combo of blue and ruffed in a day on 10 or more occasions. The toughest part of this project is probably holding fire and not prematurely filling ones bag with blues, who seem to hold in family groups further into fall than the other two.
In Montana a nonres upland bird license is $110 or $50 for three days only ($15 general hunting license is needed in either case). Grouse season runs September 1 through December 31.
Down in the Sonora in Arizona they have really big jackrabbits. And the season runs all year. And you can use (almost) whatever weapon you fancy. Top of my list of small games hunts to-do. Same $20/day small game license.
Cheating a bit on this one, as these monster grouse were introduced to the Ruby Mountains back in the 1960s, when the native blue grouse were at a nadir. These birds reportedly live in the true alpine, in one of the prettier mountain ranges in the lower 48. The season is September 1 through November 30, you can shoot only two, and you need a $155 nonres Nevada license and a free Snowcock stamp to do it.
Desert lagomorph slam
In theory there are 3 lagomorphs to be found in the Colorado Plateau; cottontail rabbits, and white and black tailed jackrabbits. Cottontail hunting in mid-elevation desert areas is a blast. Find some moderately ledgy rimrock in the p-j forest and contour around looking close to the base of boulders and small cliffs. Scoped .22 or tight choked 12 or 16 gauge work equally well. In the right spot black tailed jacks can be right nearby in the flats. I’ve never hunted white tails, but in theory one ought to be able to also find them somewhat nearby, at least in certain locations. In Utah, jackrabbits can be hunted year-round without a license, while the cottontail season runs start of September through the end of February, with a nonres hunting license running either $65 a year or $32 for 3 days. Shooting all three in a day would be quite the accomplishment, shooting all in a single 2-4 day trip still difficult. Desert rabbit populations have in my experience been exceptional subject to boom and bust cycles, which makes predicting populations difficult from afar. This slam should be doable in Colorado and Nevada, as well.
Beaver is very tasty meat. Most places getting it requires the labor of running a trapline in the middle of winter. Colorado is weird (ha) and while it outlaws most of the traps traditionally used for beaver, it has a generous season (Oct 1-April 30), unlimited bag, and allows them to be hunted with a centerfire rifle of .23 or smaller caliber. So you can take an autumnal, winter, or spring walk and snipe beaver. Just bring waders or a packraft to guarantee retrieval. I haven’t done this, and intend to some day. Currently $17/day for a nonres, with additional days at $7.
Have to be plenty of other worthy small game adventures out there. What you got?