How to Hunt Small Game: Beginner’s Guide

Small game hunting is a long-standing tradition in a lot of states in the US and other countries and has been an integral part of societies for hundreds of years.

man ready to hunt with his backpack, rifle, bandana and hat
man ready to hunt with his backpack, rifle, bandana and hat

Abundant and often more accessible to hunt than their larger counterparts, small game such as squirrels and rabbits are an excellent source of protein to supplement diets.

It also serves as a great segue to get children into the woods and teach them about hunting and helps adults get out in the woods and get some physical exercise as well.

Why is small game hunting important to preppers?

When it comes to prepping most people will try to store as much food as they possibly can. However, anyone who has done the math understands that unless you have warehouses of food, you are going to have to supplement your food stores in some way. Hunting can be a great way to do that, and small-game hunting is a natural first choice.

Requiring less equipment and complicated strategies than larger game, small game hunting can provide needed protein with limited input. It is reasonable to expect to harvest five to six squirrels or three to four rabbits on an outing, which is enough for a good size meal.

When compared to big game hunting such as deer, where you can hunt for a week or longer without harvesting an animal, small game hunting requires less commitment and time devotion. It should be noted, however, that if you can afford the time and commit to the larger game, the payoff in meat will be well worth it from a prepping standpoint.

Hunting can also provide you with other items besides meat. Fur to make pelts is not only an excellent resource to make clothing and other things from, but is also very desirable as a trade item.

Fur trading is what blazed the path and brought settlers to much of the US Midwest. There was good money in harvesting furs, and this drove a profitable market for the goods and suppliers.

Other materials from the animal can be used as well. Squirrel tails are used for tying flies for fly fishing, deer and elk antlers are used as knife handles and as a beneficial dog chew toy, and feathers from upland birds and waterfowl can be used as stuffing.

The unused bones and meat can also be turned into food for your animals, which brings a significant boost of nutrition without sacrificing precious food stores.

Basic hunting principles

When it comes to hunting, several things are universal and apply to nearly all animals and seasons. While all of this is useful knowledge, I understand that in an actual SHTF scenario the legality of it all would be lost to the necessity of needing the meat.

However, it is good practice to assume all activities as they are in the day-to-day world, and then adjust as the situation entails.


A hunting license is required for most areas. Licenses come in many varieties, and some have specific requirements such as completing a survey or purchasing another type of permit.

Some are just general hunting licenses, which is what you will need for the small game in most areas, while others are specific to one species.

Generally, the special permits will be part of a package that contains “tags.” Tags are an individual license that is good for only one animal. For example, in my state and area, you buy your hunting license, and then separate from that, you purchase deer hunting tags, which allow you one antlered (male) and one antlerless deer (female).

You can buy additional antlerless tags if you fill both of your original tags. Some places still have a paper tag that you fill out and attach to the animal; however, most areas have gone to an electronic system where you get an approval code and write it on your license (tag).

No License Needed on Owned Property

There are some exemptions to the hunting license rules that may apply to preppers. In many areas, you don’t need a license to hunt on your own property. This usually counts for anyone who is designated as a dependent under you as well. This will vary from area to area, however, and you should make sure you check your local regulations.

Hunter Safety

Another item that is relatively universal is some type of hunter’s safety course, which is known colloquially as an “Orange Card,” due to the hunter orange card that it is printed on in most states.

The hunter education classes typically cover popular hunting-related content and teach firearm and archery safety. Most also include a range session and make sure that the person is competent with their weapons. The class also covers hunting-specific activities such as using a climbing treestand and how to use the safety harnesses.

Hunting Seasons

Most species that are hunted have specific hunting seasons. The seasons generally are designed so that they do not interfere with the mating season, and initial months following the birthing/hatching period of each animal.

This is to promote reproduction and protect the younglings to ensure a healthy population for the species. Seasons are also set around the quality of the fur for furbearers. This provides that the fur is taken when the pelt is at its thickest, which increases the pelt’s desirability and value. Of course in an all-out SHTF, hunting seasons would be the least of your worries.


