If you are in a survival situation, or just trying to supplement the meat available for an independent homestead, small game can be a great source of calories and protein.
Small game animals are more abundant that large animals, they live in a greater variety of habitats, bag limits are often quite generous, and the hunting pressure is often zero.
The small game species that have most often been targeted as a food source are:
- Rabbits and hares
Other small animal species are edible but are either difficult to catch and process (prairie dogs), too small to trouble with (most rodents), or not very good to eat (carnivores). If you are in a life-and-death situation, by all means eat whatever you can catch. If you have a choice, target the five species listed here.
There are six basic hunting methods for small game. With some adaptation, each of these methods will work for any of the top small game species.
- Spot and stalk
- Still hunting
- Stands and bait
- Spotlight (check laws)
Spot and Stalk
Spot and stalk is a tactic used when animals are active. You take up an inconspicuous position with a good view of the animal’s habitat. Sit very still and wait.
Use binoculars to scan the area for your target animal. Once you see the animal, slowly and carefully move into shooting range. Small game species are a target for every predator in the woods, so they are very wary. You have to be extremely careful stalking.
Spot and stalk is common in the western states for big game, but it is used less often in eastern states or for small game. It works for all small game species, but it’s especially good for groundhogs and rabbits.
These animals move around at dawn and dusk but retire into burrows or brush piles during the day. Spot and stalk is less useful for the tree animals because they are hard to spot in the woods, but it can work.
The tactic called “still hunting” has a misleading name. Still hunters walk through the woods, but do so very slowly.
Choose some likely habitat for the game you are hunting and start to work your way through it. Look all around you, from left to right and right to left. Keep your ears alert for the sounds of animals foraging or moving.
Once you have looked all around, slowly take one step forward. Pick a good place to put your foot down before you move. Avoid stepping on dry leaves or sticks.
Slowly lift a foot, move it forward, and gently step into the spot you have chosen. Then freeze. Move your head slowly to scan everything around you once again. Take another single step after you have looked hard at all of your surroundings.
You won’t cover much ground when still hunting. A good pace to aim for is to take an hour to cover one hundred yards. If you are slow and careful, you will spot game.
When you see something, don’t hurry to shoulder your gun and shoot. Raise the gun and aim with the same slow, deliberate pace that you use for stepping forward.
Driving is a tactic that works well for rabbits and pheasants, but not for other small game species. Rabbits can only move along on top of the ground, so their movements can be predicted.
Pheasants will run along the ground for a while, then flush into the air. Tree game can slip behind a tree and climb up, while groundhogs go-to escape move is to dive into a hole.
Driving rabbits takes at least two hunters. To drive rabbits, post a watcher a little distance outside of a likely patch of rabbit cover. The watcher should be as still and quiet as possible.
The driver walks around to the other side of the cover and starts to stomp through it. The driver should make plenty of noise and kick at the brush. Make sure to target the thickest, nastiest brush where rabbits like to hide.
Occasionally, the driver should freeze and just stare into the cover. This can make hidden rabbits nervous and quick to move. As the driver works through the brush, the rabbits will move away from him.
One of the hunters will get shots at game – either the driver will see them flush, or the stander can watch them move out of the cover.
To drive pheasants, the hunters move in a line through cover. Kick at clumps of grass or brush as you pass to make sure no birds are hiding in them. The pheasants will run ahead while there is cover, then flush into the air when they hit an open spot. You can shoot them as they fly up.
Hunting with Dogs
Using dogs to locate small game is an American tradition. Specialized breeds have been created to target rabbits and tree game, and terriers are favored for dispatching groundhogs in their holes.
Other dog breeds and even mutts have also been used to hunt small game. The most important tools for small game dogs are a high drive to chase small game and a good attitude.
Beagles have been bred to hunt rabbits. These little dogs excel at pushing rabbits out of brush. Good rabbit dogs are fast enough to make the rabbit move, but not so fast that the rabbit panics and finds a hole.
Beagles are small dogs that can fit into any homestead. They can also hunt tree game, but finding a treeing beagle is a hit-or-miss proposition.
