February is small-game month in most of Mississippi, a time for rabbit and squirrel hunters to hit the fields and woods in a search for ingredients for a pot of gumbo, sauce piquant, dumplings or just plain ol’ fried happiness.

“Yeah, I love to eat them but I’d do it just for the thrill of the hunt,” said avid rabbit hunter Tom Burns of Jackson. “There is nothing more beautiful and exciting as when a beagle jumps a rabbit and the whole pack of dogs join the chase. It can be cold. I can be wet and muddy. But when those dogs strike and the chase begins, it all goes away. It’s a mood elevator that no drug can match.”

February is the rabbit hunter’s month, when deer season has ended and landowners and managers are more willing to let packs of beagles chase hillbillies and canecutters around the property. Writer David Hawkins has a feature on rabbit hunting in this edition of Mississippi Sportsman that will entertain and educate.

February is also a good time for squirrel hunters, and for the same reasons.

“I know I feel a lot better about sneaking around in the hardwoods, or letting my dog tree squirrels, when I’m not worried about deer hunters up in tree stands,” said Billy Wayne Barnes of Meridian. “I don’t want to mess up his hunt, and I don’t want him getting mad at me or my dog. 

“In February, he’s gone home, and, just as important, the leaves are mostly gone from the trees. It’s ideal for hunting with a dog, and my friends and I will go every chance we get, even if it’s just for a few hours.”

Barnes said his group kills more squirrels in February than all the rest of the season combined.

“Two major reasons, and I’ve already mentioned those,” he said. “One, we are more free to hunt more areas because deer season is closed, and two, the leaves are gone off the trees. The leaves thing is so important, especially when hunting with a dog. If the dog trees a squirrel, you have a lot better chance of spotting it in the tree once you arrive. 

“We have more fun taking children during that time than anything else. It’s easier to keep their attention since you can find so many things to talk about and show them as you move through the woods. We can point out rubs and scrapes made by deer. We can point out turkey droppings and scratchings. We can challenge them to a contest involving finding wildlife sign, and if or when the dog trees, we can take care of business.”

Barnes, 64, says it’s a part of outdoor education that has been lost over the past few decades.

“Gone are those days when kids get their introduction to hunting and outdoors on small-game hunts, especially squirrel hunting,” he said. “These days, obviously, they just start going to the deer stand when they are old enough and eventually into carrying a gun to the deer stand. That’s so easy, because you just sit and wait.

“But it’s producing a generation of people with less respect and knowledge of nature and how to understand and enjoy it. Give me a youngster for two squirrel hunts and I can teach him or her more than they will ever learn in a lifetime of sitting in a shooting house.”

Barnes passed his small-game passion to his three children and is now helping two of them pass it on to the next generation.

“I’ve got five grandchildren, three boys and two girls, and as soon as they are interested, we take them,” he said. “They deer hunt, too, but not until they’ve put in time on small game.”