Winter's Best Game Tips

50 tricks and tactics for small game, upland birds and waterfowl.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Remember that morning when an older relative took you hunting for the first time? Chances are your introduction to the outdoors involved squirrels or rabbits, or perhaps you tagged along on a mallard hunt to a nearby marsh.

Although big game, especially deer, gets top billing today, most hunters cut their teeth on small game, upland birds and waterfowl. Before the deer population exploded to record numbers beginning in the 1970s, dedicated hunters spent their time searching blackberry thickets for rabbits, combing edge cover for ringnecks, easing through quiet woods in search of squirrels or scanning the skies for a flock of incoming ducks.

Many still do. While almost 12 million hunters list big-game hunting as their top choice (according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), 7 million other hunters regard small game and upland birds as their favorite targets. Another 3 million hunters rank waterfowl hunting as the best reason to get out of bed on a winter morning. Although some wildlife populations have declined because of urbanization and changing farm practices, there's still plenty of small game, upland birds and waterfowl available. Thanks in large part to the contributions hunters have made to management programs through excise taxes on hunting equipment sales, and the creation of new federal and state "walk-in" programs that make more hunting land available, upland hunters and waterfowlers can still pursue their favorite game.

In the event you want to revisit the simple pleasures that hooked you on hunting in the first place, we offer the following tips to enhance the experience. Somebody is going to get a bag limit out there; it might as well be you, or that youngster you'll take hunting for the first time.

[pagebreak] Small Game
1:: Small-Game Drives
Hunt rabbits, squirrels and foxes in long strips of cover, such as Midwestern shelterbelts, by using a partner to block their escape. Post one hunter near the far end of cover while the other walks through. Both hunters should wear blaze orange and remain alert to each other's position.

2:: A Pocketful of Acorns
When you enter the woods for a squirrel hunt, pick up a pocketful of acorns or walnuts. If a squirrel insists on playing tree trunk hide-and-seek, you can often win by tossing a nut past the tree to scare the squirrel to your side. Be ready to shoot after you toss.

3:: Whistle While You Hunt
When you jump a cottontail, sound off with a loud, shrill whistle. Sometimes rabbits will freeze in their tracks the moment they hear the whistle, allowing you extra seconds to shoot before the rabbit disappears.

4:: Calling All Coons
Raccoons will often come to a predator call. Hunt early and late near wooded streams or ditches, especially where they approach an open field. Sneak to your setup and use mouse or bird distress sounds. Shots will be short, and a .22 LR or a full-choke 12- or 20-gauge loaded with No. 2 shot will suffice.

5:: Boating for Bushytails
Floating small rivers in a canoe or johnboat is an ideal way to hunt, especially when dry fallen leaves render still-hunting a noisy proposition. Carry a landing net for squirrels that fall in bank-side shallows, and always look for snakes before you step ashore.

6:: When to Field Dress
Remove the intestines of all rabbits and squirrels taken with a shotgun or in warm weather as soon as possible to preserve the quality of the meat. Field dressing is not as critical with head-shot game taken with a rifle or with game taken in cold weather.

7:: Wetter Is Better
You will have an easier time keeping hair off the meat while skinning a squirrel if you thoroughly wet the animal first, then skin it under running water.

8:: The Eyes Have It
Wh still-hunting rabbits, look for their eyes instead of their bodies. A rabbit's round, dark eyes are easily spotted by a hunter who carefully examines all brush and weeds.

10:: Stop and Go
Because they're perpetual prey for many species of carnivores, rabbits have a nervous disposition. Use this to your advantage when stalking them. Enter a covert, walk 10 paces, then stop for 60 seconds. Repeat. The sound of the approach sometimes makes cottontails flush, but it's just as often the silent period that makes them jumpy.

11 :: Hunt From a Stand
Squirrels grow accustomed to permanent box-type stands built for deer hunting and seldom pay much heed to hunters waiting within. For this reason, such stands provide good setup sites later in the season when squirrels hunt for acorns on the ground.

12:: Hit the Fencerows
You don't always need big forests to find squirrels. Bushytails, particularly fox squirrels, love corn and soybeans. Fox squirrels also like to den in isolated trees along a fencerow. Once you've hunted the woods, head down a fencerow adjacent to a cornfield or bean field, and keep watching ahead of you.

13 :: Watch Your Back
Rabbits in isolated cover patches will try to sneak behind hunters rather than cross open ground. Others sit tight until the hunter passes, then squirt out behind. Glancing over your shoulder now and then helps you bag some of these renegades before they escape.

14:: Windy-Day Bushytails
Squirrel hunters hate the wind, if only because it makes squirrels more difficult to detect. If the wind kicks up when you're squirrel hunting, find the biggest stand of oak or hickory nut trees, sit down and get comfortable against a tree and wait. The hungry squirrels that decide to feed despite the wind are most likely to come out of the trees and hunt for acorns and nuts on the ground.

15 :: Protect Your Hands
Disposable rubber gloves reduce the mess of field dressing rabbits and, more important, help a hunter avoid the possibility of contracting tularemia (rabbit fever). When you're finished, pull the gloves off inside out and pocket them for proper disposal. When cleaning small game, use a set of shears instead of a knife to snip off a squirrel's or rabbit's feet and head safely and quickly.

[pagebreak] Waterfowl
16:: When to Call
Savvy duck hunters have a rule: Call only to "tips and tails." In other words, don't call to ducks that are flying toward you. If you can see one wingtip and the tail, however, or both wings and the tail, the duck isn't looking your way and it's safe to blow the call.

17:: Spick-and-Span Decoys
Tire-cleaner solution can make dirty old decoys look as good as new. Hang the decoys on a fence, spray them all over with the cleaner and let them dry overnight.