Hounds have been used to chase raccoons since the first settlers arrived in America. There are a half dozen coon hound breeds. These dogs have a strong instinct to chase game to trees, then stay and bark up the tree.
Coon hounds also make fine squirrel and possum hunters. They aren’t so good for rabbits or groundhogs because they hunt faster, which will make the animal find a hole.
These dogs are named from the Latin word for earth. They are bold little dogs that will follow a groundhog into its burrow and dispatch it or hold it in place until you can dig both dog and ‘hog out. They also make good squirrel dogs with a little training.
Spaniels and Retrievers
The best dogs for pheasant hunting are spaniels and retrievers. These dogs will quarter (run back and forth across your path) 20 to 30 yards in front of the hunting party until they scent a pheasant. They will chase it until it flushes, then retrieve it for you.
Curs and Feists
These dogs have been general-purpose farm and hunting dogs as long as folks have lived in the back country.
Curs are more houndlike, while feists resemble terriers. Both types make good dogs for hunting tree game, and they can be pressed into service to hunt other animals as well.
The Great Depression saw the rise of “Hoover hounds,” named for the president who oversaw the crash that started the depression. These dogs weren’t specialists; they would chase anything with fur.
Hoover hounds are all about putting meat in the pot. Any dog can be a Hoover hound. If you need protein and you’re not too picky, almost any dog can learn to be a Hoover hound.
Training the Small Game Dog
Whole books have been written about training dogs to hunt small game. The advice boils down to this: expose the dog to the desired game when it’s young and praise it for chasing the animal.
Start the puppy with furs or artificial scent from the animal, then build to caged animals. Don’t let the dog hurt the animal, just get it excited. Once the dog has the idea that you want it to target the game species, take it to the woods. Praise chasing the game species and punish chasing other species. That’s it.
Stands and Bait
Stand hunting is similar to spot and stalk, except you don’t move. You take up a position in shooting range of good habitat and wait. When you see game, shoot. It’s that simple.
The difficulty is in finding the best stand locations and in sitting still while you wait. Any sound or motion can blow your hunt, so freeze. Be as still as possible until you get a shot.
This tactic is controversial, and it’s illegal in many states. Check your local game laws before using bait. That said, baiting is a surefire method to put meat in the pot. If you are critically short of protein, baiting is one of the easiest ways to get some.
To shoot small game over bait, start by building a bait pile. Put out food that attracts the species you are targeting. Make a small pile, then come back every few days to replenish the pile.
Once you know the animals are hitting your bait pile, it becomes a matter of stand hunting. Take up a position and wait for the game to come in, then shoot.
Using spotlights is another tactic that may be illegal where you live. It is illegal to use spotlights for large game everywhere in the country, but some states allow spotlights for small game.
This tactic works best with nocturnal animals like raccoons and opossums. To hunt with a spotlight, get the most powerful flashlight you can. Slowly sweep it across an area likely to hold your target species. The shine of eyes will reveal your target.
Guns for Small Game
The classic gun to put small game in the pot is the .22 long rifle. It is light, accurate, and the ammunition is inexpensive. More importantly, it puts small game down without making a mess of your meat. Other rimfires also work for small game, including the .22 Winchester magnum and the new .17 HMR and .17 HM2.
Consider the range, target, and your hunting tactic when choosing a rifle. Rabbits and squirrels are small and often shot at close range, so you don’t need a lot of rifle. Groundhogs are bigger, and often shot from longer distances, so a faster cartridge like the .22 Winchester magnum is a better choice.
Centerfire rounds will kill small game, but often leave more hole than meat. If you choose to use a centerfire rifle, focus on head shots.
There isn’t any meat to be had in the head, so the damage is minimized. Pistol cartridges and other straight-walled ammunition work better than high-velocity rifle rounds.
Avoid using high-velocity varmint rounds if you want to put meat on the table. These rounds are designed to kill small game quickly from a great distance.
The bullets in these loads are light and fragment quickly, resulting in lots of damage to the meat. They are great for pest control, but not so good for meat hunting. If you do use a centerfire rifle to put small game on the table, use full metal jacket or other non-expanding ammunition.
