Steve Znamenacek: Hunting chances abound | SteamboatToday.com

Steve Znamenacek: Hunting chances abound

We finally have entered winter, and it took some time in coming yet again. Another warm fall allowed needed time to wrap up loose ends before winter but made the hunting a little more difficult as the deer and elk had plenty of high country to continue to use. But let's not forget that hunting is not over with the end of big-game seasons. Hunting for waterfowl, small game and furbearers can be some of the most enjoyable hunting around.

Waterfowl hunting for ducks, geese and coots is an excellent way to get in the field and hunt through the end of January. Here in the Pacific flyway, waterfowl hunting started Sept. 26 for the first split and ended in early October. The second split is running and will end Jan. 31. The Continental Divide splits Colorado into two waterfowl "flyways," the central flyway east of the Divide and the Pacific flyway west of the Divide. North Park, South Park/San Luis Valley and the northern Front Range are separated out from the two primary flyways. Regulations including bag limits differ between the flyways, so referring to the Colorado waterfowl brochure is important before venturing afield.

Although opportunities for waterfowl hunting diminish at higher elevations with the progression of winter, jump shooting ducks and geese often is possible on larger rivers and areas with open water remaining. And a trip to lower elevations or into adjacent flyways may reward those who aren't ready to put an end to the hunting seasons. My best times in the field have been in a waterfowl blind, or seated in the willows by the side of a pond calling and hoping for a pintail, canvasback or redhead. Whether it's the sound of a cackling pheasant rooster, the low-flying pass of a northern harrier or the wing beats of 30 mallards setting in to the decoys, the hunt always is much more than just that.

Small-game hunting opportunities in January and February include species such as cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, jackrabbits, fox squirrel, pine squirrel, Abert's squirrel and pheasant. With this many species to hunt, there is no excuse for not taking a little time to get in the field, and the pelts of furbearers may be desirable on fur markets, as well. Furbearers include mink, pine marten, badger, red fox, gray fox, swift fox, striped skunk, western spotted skunk, beaver, muskrat, long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel, coyote, bobcat, opossum, ring-tailed cat and raccoon. The species most commonly hunted this time of year in Routt County are squirrel, fox, bobcat, jackrabbits and coyotes, and a short drive west of Craig puts you in the middle of great cottontail rabbit hunting. Weapons can include small caliber rifles or handguns, shotguns, handheld bows and crossbows. If trapping is of interest, live traps including box traps, cage type traps and snead-design colony traps may legally be used to trap furbearers. Refer to the Colorado small-game brochure for a complete understanding of legal methods of take and additional regulations and season dates. Small-game hunting can be challenging and a great way to get outdoors. It is also a great way to mentor youths and keep them excited about hunting opportunities.

But if you decide you are finished with the 2009-10 hunting season, then consider the ice fishing opportunities that are found throughout the north central mountains. North Park is recognized statewide for the opportunities at Delaney lakes, Lake John and Big Creek lakes, and Routt County provides great opportunities in Stagecoach Reservoir, Steamboat and Pearl lakes, and numerous other small lakes throughout the Flat Tops and northern Routt County. Many are best accessed through the use of snow machine, skies or snowshoes. For those of us who enjoy the outdoors, there is no better way to find some quiet solitude than a winter hunt or some time on the ice waiting for that next bite.

Steve Znamenacek is the District Wildlife Manager in Hayden.