Press Release

Idaho's early small game opportunities are a great gateway for new hunters

Hunting small game is a great way for beginners to get started, and some of the earliest fall hunting seasons — including squirrel, snowshoe hare, cottontail, dove and forest grouse — present excellent opportunities for new hunters to develop their skills and confidence without breaking the bank. The best part? Good hunting for all of these species can be found on public land.

It doesn’t take specialized or expensive gear to hunt them: the barebones essentials are a .22 long rifle and/or any shotgun, and clothes and boots suitable for hiking. It can be done with or without a dog, and with a little bit of luck, good timing, and know-how, you can be successful.

Many of the skills you will learn while hunting small game — including observation skills, handling and shooting a firearm, and field dressing and cooking the animals you harvest — will translate directly to big game hunting.

While hunting with a small-caliber rifle like a .22 (which has almost no recoil), it’s the perfect time to work on shooting mechanics in a real-world setting. Focus on building muscle memory for proper grip, trigger squeeze, and obtaining a sight picture from various shooting positions — all without the recoil of a larger, centerfire rifle.

Cleaning small game helps new hunters understand the basics of field dressing before they move to larger game. Once they get these small game species on the dinner table, there is a good chance they will want to keep hunting them. Most of these small game species are known for their great table fare — particularly cottontail rabbits and forest grouse.

For new hunters who are interested in getting out in the fall, here are some tips to get started with a focus on keeping things simple and economical.

The Forestland Trifecta

The list starts out with the small game forestland trifecta — red squirrel, snowshoe hare, and forest grouse — which can be hunted at the same time and in the same general type of habitat. Hunters should make sure they have a broken-in pair of hiking boots and be ready to do some walking. Camouflage doesn’t hurt, but it isn’t necessary — earth-tone clothes will work fine. An orange hat and/or vest makes you more visible to other hunters, but is not required. 

All three species can be hunted with either a shotgun or small caliber rifle, depending on the hunter’s preferences. Considering you may be doing a lot of walking at high elevation, keep weight in mind when choosing a firearm. For shotguns, a light 20-gauge loaded with No. 6-8 lead shot will work just fine.

Forest Grouse

  • Season Dates: Aug. 30 - Jan. 31 (Northern Idaho); Aug. 30 - Dec. 31 (Balance of state)
  • Bag limit: Four in the aggregate per day
  • Equipment essentials: Small caliber hunting rifle or shotgun; hiking clothes and boots; upland hunting vest
  • Licensing requirements: Small game or annual hunting license

Hunting tips – Forest grouse are among the mostly widely distributed upland birds in Idaho and commonly found on public lands, and they provide a hunting opportunity for nearly anyone. There are three species of forest grouse in Idaho, all of which are native to the state: the dusky (blue) grouse, the ruffed grouse, and the spruce grouse. No matter which you plan on pursuing, be ready for a workout. Forest grouse can be hunted with a dog, but you can also be successful without one.

Depending on your preference, you can either attempt to shoot flushing grouse on the wing with a shotgun, or stationary grouse in the trees with a rifle. Early in the season, forest grouse are generally in family groups, so filling your bag limit might be a little easier.

While each grouse species occupies a different niche, you can generally focus your efforts on two habitat elements, particularly in the early fall: moisture and food sources along mountain streams and springs.

ruffed grouse in brush September 2005
Creative Commons Licence
David Musil

In Northern Idaho, ruffed grouse are the most common forest grouse. Good populations are also found in the mountains of central and eastern Idaho west to the Sublett mountains. Riparian habitats and other moist mountain brush areas are commonly used by these birds, and hunters should pay particular attention to new-growth aspen draws.

natdiglib_16656_full
Creative Commons Licence
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Dusky (blue) grouse are more common than other grouse in most southern Idaho mountains. They are found at lower elevations early in the season, and move up throughout the year. Dusky grouse favor high-elevation sagebrush and mountain shrub areas for nesting, springs and stream banks for rearing young, and rely heavily on Douglas fir for fall and winter food and cover. Early in the season, hunters should focus their efforts on the edge habitat between mature forest stands and grasslands. Keep an eye out for food sources like snowberry shrubs, serviceberry, and rose hip.

natdiglib_11073_full
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Spruce grouse are found in dense, high-elevation conifer forests, generally from the Salmon and Payette river drainages north. If, while you are trudging around the dense spruce stands where these birds are commonly found, you can find a stream bed lined with dwarf huckleberry, you’ve found a great place to start searching for them.