Shotguns are also great tools for shooting small game, especially if you are driving the animals or hunting over dogs. Shotguns make shooting a moving target much easier.
The 12-gauge is probably a little big for small game, but it’s been the most popular gauge for years. Smaller gauges also work well. In most states, shotguns are the only legal means for taking pheasants.
Choose birdshot for small game. For rabbits and squirrels, shot sizes #7 ½ and #6 are fine. For the bigger animals, choose shot sizes #5 or #4. If you are hunting a mixed bag, #5 or #6 shot size are a good choice.
Most modern shotguns have screw-in choke tubes that lets you pick which choke to use. For most small game hunting, modified choke is the best choice. It is ideal for shots between 30 and 40 yards.
If you are hunting in heavy cover, a more open choke like skeet or improved cylinder is better. If you are hunting especially skittish game and facing shots at 50 yards, get a full choke.
Best Small Game Species to Target
The best small game species to target for eating are rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and groundhogs.
These animals are all big enough to make a meal and can be quite tasty if handled right. They are also all widely distributed. No matter where you live, chances are that you can hunt at least two or three of these species.
There are several species of cottontail rabbits to be found, plus two types of jackrabbit and snowshoe hares. All the species have similar habits and can be found in the same kind of cover.
All American rabbits live above ground. They prefer thick brush for concealment and protection, but like to forage in more open areas. Look for rabbits where brush meets meadow or farm field.
Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk. At those times, they come out of cover to forage. Rabbits eat tender grasses, clover, many types of broadleaf weeds, and fresh buds on trees or shrubs.
If you are using spot and stalk, still hunting, or shooting from a stand, take up a position where lush vegetation meets thick brush or brambles. That is where you will find rabbits.
If you are driving rabbits or using dogs, you can find rabbits hiding in brush during the day. When you are looking for cover that holds rabbits, target the thickest stuff you can find.
The harder the cover is for you to walk through, the more rabbits like it. That is part of why beagles are popular for rabbit hunting – a small beagle can fit into rabbit cover better than a big dog can.
Pro tip: when looking for rabbits, try to spot the shiny black eyes. Rabbits fur is an effective camouflage, but the eyes stand out in the thickest over.
Pheasants prefer brushy or marshy ground adjacent to grain fields. Small ditches, overgrown fence rows, and other areas with high vegetation are good cover for nesting and resting.
Grain spilled during the harvest is good feed for pheasants. Pheasants will hide in cover on the ground when they aren’t active, so they can be hunted all day.
Pro tip: keep your ears open when pheasant hunting in heavy cover. You will hear the birds running in cover, and rooster pheasants often give a “chuk-chuk” call just as they flush.
There are two main types of squirrel found in America. Gray squirrels have gray fur with a white belly, while fox squirrels are grey with yellowish trim. Both species favor hardwood forests. Squirrels can be found by targeting whatever tree species are producing at the time of the hunt.
Everyone knows squirrels like nuts, and hunting around nut trees like oaks, hickories, and walnuts in the fall is a great strategy. In the spring and summer, squirrels like fruit and berries
Look for persimmon, wild grape, pawpaw, or other fruit trees that are bearing in the spring and summer and you’ll find squirrels.
Running a squirrel dog through whatever trees are bearing is a surefire way to find squirrels. You can also successfully still-hunt or spot and stalk for squirrels.
Pro tip: squirrels are noisy. You can often detect them first with your ears. Listen for barking or chattering. You an also hear them drop pieces of nut and shell out of trees as they eat!
Raccoons and Opossums
We’ll deal with these two at the same time because they have similar habits. Both use trees as dens and escape routes, but both forage on the ground.
These two species are omnivores that will eat anything that they can get a hold of. Because of this, the flavor of the meat can change a lot depending on what they are eating. Tradition holds that the best eating for raccoons or opossums comes in the fall.
Good places to look for raccoons and opossums include along river or creek banks; near fruit or nut trees; and near trash dumps or other sources of human food.
These species are nocturnal, so you will have the best chance of encountering them at night. Spotlighting (if legal) is a good way to find both species.
Opossums will reflexively play dead if a hunter gets too close. Because of this, it is possible to catch opossums and bring them home in a sack.