When it comes to gear, most are relatively universal, but most are also optional. Camouflage clothing is convenient to have, but most small game species can be hunted without it. Once you start dealing with turkey, deer, and other large game, it starts to become more critical, but you can still get by without it.

close-up of man and his dog in the hide ready to ambush

One piece of equipment that is extremely helpful is a good pack. When hunting, you need to make sure you are carrying a woodland safety kit, even if you are just going a couple of miles from home.

Ensure you wear a brightly colored vest or jacket even in the closed season for larger game to avoid any risk of injury from another hunter. If you are hunting in low light keep a flashlight handy in case you need to signal another hunter.

You also want to carry a first aid kit with trauma supplies, a good knife, extra ammo, a light source, and some resources to make fire with. If you have some sort of accident, these items could very well save your life.


Most species you hunt will have a different type of ammo needed for each, even if you hunt them with the same gun. One of the best examples is using a 12 gauge shotgun for squirrel, turkey, and dove.

With squirrel you want a high power load, but rather small pellets so that you do less damage, the standard is #6. Turkey you need a very high-powered round with heavy pellets, the standard is #4 with a specialized “turkey shot.”

For dove you need a fast and light load, low-powered #8 is the standard. Same gun, three different rounds, all of which have different characteristics required for each animal.

For those that want an extreme challenge, using a bow can provide that test. Generally, you’d think of using a bow to hunt larger prey, and for new hunters, the frustration of hitting small, moving targets can be too much.


Ethics in hunting is essential. A lot of people think hunters just want to hurt wildlife, but that could not be further from the truth. A hunter’s goal should be to take the animal as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Shot placement can be critical.

When squirrel hunting, you shoot for the head. This not only quickly dispatches the squirrel but also preserves the most meat. Shooting a squirrel in the belly will most definitely kill it, but it will take longer for it to die, it may crawl away so that you can’t find it, and it will destroy some of the meat.

You should never take an animal you don’t intend to eat, and should never leave an animal in the woods. If you shot it and it ran off, track it down and harvest it.

blue heeler herd dog, Jovie
blue heeler herd dog, Jovie

Hunting with Dogs

A lot of people enjoy hunting with dogs, and dogs can make some types of hunting much more enjoyable. A few species, like the raccoon, are virtually impossible to hunt without the aid of dogs.

Hunting dogs are dedicated and loyal animals, but have high drives and need to be worked and trained. They make great companions, and you can spend years together in the woods.

One of the problematic things about hunting dogs is that not one dog can do all the different kinds of hunting. You usually end up having one or two dogs that hunt each species, which can get pretty overwhelming if you want a dog for everything.

However, depending on the dog, it is possible to train them for more than one animal, but they still will not be able to do it all.

Some of the best hunting dog breeds to consider:

  • Beagle
  • English Setter
  • German Shorthaired Pointer
  • Treeing Walker

Commonly Hunted Small Game Animals


One of the most widely hunted species in North America is the common gray squirrel. Extraordinarily abundant and very well established you can find gray squirrels in every state in the eastern half of the US. They weigh less than 2 lbs when full-grown and are commonly called “tree rats.”

squirrel next to a Henry-Lever Action 22 Rifle

Squirrel meat is thought by many to be very tasty and has almost no “gamey” flavor that turns a lot of people off of wild meat. The meat is also very versatile and can be used in a range of recipes. It has been hunted and eaten through generations leading back to the early Native Americans.

They are easy to hunt and can be hunted by just walking slowly and listening, sitting under a large food tree such as hickory or beech, or with the use of squirrel dogs. Squirrel dogs will chase the squirrels up a tree, and the squirrels will then stop to chatter at the dog, giving you an opportunity to take a shot.

Camouflage is not really necessary, just moving slowly and quietly will usually be enough. The standard weapon used is either a 12 gauge shotgun, generally with high brass #6 shot, or a 22LR rifle with hollow point ammunition.

All shots should be aimed at the head to preserve meat. Some people also trap squirrels with some success, and some people have even taken to using large rat-type traps for squirrels.

