By Frank Jezioro
– Director, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
January – The Month for “The Dogs”
Saturday finally arrived. The day promised to be about perfect for the little hounds. Sunshine, spotty snow to see tracks, and damp ground to provide good scenting conditions for the beagles to run the rabbits. The two little hounds were eager to go and dancing around in their boxes. Soon we had a few shells stuffed in our vests and the dogs were let out and started around the hill. We were hunting grown up pasture land in Gilmer County.
The land had long ago been abandoned as far as its use for grazing cattle. The pasture land was basically being taken over by briers, multiflora rose bushes and little islands of brush. We could see the marks on the small saplings where rabbits had chewed when the snow was too deep for them to reach the grass. We were walking along on ancient cattle trails, now being used by deer, while the dogs were busily investigating every nook and cranny, every old log and every thick patch of grass.
All of a sudden the dog opened with a series of short chops and bawls and even a squeal or two as the excitement of running right into a rabbit struck its nose. We saw the rabbit squirt out of the cover and dash across the open ground, headed for the next hollow with the dogs in hot pursuit. We then separated about 50-60 yards and took up a position where we had some visibility of the hillside. Rick was up the hill and I was lower where I could see the edge of the hollow where the dogs disappeared. We could hear them as their voices came from deeper in the hollow. Now it sounded like they were heading up the other side of the hollow.
The next time we heard them it was obvious they were coming back in our direction. I was straining to watch all the areas in front of me when I saw the rabbit squirt through a small opening before I could get the 20 gauge double up. “Coming up the hill toward you,” I yelled to Rick. In 10 seconds or so I heard the crack of his 28 gauge. In a few more seconds the cries of the dogs fell silent, indicating they had come up on the dead rabbit. With the first bunny in the bag, we continued on around the side of the hollow.
Don’t put your hunting guns away in January
This scene will be repeated throughout West Virginia for the month of January. January is truly the time for the “dogs” and for the small game hunter. The deer hunters and bear hunters are out of the woods now and with them the “crowds” and traffic on the back roads. But this doesn’t mean you have to put your guns away.
With the leaves off of the trees, January also becomes the perfect time to go to the big woods with a squirrel dog. From what I have seen in the past couple of years, hunting with a squirrel dog is gaining popularity. It is exciting and fun to walk through the open timber on a snow covered day and watch a dog as he runs ahead through the woods. Unlike our hounds, the squirrel dog hunts by sight. All of a sudden you will see the dog make a mad dash ahead to a tree and then start jumping and trying to climb the tree as it has seen a squirrel go up the tree.
And for the grouse hunter, January often proves to be the best of all for successful grouse hunting. Often our hunter will find birds while deer or bear hunting and then return with their pointing dogs. Even though you can certainly find grouse without a dog in January by following tracks, to truly enjoy the sport of grouse hunting you need to hunt with a dog. In West Virginia our most popular grouse dog breeds are the English Setters, the English pointers and Brittanys. These are all pointing dogs that hunt by scent of the bird – stopping and freezing in their tracks when the strong scent of a grouse indicates it is close by. Or, some want to hunt with what we call the flushing breeds. Of these, probably the most popular in West Virginia would be the Springer spaniel. The Springer would then be followed by the ever popular and versatile Labrador retriever.
In any event, January affords a solid month of great hunting and chances to enjoy the wonderful outdoor experiences West Virginia has to offer.