Late-season squirrels and rabbits are the perfect excuse to get out and enjoy some warm winter sunshine.

RimfireSquirrels10 900I should’ve known better than to browse the used rack of the local gun store on my lunch break. Poking around such places gets on-the-spot expensive because the best deals on good used firearms don’t last long enough for you to go home and think about things.

A rifle caught my eye on that sunny January afternoon. It was a Marlin Golden 39-A, stamped “JM” on the barrel, and the old man behind the counter reckoned it was a 1953 model. The bluing was faded, but the gun was tight. That aside, I was looking at an example of perhaps the finest squirrel rifle ever made—and one of only two that I’d ever seen for sale in my life. I knew if I went home to think it over, it’d be gone when I returned. So we struck a deal, the old man and I. From there, any plans of working that afternoon would have to wait, because I was going squirrel hunting. RimfireSquirrels5 900It was breezy, a problem when squirrels are feeding up in the canopy during the early season, but an advantage in the late season, when they’re foraging on the ground. Wind covers your own noise. I walked to within 20 yards of the day’s first squirrel before he noticed me. It was a boar fox squirrel, with rufus flanks and an orange tail that flicked a few times as he studied me. I froze, and when the squirrel went back to his business of trimming an acorn husk, I shouldered the Marlin, steadied the bead on the squirrel’s shoulder, and settled it in the notch of the rear sight. Normally I’m a head-shot purist, but I normally hunt with a scoped rifle, too. I squeezed the trigger and the fox squirrel settled into a pile, killed instantly by a 37-grain hollowpoint. At that moment, I wondered how many squirrels that rifle had killed in its previous 68 years of service.Get Out And Go! That you have a new rifle you’re itching to use is one good reason to go small-game hunting in the winter, but there are others. Wintertime squirrels and rabbits move best on pleasant days, when the temperature is above average and the sun is shining. That’s when I like to be outside, too. Small game seasons are typically the last to close, in January and February. Where I live, rabbit season runs to about the middle of February, and squirrel season closes on the last day of the month.

But above all else, slipping around the woods for squirrels with a good rifle is about as much pure, low-pressure, inexpensive fun as you can have out hunting. The .22 Long Rifle is the classic choice, and most full-sized guns, antique and brand new, shoot well enough for squirrel hunting. Open sights suffice, but a scope is a decided advantage.RimfireSquirrels8 900Punchier rimfire rounds also work. My favorite squirrel gun is actually a heavy-barreled .17 HMR topped with a 3-9×40 scope. It’s too destructive for body-shooting squirrels, but the rifle is so accurate that I can take head-shots exclusively to 100 yards. I have squirrel hunting buddies who tote .17 Mach 2s, and even .22 WMRs. Those calibers work just fine, too, so long as the gun is a good shooter and the hunter is disciplined enough to wait for head shots. RimfireSquirrels7 900Where To Hunt. Some refer to small game as if rabbits and squirrels are interchangeable, but they’re definitely not. Late-season rabbit hunters need to bury into overgrown fencerows and thickets to kick bunnies out of their hides. At best, it’s a low-odds hunt with a rimfire, with novelty that wears off quickly after a few blackberry briars to the face. Proper rabbit hunting is done with buddies behind good beagle hounds, and that’s a shotgunner’s game, both for practicality and safety reasons.

Still, where seasons overlap, there’s no good reason to pass on a cottontail caught sitting in the sun or to walk past a brush pile without giving it a little kick while you’re sneaking around for squirrels. I’d just consider rabbits more of a bonus.RimfireSquirrels3 900But a hunter can set out for squirrels in earnest on a good late-season day and likely return with enough for supper, if not a full limit. Squirrels usually sleep in during the late season and as such, I like to hunt late morning, just after the frost burns off, or in the afternoon.