Cooking in a slow cooker with rice seems to be the favored cooking method, though hundreds of squirrel recipes exist, as it is an extremely versatile meat.

Lately, there have been warning about eating the brains of squirrels, considered a delicacy in the south, due to the possibility of the presence of spongiform encephalopathy disease, a mad cow variant that is transmissible to humans.

The fox squirrel is another commonly hunted squirrel. With a range that covers the entire US mainland, they are very well established but not quite as abundant as the eastern gray squirrel, though they can still be found in large numbers.

Fox squirrels are larger than their gray cousins, with adults being over 2 lbs. They are a combination of dark and light browns and have much larger tails than the gray.

Fox squirrel meat is not as desired as the gray’s due to what many believe to be a sub-par taste and it’s tendency to be tougher, but it is still a palatable and easily cooked wild game.

The same weapon and ammo choice are used for fox squirrels as the grays. The Fox squirrels tend to live closer to the woodland edges, and can often be located by walking field edges near the woodline.

On the west coast, the primary squirrel that is hunted is the western gray squirrel. Western Grays are much like the eastern cousins; however, they are a bit larger and can be found up to two and a half pounds. They are generally shyer and will hide if they sense someone approaching, so most hunters will sit in an active area and wait for them to emerge from their nests.

When hunting squirrels you first want to find a wooded area with a lot of food-bearing trees, this is where the squirrels will spend the majority of their time. Trees such as beech, hickory, oak, and pine are their primary food sources, but they will also graze on berries and small insects.

The most common technique is to walk in just before sunrise and set up under a stand of these food trees. It should also be noted that the squirrels will “cut” or eat different nuts at different times, so it’s beneficial to observe what they are eating at the time.

The two weapon choices most common are the twelve gauge shotgun and 22 caliber rifle, though shotguns of any caliber and small rifles such as the .17 calibers are also acceptable. For the shotguns, you want to use a high brass shotshell with #6 shots being the most common.

The .22 just needs to be a hollow point. With both guns, you will want to aim for the head to minimize meat damage and ensure a quick kill.

eastern cottontail rabbit


Rabbit is one of the top species hunted by small game hunters. The most common rabbit in North America is the eastern cottontail rabbit. These rabbits range from across most of the eastern, midwestern, and southern states.

Weighing as much as three or four pounds, the eastern cottontails have gray or brown fur, and a white tail that resembles a cotton ball.

Rabbit is one of the top desired game animals for meat and is hugely abundant and well established in most areas. Rabbit is generally hunted with a shotgun. Usually, 12 gauge and high brass, small shot rounds such as a #8 are most commonly used.

There are other rabbit species hunted in North America. The snowshoe hare, white-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed jackrabbit, and brush rabbit are all hunted regularly.

Rabbit hunting is one of the primary uses of hunting dogs. The dogs are trained to follow the scent of rabbits into their hiding places among the brush and “flush” the rabbits out where they can be shot. Rabbits can also be trapped using snares placed over their “tunnels” they make through the underbrush.

When hunting rabbits, you want to find an open field with tall grass or underbrush, preferably bordered on at least two sides with woodlands.

If using a dog, you want to let the dog into the field to begin searching for a scent. The dog will run back and forth in a zigzag pattern until it either jumps a rabbit or finds a scent to follow.

If it catches a scent, it will follow it until they jump the rabbit. When the rabbits break is when you take a shot. Be sure to lead the rabbit and shoot just in front of it to account for its speed.

If hunting without a dog, it’s good to walk the field edges. If you circle the field without jumping a rabbit, you would cut further into the area and do another lap around. You repeat this until you reach the middle of the field.

Shotguns are the preferred weapon for rabbit, with high brass and small shot being the preferred ammo due to its speed and small pellet size. #8 seems to be the most common.


You’ll find coyotes all across North America as they have adapted to live almost anywhere. They are relatively easy to find in prairies, grasslands, deserts, and even in people’s backyards.

The best way to find coyotes is to check the habitat where their prey lives. Their diet consists of small birds and mice. Check the area for dog-like prints and fresh scat. They have excellent hearing so maintaining as much silence as possible is important.

