Hunting for three upland game species, cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare and forest grouse, should be the best it has been in Utah in 10 years. The mourning dove hunt should be really good, too.
Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, said a mild winter, coupled with a warm spring and plenty of rain, are the major reasons why. Plenty of adult birds and rabbits survived the mild winter and the warm spring rains brought green vegetation and the insects that go with it, exactly when young birds and rabbits needed them.
Also, in the case of cottontail rabbits, their population is at the very top of a 10-year population cycle.
“I think the rabbit, hare and forest grouse hunts will be fantastic,” Robinson said. “Plan on a hunt that’s about as good as it gets. Remember, though, that finding and taking upland game still requires effort and skill.”
Each of the hunts open Sept. 1. A map that shows where each upland game species lives in Utah is available on pages 33-40 of the 2015-2016 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook. The free guidebook is available at www.wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks.
Robinson and Blair Stringham, migratory game bird coordinator for the DWR, provide a preview and hunting tips for each species:
Cottontail rabbit hunting is the perfect hunt for youth (those 17 years of age and younger) and adults. The terrain rabbits live in is easy to access, and the equipment needed to take rabbits is light and easy to carry. This fall is the perfect year time to go. Robinson said cottontail rabbit numbers in the eastern half of Utah, especially in Duchesne and Uintah counties, are as high as they get.
“There are exceptionally high numbers of rabbits in the eastern half of the state,” Robinson said. “The number of rabbits is well above average.”
In areas west of Interstate 15, rabbit numbers aren’t as high, but they’re still good. “Rabbit numbers in western Utah are up from last year and last year was a good year,” Robinson explained, “ No matter where you go in Utah, you should find more rabbits this fall.”
To find rabbits in lower elevations, look in the bottom of valleys that have tall sagebrush and deep, loose soil that have burrows the rabbits can use. If you’re in mid-elevation areas, look for hillsides that have large boulders, thick sagebrush or other thick vegetation the rabbits can hide in.
Also, consider hunting early in the morning and late in the afternoon. “That’s when the rabbits are the most active and are away from their resting areas,” Robinson said. “Early morning and late in the afternoon are prime times for rabbits to feed.”
Shotguns and small-caliber rifles, such as the .22, are perfect firearms to hunt rabbits with.
If you’re hunting with a small-caliber rifle, finding a spot that’s higher in elevation than the area around it. Then, sitting down, scanning the surrounding area and waiting for the rabbits to appear is a good choice. It’s critical to hunt early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the rabbits are most active and moving around.
If you’d like to walk and flush rabbits out of cover, a shotgun is the best firearm to use. If you’re hunting with one or more people, form a line, spacing each hunter about 20 yards apart, and then walk through areas that look promising. Be ready to click your safety off; a flushing rabbit doesn’t give you much time to shoot!
Snowshoe hares live in conifer forests that are more difficult to access than areas where cottontails live. But if you journey into their habitat, you should find more hares this year. “Just like rabbits,” Robinson said, “hare numbers appear to be up this year.”
Snowshoe hares live in high-elevation stands of conifer and aspen trees. Stands of young pine trees, at least 8,000 to 9,000 feet in elevation, are especially attractive to hares.
In Utah, hares live along the Wasatch Plateau (the range of mountains that run north to south, through the center of the state) and east into the Uinta Basin.
“Waiting for the first snowstorm of the year and then looking for the hares’ unique footprint is one of the best ways to find them,” Robinson said. “The print looks like a miniature snowshoe.”
Robinson said snowshoe hares don’t have a large home range. “If you find an area that has lots of tracks in it,” he explained, “there’s a good chance a hare is hunkered down in some vegetation nearby.”
Snowshoes or snowmobiles are often required to hunt snowshoe hares after the snow falls.
Small-caliber rifles and shotguns are great firearms to use. Move slowly through the hares’ habitat, watching for the outline of a hare and its dark black eyes. Kicking brush piles can also cause hares that are hiding to flush into the open.
Two species of forest grouse, dusky and ruffed, live in Utah. DWR biologists don’t conduct formal grouse surveys, but they do observe the birds while working in the field and they like what they’re seeing this summer.
“Dusky and ruffed grouse numbers appear to be up quite a bit from last year,” Robinson said. “We’re seeing lots of hens with plenty of chicks.”
Robinson said ruffed grouse are found along the Wasatch Plateau (the range of mountains that run north to south, through the center of the state) and east into the Uinta Mountains.
Ruffed grouse are usually found either in or close to stands of aspen trees. They’re especially attracted to stands that have a lot of young aspens in them. Aspen stands that have shrubs with berries and a water source nearby are especially attractive to ruffed grouse.
Dusky grouse are more widely distributed in Utah than ruffed grouse. Some of the best places to hunt for dusky grouse include Cache County and the Wasatch Plateau. Areas near Cedar City in southwestern Utah, such as Cedar Mountain and the Pine Valley area, also hold good numbers of grouse.
“Isolated mountains in western Utah also hold good numbers of dusky grouse, but the areas where the grouse are found on those mountains can be challenging to get to,” he said.
Dusky grouse live higher in elevation than ruffed grouse. A good spot to look is the zone where aspen tree stands transition into conifer forest. Ridgelines that have pine and Douglas fir trees on them are also attractive areas.
Because ruffed and dusky grouse spend most of the day on the ground, you can find birds anytime of the day. However, if you want to hunt grouse when the birds are most active and accessible, hunt early in the morning when the birds are feeding. After they’ve filled their crops with food, they retire to heavier vegetation to rest. They won’t become active again until later in the afternoon, when they feed one more time before flying into trees to roost for the night.
If you have a dog, mid-morning can be a great time to hunt. “By the time mid-morning arrives, the birds will be done feeding,” Robinson said. “If you wait until then, the birds will have left plenty of scent on the ground for your dog to follow.”
If you’re hunting without a dog, move slowly and stop regularly to watch and listen. Grouse will often hunker down and let you walk past them. Stopping occasionally can make a grouse that’s nearby nervous and cause it to flush. Always be ready to shoulder your gun and shoot; grouse flush quickly and gain speed fast.
Mourning and white-winged doves
The dove hunt is another great hunt to take your kids on. While dove numbers aren’t up significantly from what they’ve been the past few years, plenty of doves are in the state. “Get out and take advantage of the opportunity,” Stringham said. “The areas where doves live are easy to access, and the weather during the dove hunt opener is usually warm and pleasant. Make sure you bring plenty of shotgun shells.”
To find the greatest number of doves, look for fields with grain in them, such as wheat or barley, with water holes nearby. “Grain fields that have a water hole near them can be dove-hunting hotspots,” he explained.
Another thing to look for are concentrations of trees near grain fields and watering holes. Doves will fly into these areas before roosting for the night.
Stringham said Box Elder, Millard and Utah counties are three of the best counties in Utah to hunt doves. Southern Utah is also a good choice. “The climate in southern Utah is warmer, so the birds tend to stay a little longer in that part of the state,” he said.
If the area you’d like to hunt is private property, Stringham reminds you that you must have written permission from the landowner to hunt the area.
The key to hunting doves is locating the areas they’re using and then setting up along flight paths the birds are flying. As doves fly past, they provide quick, challenging shots. Bring plenty of shotgun shells loaded with No. 8 or No. 7½ shot.