This time of year, gray and fox squirrels are caching what’s left of the fallen autumn mast. Head to open hardwood ridges, select a good vantage point, and sit. On a good, dry day you probably won’t wait long before hearing squirrels scurrying about on the ground. Frequently, the best ridges will have a few den trees and leafy nests (called dreys) visible, and those are especially productive posts to bag young adult squirrels born in the early fall. As table fare goes, the young ones are best.RimfireSquirrels6 900You might have such a ridge on your deer lease, but squirrel hunting is one of the few hunts east of the Mississippi where public land can provide more and better opportunity than private. Many eastern WMAs and forests consist mostly of mature, old-growth timber. That’s not the best habitat for whitetails, turkeys, or rabbits, but it is prime for gray squirrels. Sit a ridge awhile and if you don’t have action within 20 or 30 minutes, move along. Squirrels will concentrate wherever there is mast and this time of year, it’s not laying everywhere.RimfireSquirrels2 900Such was the case on that maiden hunt with my new Marlin. After killing the fox squirrel, I slipped across a couple finger ridges, stopping and listening as I moved, before I crossed a creek branch lined with poplar and sycamore. I moved through that quickly, knowing it’d be unproductive, but slowed as I walked into another series of hardwood ridges on the other side of the creek bottom. I remembered a cluster of white oaks on a ridge that had been fruitful back in October, during bow season, and as I slipped closer to it, I could hear squirrels on the ground. I soon saw a pair of grays spiraling down a large oak with a cavernous hole in the trunk. It was a den tree, and I suspected the pair of grays would both be young, tender critters well suited to a dredge through seasoned flour and a skillet of hot grease. When they jumped to the ground and momentarily disappeared over the break of the ridge, I hustled ahead and settled the .22 across my knee. RimfireSquirrels9 900I could lie and tell you I killed those two squirrels in two shots. Truthfully, I was thankful for my new gun’s tubular magazine filled to its limit with 15 cartridges. I walked back to the truck with three squirrels and my rifle in hand, feeling like I’d gotten a pretty good bargain on the day in general. My plan was to go home, mount a scope, and then watch the forecast for another sunny afternoon.

With the crazy fall hunting grind behind us, it’s time to begin laying the groundwork for future success.

BowGear5 900Bowhunting gear is fairly delicate and requires maintenance, most of which we put off until about July. That sets the stage for the annual summer scramble to get everything in order by opening day. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The best time to ensure your gear is ready for next fall is actually during the immediate post season, when it’s already in front of you and you can inspect everything in a methodical fashion. We bowhunters talk a lot about shed hunting and post-season scouting this time of year but really, taking inventory of items in your kit that need fixing before next fall is just as important.

Minor gear problems, like a twisted peep, can cause aggravation and missed opportunities at filling tags. Major problems, like rusty treestand bolts, can kill you. It’s best to spot that stuff now, and nip it in the bud. Here’s a good task list to get started.

BowGear9 900Pull Your Stands. There’s nothing fun about pulling a lock-on stand from a hot location after the season is finished (see it hanging above, just off the food plot near center?). In a way, it’s like being 7 years old and watching the Christmas Tree come down on New Year’s Day. But treestand falls are the number-one source of injury and death among deer hunters, and plenty of those falls happen because of rusty bolts, worn cables, and sun-bleached ratchet straps. Your stands and steps will last longer in dry storage, too. Protect your investment and your safety both.BowGear1 900Empty Your Pockets. When deer season closes, I like to empty the pockets of my backpack and take stock of what’s there. I might even wash the thing, if I’m feeling ambitious. Some items I’ll just return because I know I’ll need them next fall—that can of Vienna sausages and my extra release aid, for example—but things like my ThermaCell and handheld pruning shears get transferred to my turkey vest for the upcoming spring.BowGear7 900Stockpile “Ammo.” One time I took a trip to Texas in the late season and came home with a cooler full of venison, wild pork, and wild turkey gobbler. That is, after all, why you go to Texas. Once I got home, I should have taken stock of the various broken and bloodied arrow shafts and broadheads in my bow case, but I was too busy grilling and frying meat, and generally reveling in my success. It so happened, I was finished with bow season after that trip, and moved on to other things.

