As a youngster growing up in the Carolina high country, I spent plenty of time hunting rabbits in the company of older sportsmen and a whole bevy of beagles.
Similarly, there were treasured days, back when there were still enough wild quail to justify the effort, of following rangy pointers across fields of broomsedge and through overgrown fence rows. There was even the delightful blend of human and canine companionship associated with late-season squirrel hunting with a feist or mountain cur.
But when it came to out and out fun, cubed to the nth degree, nothing quite matched a day of mixed bag hunting by myself. Well, that had better be qualified a bit, because invariably I had an all-purpose dog or two along, usually of indeterminate lineage where the advisable course was to make discussion of their breed and bloodlines off limits.
Although it seems no one much takes advantage of the opportunity, it's still possible to enjoy the same kind of mixed-bag hunts that brought me such an ample measure of pleasure as a youngster. For that matter, they still do today, and perhaps the best way to make the point is to blend memories from boyhood with today's approach.
A good place to begin is with what highbrow lawyers call "certifying the witness."
In this case I'm the witness, and my certification comes in the form of a bit more than 50 marvelously misspent years hunting the Carolinas and occasionally elsewhere. Most of that hunting involved small game, for during the early decades of my hunting career turkeys were about as common as dodos or the Carolina parakeet, and whitetails weren't much more plentiful.
The months of merriment for the mixed-bag hunter are January and February. Another deer season has come and gone, and amidst cold weather and prevalent cabin fever, the glories of turkey hunting and greening-up spring seem a distant dream. Yet all sorts of hunting opportunities remain.
The rabbit, quail and squirrel seasons extend until the end of February; woodcock season is open throughout January; and you can hunt ducks and doves through much of January as well. Best of all, whether you hunt at private land, roam small Wildlife Management Areas, or take to the vast acreage of the Sumter or Francis Marion National Forest, chances are excellent that you will enjoy plenty of elbow room.
As a boy and man, my mixed-bag hunting has followed pretty much a standard path, and it's one I would recommend to anyone who realizes the hunting is only part of it.
That being said, mixed-bag hunting doesn't have to follow a rigid formula, and it should include plenty of time for resting, watching and waiting, and the sort of quiet reflection that soothes the hunter's soul. The fact that these "pauses-to-ponder" often put heft in the game bag is just a lagniappe.
Mixed-bag days begin well before dawn with a hearty breakfast to fuel the inner man and help eat up some of the miles likely to be covered. With a thermos and hefty field lunch tucked away in the capacious game pocket of an old Duxbak jacket, I'm ready to go. Depending on my tentative plans, lunch will go afield with me or await a return to my truck.
It likely will include three sandwiches (including what a buddy from my boyhood called a "dessert sandwich" in the form of peanut-butter-and jelly or peanut-butter-and-banana), a weighty slab of fruitcake left from the holidays or something similar to soothe the sweet tooth, fruit in the form of apples and oranges, and maybe some nuts or hard candy to ward off any tendencies to become peckish late in the day.
With a bottle of water in my day pack and a thermos of hot chocolate or tea, the basic needs of food and water are taken care of in fine fashion.
Mixed-bag hunters should make every effort to be at their destination before night beings to give way to light. They may watch the winter sky put on its morning mantle of scarlet in a dove field, at the edge of a pond where wood ducks have been using, or in a patch of mature hardwoods where there are plenty of squirrel cuttings. Just remember if you're after waterfowl, you shouldn't be carrying any shotshells loaded with lead.
Once these early morning pursuits, all of which involve watchful waiting as opposed to the action that will fill most of the day, have been completed, it is time to get down to the serious business of putting game in your hunting jacket while covering ground via shank's mare.
As a boy I invariably did this in the company of dogs, and you never knew whether they were going to jump a rabbit, run up a covey of quail or tree a squirrel. Once in a great while there would be a woodcock in the mix, and any dove that flew over during the open season would be saluted (and, rather rarely, hit).