You can also find them terrorizing farms and livestock, causing residents to often hunt them on their property. In fact, most people will give you permission to hunt them on your property if they are a nuisance.

Most .22 flat-shooting rifles are a good choice to snipe them from afar while a 12-gauge shotgun can be used in close quarters for its tight spread. You’ll want to check the local hunting regulations before you come into possession of a dead coyote.

There are generally few restrictions on hunting coyotes however different states might have rules about what you can use to shoot them.



The ruffed grouse is an upland bird that is avidly hunted. Grouse are highly desired for the meat and provide an exciting hunt. Comparable to chickens, the grouse can weigh up to 15 lbs.

They are common across most of the northern US states as well as Canada. Grouse can be hunted by slow, walk and stalk techniques, or with the aid of dogs. They are generally hunted with shotguns and high brass #6 or #8 shot shotshells.

Grouse like the woodlands, and will tend to avoid open fields. They like the dense cover of underbrush and can usually be heard better than spotted by their unique drumming sound. To hunt grouse, you need to get off the logging roads and into the thick brush. Grouse will flush, and you will have just a second or two to get a shot off.

Make sure you read the flight path and shoot in front of the bird where you think it will be. Sometimes you will see a plume of feathers, but oftentimes you won’t know if you hit one or not until you search for the bird, which is where a dog becomes a big help. Remember the thicker and thornier the brush the better the chances it holds grouse.

Most grouse hunters will use a 12 or 20-gauge double barrel shotgun with high brass shotshells with 7 ½ or smaller shot.


The common pheasant is another upland bird that is heavily hunted as a meat source and is considered a delicacy to many. The pheasant can be found in most US states except the southeast, and across most of Europe.

bird snare with trapped pheasant
bird snare with trapped pheasant

Generally hunted with shotguns and dogs, the birds will flush from cover and are shot from the air. Heavy loads of #4 shot are typically used to get through the pheasant’s thick plumage. Much on the larger side, two pheasants will make a decent meal.

Pheasants know they are vulnerable when they fly so to avoid flying, grouse will attempt to run until they feel cornered.

A line of hunters across the field will generally drive the birds deeper and deeper into the field. When the pheasant feels cornered, or they run out of room to run, they will take flight and give the hunters a shot.

Good weapon control is necessary to make sure hunters don’t fire toward one another as the pheasants will often cross the shooting lanes of multiple hunters. Once he is out of your zone, you have to let the next hunter take the shot.



Dove hunting is as much a tradition in the South as Thanksgiving dinner. Every year, families or groups of friends pour out onto their trusty dove fields to hunt these migratory game birds.

Doves are shot as they fly over, and are generally hunted with shotguns and lower weight #8 shot. Having a semi-automatic or automatic shotgun helps tremendously as more than one shot can be put on a bird if needed or multiple birds can be targeted on each pass.

The breast of a dove does not yield a significant amount of meat, so typically a person can eat six to eight doves in a sitting.

They are great tables’ fare, with grilling being a favored cooking style. No dogs or specialized equipment is needed for a dove hunt, just a shotgun, box of shells, and somewhere to store your downed birds.

Due to the regulations on migratory birds, cleaning them in the field is frowned upon and regulated in many areas, so it’s best to just take the entire bird home for processing.

Open fields are the best bet for catching the birds flying over. If you can find a field that is surrounded by woodland or has a set of power lines cutting through it, you should have a good shot at getting some doves.

Also watch for gravel roads or parking lots, as the birds eat small pebbles and stones to grind their food. Shooting them while they are on the ground is prohibited in most areas, and the best chance to get a shot is while they are on the wing and either crossing a field or coming in to land.


Of all the upland birds and waterfowl, none are considered as delicious as ducks. There are twenty-two varieties of ducks hunted in the US. Ducks are generally hunted by large bore shotguns with heavy loads and shot while in flight.

A blind is set up with decoys and calls are used to invite the ducks to land in the water near the blind, when the ducks are approaching, the hunters will take their shots. Dogs are generally used for going out into the water and retrieving the ducks.