But as a new season neared—see the summer scramble referenced above—I realized I was both low on arrow shafts and replacement blades for my favorite broadheads. Just about every serious bowhunter shoots a finished arrow custom-fit to their setup—and buying replacements isn’t as easy as a late-night trip to Wal-Mart. Stock up now on extra shafts, plus components, like inserts (or outserts), broadhead blades, nocks, vanes, and glue. You’ll be glad you did when supplies run low in the fall.MathewsV3two 900Stop The Stretch. Bowstrings are better than they’ve ever been, and once the string is “stretched in” on your new bow (after 50 or so arrows), you can expect a couple good seasons out of it, especially if you keep it waxed and served. Still, strings and cables all eventually stretch and as they do, all kinds of stuff on your bow gets thrown out of whack. Everything from peep sight alignment to the timing of a drop-away rest to your bow’s cam lean and timing (depending on the design) can be affected. If you begin to notice that your peep is twisting, or your groups—especially with broadheads—aren’t what they were, it might be time for a pro shop to look things over, retune with a few twists, or order new strings and cables.

Clean With Air. A can of compressed air or, even better, an air gun attachment for the compressor in your shop, is about the best thing going for cleaning the nooks and crannies of hunting equipment. The eyecups and focusing dials on your optics—especially binoculars and spotting scopes—are pits for attracting fine particles that can scratch good glass. So too are the ball bearings in release aid triggers, the trigger assemblies in crossbows, tiny springs in drop-away rests, and even the bushings between cams, axles, and bow limbs. Unlike a can of WD40 or gun solvent—which can do more harm than good on archery gear—you can’t spray your equipment too much with good, clean air. Make it a practice.BowGear8 900Store Your Cameras With Care. For me, the mark of a good trail camera is one that’ll last for a few seasons without much hassle. But none of them last long without preventive maintenance. Leave a camera out all year, and there’s of course a good chance it won’t work next fall. But don’t just pull your cameras and throw them into storage, either. Remove the batteries and SD cards, and take a moment to clean the internal parts (again, compressed air is great). A granule of dirt dauber nest or a rusty battery connection are all it takes to put a camera out of commission.BowGearADD 900Get Your Boots Off. Good footwear is one of the most-overlooked pieces of gear a bowhunter has, particularly if you’re hunting western big game in mountainous terrain. Leather hunting boots and neoprene knee boots alike usually fail at the seams, especially where soles join to uppers. Personally, mine tend to blow out on the heels, but other buddies suffer from holes in the toes or lopsided wear to the tread. How your boots wear depends on your stride. You can prolong the life of leather boots with periodic conditioning. I use a rag to rub in mink oil or beeswax. While you’re at it, check the laces and seams. Wader patch repair kits do a pretty good job at fixing minor holes and leaks on leather boots and neoprene boots alike.BowGear4 900Calibrate Crossbow Scopes. Yeah, your crossbow scope has a reticle marked to 100 yards—but have you ever actually fired a bolt from that distance? And do you know if the speed on your scope’s magnification dial matches how fast your bow actually shoots?

Most crossbow scopes are Second Focal Plane, meaning the reticle size doesn’t change as you zoom the scope in—but the gaps between the holdover points do because the sight picture gets larger or smaller. That’s why the magnification rings on crossbow scopes aren’t labeled 2x-5x, but 275 fps-375 fps (hypothetically). If you don’t know your crossbow’s speed with the exact arrow and broadhead combination you’re using, and haven’t paired it with your own rangefinder, your holdover points might not match what the reticle says. That probably won’t make much difference at 30 yards, but it can cause a miss at longer range.

If you really want to take advantage of your crossbow’s capabilities, you need to chronograph it and spend plenty of time on the range, tweaking the magnification dial until the scope’s holdover points match your rangefinder readings exactly.

Right now, in the off season, there’s plenty of time.