The terrain you hunt and the nature of the game available will, to a considerable degree, dictate the progress of a mixed bag day. Rabbits and quail, although the latter are increasingly rare in the wild (if you kill a limit of wild bobwhites it's my studied opinion you have accomplished a greater feat than taking a whitetail buck that scores 140 points), are found in much the same type of habitat.
Take a leisurely stroll through fields of broom sedge, planted pines in their first three years, along ditch banks or fence rows, or down power line rights-of-way, kicking every brush pile or likely bit of cover you come to along the way.
All the while, keep a keen eye out for the tell-tale sign that gives a rabbit away in its day-time bed or "hide." That is its bright eyes, for rest assured the rest of the cottontail blends into his surroundings wonderfully well.
As to whether you shoot it in the bed or kick it up, well that's your choice. My Grandpa Joe invariably took the former course, suggesting only a fool would give sure enough meat in the pot an opportunity to get away, while Dad insisted the sporting thing to do was "jump" the rabbit and take your chances.
Along the way it's always possible you'll flush quail, and that consideration brings us to the serious matter of what constitutes the best weapon for mixed-bag forays. For the better part of two decades, as a boy and into the impoverished years of adulthood and graduate school, I enjoyed perfectly satisfying and usually modestly successful hunting of this sort with a single-shot 20-gauge choked as tight as a skinflint's purse strings. It was the only gun I had, and while it served perfectly well for squirrels, it made shots at rabbits in overdrive or anything that flew pretty darn problematic.
Something with a wider pattern and the option of more than a single shot is, of course, a much better choice. My suggestion would be a double barrel, pump, or semi-automatic with choking in the modified- or improved-cylinder range.
Such a gun is ideal not only for quail but for any woodcock and doves you might come across, not to mention jump-shooting ducks. If you perchance deal with geese or hunting squirrels with a dog (where they likely will be as high up a tree as they can get and pasted tight against a limb), a full choke could be in order. Of course, interchangeable chokes, which are almost a given with today's shotguns, offer an answer to that dilemma.
Speaking of woodcock, and for that matter ducks, you have to get even more specific in terms of where you hunt than is the case with rabbits and quail.
Timberdoodles are almost always found in timbered bottoms or flats along creeks where they can worm away (worms are their entire diet) with a will. You can walk along, shooting at any you flush ("at" is the operative word, because they can be devilishly difficult to hit), or if you have a pointing dog, make things a bit more predictable in terms of readiness.
Incidentally, woodcock hold tight and can be great when it comes to training a young dog. The biggest problem with them is the total unpredictability of woodcock. Migratory by nature, they are either there or they aren't; it's that simple and perplexing.
Often the bottomlands frequented by woodcock will be quite close to the day time resting and feeding grounds for ducks, especially woodies.
They love to paddle around at creeks and small rivers, come ashore to gorge on acorns, and generally haunt places where the big boats can't go and where blinds are never found. By easing along shorelines, wading, or floating in a canoe, it's possible to enjoy meaningful action on ducks. Chances are pretty darn good you'll see a bunch of bushytails as well.
The above options involve covering ground in one way or another and are the way to go during the heart of the day when mixed-bag hunting. As you move toward late afternoon, it's time to rest weary legs and do a bit of watchful waiting.
This can take place in the squirrel woods, where bushytails, at least on sunny days, will invariably be active in the hour or so leading up to dusk, or perhaps at the edge of a pond or wetland area frequented by waterfowl.
In the case of squirrels, look for plentiful cuttings, new nests, or best of all, a den tree. When it comes to ducks, prior knowledge is recommended, although obtaining that "prior knowledge" may mean some scouting or just taking a chance on where you set up.
No matter how you decide to spend a day indulging in the timeless pleasures of mixed-bag hunting, the end result is invariably predictable.
For those of my generation, it marks a marvelous chance to call back yesteryear and the joys of boyhood. For newcomers, it opens up meaningful new horizons on hunting.
For everyone, it means reaching day's end deliciously tired, fulfilled, and in virtually every instance, coming home with some meat for the hunter's table.