18 :: Hose Duck Holders
If you're hoping to bag a special duck to be mounted by a taxidermist, carry a leg from a pair of panty hose in your pocket. Rinse any blood from the bird's feathers, then place the duck headfirst in the panty hose leg. This will keep all of its feathers in place so you get a nicer mount.

19 :: Specklebelly Sounds
White-fronted geese, or specklebellies, have a unique call, so it's wise to obtain a recording that teaches the proper sounds to use.

One call to employ is the two-note yodel, made by saying wa-wa, wa-wa... into the call. Both high-pitched and low-pitched yodels are used as a hail call to draw the birds' attention when a distant flock first comes within hearing range. When a flock gets close, switch to the feeding call, which is made by grunting kuluck into the tube over and over again.

20 :: Aim Low
Don't overshoot a duck or goose with its landing gear down. Decoying ducks and geese are losing altitude quickly. Aim below descending waterfowl for a sure shot.

21 :: Stir Things Up
Feeding ducks create a muddy zone in an area of clear water that is easy for ducks flying overhead to spot. It acts as a natural magnet to pull them down for a meal. If you are decoying puddle ducks in a clear-water situation, you'll attract more ducks to your spread by stirring the bottom with your feet to muddy the water.

22 :: Make a Good First Impression
Place your most realistic goose decoys (full bodies, shells and floaters) on the downwind side of your spread near the landing zone, where geese will see them as they approach. Place the least realistic decoys (silhouettes, wind socks and rags) farther from the view of approaching birds.

23 :: Upsize for More Effect
Diving ducks have relatively small wings, so they can't maneuver like puddlers. They must decide whether or not to land while they are still far beyond gun range. For that reason, magnum decoys are standards for many diving duck hunters. They can be seen at twice the distance, and their wide, flat bottoms eliminate roll and pitch-a dead giveaway to today's gun-wise ducks. Also, fewer decoys are necessary to make an attractive set when magnums are used. Three dozen magnums, properly rigged, present more flock attraction than five dozen standard-sized decoys.

24 :: Weatherproof Reeds
Duck and goose call reeds sometimes freeze or stick in frigid weather. Prevent gum-ups by using a product made to bead rain on windshields. A few drops rubbed on the reed with a cloth will make it less likely to stick in the middle of a cold-weather hunt.

25 :: Smudge Camo
Use a wine-bottle cork to camouflage your face for waterfowl hunting. Singe the end of the cork with a lighter or match, then rub the black residue on your face. When you turn your face skyward to follow the flight of ducks or geese, the waterfowl will have a harder time spotting you.

** 26 :: Reel 'Em In**
A telescoping or multipiece fiberglass crappie fishing pole provides an ideal means for raising and working a goose flag or kite, which will help draw the birds' attention to your decoy spread.

**27 :: Homemade Feeding Decoy **
Before there were battery-powered mechanical decoys, hunters used a simple trick to add action to their spreads. Here's how: Run some nylon line from your blind through the eye of a heavy anchor and to a decoy in the center of the spread. Tie the line to an eyescrew screwed into the underside of the decoy's bill. When ducks come into range, a gentle tug on the line causes the decoy to tip up and down like a duck feeding. It's a real magnet, especially when the water is calm.

[pagebreak] **28 :: Easier Plucking **
Plucking fgeese are losing altitude quickly. Aim below descending waterfowl for a sure shot.

21 :: Stir Things Up
Feeding ducks create a muddy zone in an area of clear water that is easy for ducks flying overhead to spot. It acts as a natural magnet to pull them down for a meal. If you are decoying puddle ducks in a clear-water situation, you'll attract more ducks to your spread by stirring the bottom with your feet to muddy the water.

22 :: Make a Good First Impression
Place your most realistic goose decoys (full bodies, shells and floaters) on the downwind side of your spread near the landing zone, where geese will see them as they approach. Place the least realistic decoys (silhouettes, wind socks and rags) farther from the view of approaching birds.

23 :: Upsize for More Effect
Diving ducks have relatively small wings, so they can't maneuver like puddlers. They must decide whether or not to land while they are still far beyond gun range. For that reason, magnum decoys are standards for many diving duck hunters. They can be seen at twice the distance, and their wide, flat bottoms eliminate roll and pitch-a dead giveaway to today's gun-wise ducks. Also, fewer decoys are necessary to make an attractive set when magnums are used. Three dozen magnums, properly rigged, present more flock attraction than five dozen standard-sized decoys.

24 :: Weatherproof Reeds
Duck and goose call reeds sometimes freeze or stick in frigid weather. Prevent gum-ups by using a product made to bead rain on windshields. A few drops rubbed on the reed with a cloth will make it less likely to stick in the middle of a cold-weather hunt.

25 :: Smudge Camo
Use a wine-bottle cork to camouflage your face for waterfowl hunting. Singe the end of the cork with a lighter or match, then rub the black residue on your face. When you turn your face skyward to follow the flight of ducks or geese, the waterfowl will have a harder time spotting you.

** 26 :: Reel 'Em In**
A telescoping or multipiece fiberglass crappie fishing pole provides an ideal means for raising and working a goose flag or kite, which will help draw the birds' attention to your decoy spread.

**27 :: Homemade Feeding Decoy **
Before there were battery-powered mechanical decoys, hunters used a simple trick to add action to their spreads. Here's how: Run some nylon line from your blind through the eye of a heavy anchor and to a decoy in the center of the spread. Tie the line to an eyescrew screwed into the underside of the decoy's bill. When ducks come into range, a gentle tug on the line causes the decoy to tip up and down like a duck feeding. It's a real magnet, especially when the water is calm.

[pagebreak] **28 :: Easier Plucking **
Plucking f