Snowshoe Hare

  • Season dates: Aug. 30 - March 31
  • Bag limit: Eight per day
  • Equipment essentials: Small caliber hunting rifle or shotgun; (warm) hiking clothes and boots
  • Licensing requirements: Small game or annual hunting license

Hunting tips – Snowshoe hares are another native game species that are found primarily at higher elevations, forested regions of northern, central and eastern Idaho. They are active during the night, and the best time to hunt them is within a couple hours of sunrise and sunset. Snowshoe hares prefer dense coniferous or mixed forests with lots of understory cover, and are especially fond of stands of young conifer and aspen trees.

Hunting gets better as the weather cools and after the first snow of the year, when hunters have an easier time locating and following a snowshoe hare’s distinct tracks. Many snowshoe hare hunters use dogs, such as beagles, to flush them.

But the early fall presents opportunities as well. Snowshoe hares are also known as varying hares, because their coats change colors to better blend in with the colors of the seasons — white in the winter, and grayish-brown in the summer. During the fall and spring, when they are in the midst of this color change, snowshoe hares have a tougher time blending with their surroundings.

For hunters without dogs, this is the best time to stalk the forest with a small caliber, scoped rifle, searching the cover for stationary hares. While not necessary, consider bringing a pair of binoculars along.

Make no mistake — this makes for challenging hunting, and you’re probably not going to harvest a limit of snowshoe hares using this approach. But learning to move quietly through the forest and honing your observational skills will set you up for success when you’re ready to move on to larger game species.

Red Squirrel

squirrel in tree February 2013
Creative Commons Licence
Kade Barfuss
  • Season dates: Aug. 30 - March 31
  • Bag limit: Eight per day
  • Equipment essentials: Small caliber hunting rifle, air rifle or shotgun; hiking clothes and boots
  • License requirements: Small game or annual hunting license

Hunting tips – There are a number of squirrel species in Idaho, but only the red squirrel is classified as a game animal. Red squirrels are native to Idaho and found all over the state’s forests. They are typically active throughout the day in the fall, as they work to stockpile food to get ready for the winter. This is the best time to get out into Idaho’s  forests and search for your quarry.

You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding them if you use your ears: red squirrels are notoriously vocal. They are also solitary and very territorial, with ranges that stretch between two and five acres. You’re likely going to have to do some hiking to fill your bag limit, but there are worse ways to get exercise than hiking around Idaho’s picturesque forests.

Red squirrels eat seeds, conifer cones, nuts and fruits, and will occasionally feed on invertebrates and small vertebrates. They don’t hibernate during the winter. Instead, during the early fall, they cut cones from from conifer trees and stockpile them in storage areas called “middens.” If you can find a midden, which are typically near the center of a squirrel’s territory, you are likely to find the squirrel that built it.

The Lowland Duo

“Lowland” is a bit of a misnomer here — dove and mountain cottontail rabbits aren’t found exclusively in the lowlands of southern Idaho, but for hunters who aren’t keen on taking a trip into the mountains to hunt, you can find dove and cottontail rabbits aplenty in the low-country of southern Idaho.

Dove

mourning dove November 2005
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IDFG
  • Season Dates: Sept. 1 - Oct. 30 (mourning doves)
  • Bag limit: 15 mourning doves; no limit on Eurasian collared doves
  • Equipment essentials: Shotgun capable of holding no more than three shells; lots of shotgun shells; drab-colored clothes; hiking boots; upland hunting vest; bucket/stool for a seat
  • Licensing requirements: Migratory Bird (HIP) Permit; small game or annual hunting license

Hunting tips – Mourning doves are the most popular game bird in the country, and they are definitely popular in Idaho: the state ranks third in the western United States in terms of dove harvest and the number of active dove hunters, behind only California and Arizona.

Because they are migratory birds, hunters need to have a migratory bird (HIP) permit, in addition to a small game or annual hunting license. Additionally, hunters can't use a shotgun that holds more than three shells.