Many old time opossum hunters would bring the opossums home and keep them in a cage for a couple of weeks while feeding clean feed. This was thought to improve the flavor of the opossum.
Don’t try catching raccoons this way. They are aggressive and ill-tempered when cornered. Grabbing a raccoon is a surefire way to get stitches on your hand.
Pro tip: both raccoons and opossums use hollow trees as dens. If you tree one but can’t find it among the branches, its possible it has gone into a den. You won’t be able to catch denned game.
Also called woodchucks, groundhogs are actually a large species of short-tailed squirrel. They live in burrows and are quick to dive underground when threatened.
Like rabbits, groundhogs like to live on the edge of lush green pastures. You can locate groundhog burrows during the day, then come back at dawn or dusk to hunt them.
Stand hunting or spot and stalk are the best tactics for groundhogs. Locate a groundhog burrow and watch it closely at dawn or dusk. When the groundhog comes out, try to shoot it in the head.
Groundhogs are tough enough to take a fatal wound but dive underground before expiring. If the groundhog gets underground, you’ll have a tough time finding it to put in the pot.
Pro tip: groundhogs love to live near barns and other outbuildings. You can often spot them by hiding in the woods and looking back toward farm buildings.
Gear for Small Game
Before you head into the woods searching for small game, you will need to get the right hunting gear together. At a minimum, you need comfortable shoes, sturdy clothes, and some kind of knife. However, using equipment picked for small game hunting will make your expedition more comfortable.
When gearing up to hunt small game, start at the bottom with good boots. Comfortable, waterproof hiking boots are a good choice for most kinds of hunting. They will keep your feet dry, give you good footing through all kinds of terrain, and offer some protection from brush.
If you are hunting pheasants, marsh rabbits, or any kind of night hunt, opt for rubber boots. Pheasants and marsh rabbits live in areas where pools of water are plentiful. Night hunting often means you don’t know you are stepping into water until you are in it.
Hiking boots offer some protection from moisture, but good rubber boots are better for these extra-wet environments. Some raccoon hunters even wear rubber hip waders to allow them to ford creeks in the dark.
The minimum you need for small game hunting is heavy jeans, not shorts. Jeans will protect you from scrapes and cuts while you are in the woods. If you are following a dog or still-hunting, heavy canvas pants are a better choice to protect from briers and brambles.
For driven hunts or other times when you really have to bust brush, small-game or upland hunting pants faced with nylon offer the best protection. These pants have a heavy-duty facing that is too slick for brush to grab well, so you can move through the toughest brush without much trouble.
The phrase “hunting knife” usually conjures up an image of a huge blade that looks like something Jim Bowie would have carried. Not only do you not need a huge knife for small game, you are really better off with a small blade.
Butchering small game requires precision and control, which are easier to get from a small knife. You need a sharp blade that is easy to control.
A fixed-blade knife with blade four to six inches long is fine. An old style called the “trout and bird knife” was designed with a short, narrow blade for processing birds, fish, and small game. These knives are less common than they used to be, but they are great small game knives.
Another good choice for processing small game is a trapper-style pocketknife. These knives were designed to help trappers skin small game animals with little effort. These knives have a clip point blade that’s good for fine cuts and a curved-tip spey blade to help with skinning.
Binoculars are helpful for hunting. They are vital for spot-and-stalk or stand hunting. After all, you can’t shoot what you never see. If you will be mostly still, opt for bigger binoculars with higher magnification.
The weight won’t be a problem while you are sitting on a stand. If your tactics require you to move all day, choose something lighter.
Whether you need optics on a rifle depends on your hunting style. If you are shooting from a distance, a scope with high power is handy. You can aim for head shots that ruin the least meat on a small animal.
On the other hand, high magnification makes shots at moving game much harder. Use a low powered scope or even peep sights if you are driving or hunting with dogs.
Head to the Woods!
For many years, small game species were the number one target for hunters. These species are numerous, widespread, fun to hunt, and good to eat.
Generations of Americans learned to hunt by chasing rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and groundhogs. If you’d like to have some fun and put some meat on the table, grab your 22 and go look for some small game.