Upland Game Hunts Look Promising in Utah

Cottontail rabbit numbers in Uinta Basin might be near record high

Ruffed Grouse
Lots of ruffed grouse will be available when the state's forest grouse hunt opens Sept. 1. (Photo by Ron Stewart)
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR)
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR)

Salt Lake City, UT -(AmmoLand.com)- 2015 was a great year to hunt cottontail rabbits in Utah. 2016 should be too.

The cottontail rabbit hunt is among the upland game hunts that start Sept. 1. Jason Robinson, upland game coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says cottontail rabbit hunting should be “as good as it gets” in Utah this fall and winter.

“If you're a new hunter who's just getting started,” he says, “or you know a youngster or an adult you'd like to introduce to hunting, hunting cottontails is a great way to get started. And I can't think of a better year to start than this one.”

Robinson and Blair Stringham, migratory game bird coordinator for the DWR, provide the following preview for some of the upland game hunts that start Sept. 1. A map that shows where each of the following species lives in Utah is available on pages 33, 38 and 39 of the 2016–2017 Utah Upland Game and Turkey Guidebook.

The free guidebook is available on our website.

Cottontail rabbits

Cottontail rabbits experience a 10-year population cycle: after topping out, the population declines for about five years. Then, after bottoming out, the number of rabbits starts climbing again. Right now, the rabbit population in Utah is at the top of the cycle.

DWR biologists drive 15 different survey routes and count the number of rabbits they see.

“We're still collecting data,” Robinson says, “but it looks like rabbit numbers are as good, or better, than they were last year. In the case of northeastern Utah, they might be near a record high.”

If you're in the right habitat, you should find good rabbit hunting across the state. If you're looking for a hotspot, though, Dushesne and Uinta counties — in northeastern Utah — are the places to be.

“Rabbits in both counties are doing exceptionally well,” Robinson says.

Finding rabbits

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 hide in. If you're in mid-elevation areas, look for hillsides that have large boulders, thick sagebrush or other thick vegetation in which the rabbits can hide.

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 says. “Early morning and late in the afternoon are prime times for rabbits to feed.”

Hunting tips

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 — and then sitting down, scanning the surrounding area and waiting for 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!

Forest grouse

Two forest grouse projects are underway in Utah. One of the projects — in the Logan Canyon area — was launched by a graduate student at Utah State University in September 2015. And Robinson recently surveyed grouse in areas near Strawberry Reservoir.

“We don't have a lot of hard data yet,” Robinson says, “but based on what I saw, what the USU researchers are seeing, reports I'm receiving from DWR biologists across the state and the weather patterns we've had since last fall, I think the grouse hunt — for both ruffed and dusky grouse — will be above average this year. I think it'll be a good hunt.”

Finding grouse

Robinson says 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 in, or close to, stands of aspen trees. They're especially attracted to stands that have lots of young aspens. Aspen stands that have shrubs with berries and a water source nearby are especially attractive to ruffed grouse.

“You'll often find ruffed grouse along streams, near aspen stands, that have willows and chokecherry bushes along their edges,” Robinson says.

Dusky grouse are distributed over a wider range in Utah than ruffed grouse. Some of the best places to hunt 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,” he says, “but it can be challenging to get to the areas in those mountains where the grouse live.”

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 heavy 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,” Robinson says, “the birds will be done feeding. If you wait until then, plenty of bird scent will be on the ground for your dog to follow.”

Hunting tips

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 fly away fast.

Mourning and white-winged doves

The dove hunt is another great hunt for new and young hunters.

“The areas where doves live are easy to access,” Stringham says, “and the weather on opening day is usually warm and pleasant. Make sure you bring plenty of shotgun shells.”

Nationwide dove survey results won't be available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until after the hunt starts, so Stringham isn't certain how many doves will migrate through Utah this fall. Based on surveys DWR biologists conducted in Utah this past spring, however, plenty of locally produced doves should be available.

“The number of doves that are born and reared each year is usually pretty steady. It doesn't fluctuate much,” he says. “The biggest factor is the weather. If the weather stays warm and dry, plenty of doves should be available for the Sept. 1 opener.”

Finding doves

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,” Stringham says.

Another thing to look for is concentrations of trees near grain fields and watering holes. Doves will fly into these areas before roosting for the night.

Stringham says 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,” he says, “so the birds tend to stay a little longer in that part of the state.”

If the area you'd like to hunt is private property, Stringham reminds you that you must have written permission from the landowner before hunting the area.

Stringham says a hot, dry summer will probably affect the number of watering holes and grain available to doves this fall.

“If you find an area that has a good watering hole and plenty of crops near it,” he says, “you could do really well.”

Hunting tips

The key to hunting doves is locating the areas they're using, and then setting up along flight paths the birds are using. As doves fly past, they provide quick, challenging shots. Bring plenty of shotgun shells loaded with No. 8 or No. 7 shot.

Snowshoe hare

Snowshoe hares are another species for which formal surveys aren't conducted. But, based on weather patterns since last fall, and observations by DWR biologists in the field, Robinson expects a good snowshoe hare hunt this fall and winter.

Finding hares

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.

If you live along the Wasatch Front, a good area to look is the Uinta Mountains east of U.S. Highway 150 (also known as the Mirror Lake Highway). Logan Canyon is also an area worth checking out.

“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 says. “The print looks like a miniature snowshoe.”

Robinson says snowshoe hares don't have a large home range.

“If you find an area that has lots of tracks in it,” he says, “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.

Hunting tips

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.

About Utah Division of Wildlife Resources:

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) is part of the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR). In addition to managing and protecting Utah’s wildlife, we manage hunting and fishing opportunities within the state.

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