Doves are hunted with shotguns as they fly, and these small, fast-moving birds make for a real challenge, even for experienced wing-shooters. Bring No. 6-8 shot shells, and lots of them, on your dove hunt.

Prior to a hunt, scouting is often in order. Hunters should do their scouting in the early morning and evening, focusing their attention on trying to identify food sources, water sources, and roosting sites. Once they have found an area being used by doves, hunters should stick around for a while and observe. Note the times when doves are moving in or out of the area, where doves enter and leave the area (doves tend to follow land features, like tree lines, ditches or creek beds), and where they concentrate.

Identify a few spots to set up for a hunt, and make sure to get there when the time is right. Dove hunting tends to be best in the mornings and late afternoons, when doves are moving between roost, food, and water sites.

Doves are ground feeders that feed primarily on grains. For that reason, some of the best dove hunting is found on private agricultural land. Sunflower and wheat fields are some popular dove hunting spots. Some private landowners may give permission for dove hunters to use their property, and it doesn’t hurt to ask. Be respectful, know Idaho’s trespass law, and always get permission before you hunt.

Good hunting can also be found on public land, including some of Fish and Game’s Wildlife Management Areas. Public land dove hunters should make sure to get out to their spot early, as it’s first-come, first-served, and the the best spots will go quickly. While you might not bag as many birds, you can also walk around and weedy areas and “jump shoot” flushing doves if you miss the flight window, but be cognizant and considerate of any other hunters.

In addition to mourning doves, hunters are also likely to encounter Eurasian-collared doves. This introduced species is larger than mourning doves. They have a black collar on the top part of the neck, square tail feathers, a pale gray coloration, and dark primary feathers. Should you harvest Eurasian-collared doves while mourning dove hunting, it is recommended they are left un-plucked during transport so they can be distinguished from mourning doves. Eurasian-collared doves will not count as part of your aggregate bag of mourning doves as long as they are identifiable.

eurasian collared dove April 2006
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG

Eurasian-collared doves may be taken in any amounts and at any time by holders of the appropriate valid Idaho hunting or combination hunting license, provided such taking is not in violation of state, county, or city laws, ordinances or regulations.

Cottontail rabbit

Big Cottonwood Wildlife Management Area WMA cottontail rabbit medium shot
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG
  • Season Dates: Aug. 30 - March 31
  • Bag limit: Eight per day
  • Equipment essentials: Lightweight shotgun (with No. 6-8 shot) or small caliber rifle; drab-colored clothing; hiking boots
  • Licensing requirements: Small game or annual hunting license

Hunting tips – You’re likely to find mountain cottontails near agricultural land and in the brushy, rocky areas of Idaho’s sagebrush country. Focus on edge habitat — or where two types of habitat come together -- with ample cover. Cottontails like dense sagebrush, thick plants along a streamside or the brushy edges along a forest, and are most active in the couple hours after sunrise and before sunset. Away from agricultural areas, grasses, sagebrush and juniper are food sources for mountain cottontails, and a good place for hunters hone in on.

Cottontails are commonly hunted with dogs, but hunters without a dog can still have success.  One option is for hunters to find a high point overlooking relatively clear area, and hunt with a scoped, small-caliber rifle, keeping an eye on openings near cover. Another is for hunters to attempt to flush out rabbits by walking through areas of dense cover, and to harvest them on the run using a shotgun. If using the latter approach, it's not a bad idea to hunt with a friend or two, which will help you cover more territory and potentially flush more rabbits.

Cottontail hunters should be aware that in much of Idaho, the cottontail's range overlaps with the pygmy rabbit, for which there is not a hunting season in Idaho.

pygmy rabbit in brush May 2006
Creative Commons Licence
IDFG

As their name would suggest, pygmy rabbits are smaller than cottontails, but it can be difficult to judge how big an animal is in nature. To know if you are looking at a pygmy or cottontail rabbit, you need to look at the tail. Unlike cottontail, pygmy rabbits don’t have the white puffball of fur on the underside of their tails. Before heading out into the field, contact your local regional Fish and Game office to determine if pygmy rabbits are found in your area of interest.