Duck hunting does require some specialized equipment. While the dogs, calls, blinds, and decoys will make you a much more efficient hunter, you can still hunt without them. However, there is a special “license” generally called a “duck stamp” that must be purchased in addition to your standard hunting license.

Also, you can not use lead shot while hunting waterfowl. The waterfowl and other pond-dwelling animals will eat the lead shot and die from lead poisoning. Copper shot and steel shot are the most common waterfowl loads, but several different alloys exist on the market.

The most basic setup is to find a pond that ducks frequent and hide along the banks as covered as possible. Use a standard duck call until you see the ducks begin to descend to the pond to land. Take your shot when they get into range before they hit the water. If you don’t have a dog, you can always wade out to recover the birds.


Quails are considered the most popular upland game birds in America as they are challenging to hunt for both beginner and experienced hunters. There are many species of quail that you can find all over the US and they can be easily recognized by their unique plumage.

Quail can be found in a variety of habitats instead of a single environment. The commonality is that they love low woody brush or thick bushes when they look around for food.

Much like hunting geese, you’ll want to stick with a 12-gauge shotgun since you will be shooting in tight quarters. The best time to find them foraging for food is at sunrise and sunset. Oftentimes you can use a dog to flush them out of their cover while you wait to take the shot.

Hunt Now, Not Later

Regardless of what you decide to hunt, or if you are just learning about it in case you need it later in life, hunting can be a gratifying hobby. There will always be people that believe hunting is wrong, or that hunters don’t care about the animals.

But for the people who do know about hunting, or have experienced it firsthand, they know how special it is. Hunting is also considered the best conservation tool to thin populations and keep the surviving animals healthy.

Don’t wait until you need the meat to survive to give hunting a try. Take a hunter’s safety course and get out into the woods and learn to appreciate what it is like to kill, clean, cook, and eat an animal.

Down the line, if you ever need it, you will have not only the knowledge but also the skills and experience to harvest game to supplement your food stores.

7 thoughts on “How to Hunt Small Game: Beginner’s Guide”

    1. Miss Patricia, my guideline has always been to first check the overall condition of the animal, if it appears healthy it usually is, followed by eviscerating the carcass and inspecting the liver, if that has good color and not spotted, I use the animal. This has always worked for me. I carry hand sanitizer with me to clean my hands after cleaning the animal, or you could wear gloves if that is preferable to you.

  1. For squirrel I use 22 LR target ammo and only take head shots. This ammo is sub-sonic and much quieter the 22 LR high velocity. There is no need to use hollow point ammo. Just be sure that the squirrel is against a tree so there is no danger of a stray round. Take your time and do not over scare the squirrels and you will have a good hunt. And can hunt the woods over again the next several days. I use full camo including my face and hands and my main squirrel gun is covered in camo bow tape. I do this more to be not seen by other people. and with using the much quieter 222LR Target ammo out of a long barrel rifle I sound a lot farther away than I really am. Just mark the down squirrels and slowly work your way over to pick them up. I have many times shot more squirrels as I was going to pick up a down squirrel. Just be sure that the squirrel is really dead before you try to pick it up. They have a strong bite if in doubt just put a very close range shot in to there head. I DO NOT use a shotgun on squirrels and can always tell when I am in a woods that has been shot gunned

  2. if you use 22CB caps or 22CB longs in a long barrel rifle it is almost as quiet as a suppressed rifle. You will not have the range of regular 22LR but with carful stoking you can get close enough to use this type of ammo for small game hunting. The quiet factor can be real useful in an SHTF time.

  3. I hunted all during my teen years, and I married a hunter at age 19. The first time I cooked squirrel for supper, I didn’t remember that Mama cut them up into small pieces so you couldn’t tell what it was. I battered and fried the entire squirrel and put him on the plate with his 4 nubs of legs sticking straight up. He looked like a rat. My husband turned green and said very nicely, “Honey, I don’t think I can eat this.” So I called Mama to find out what I should do.

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