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Still time to take advantage of mild winter

Wow. Winter reached its halfway point today, and so far there's been very little snow throughout most of West Virginia.

A serious columnist might explore all the effects a lack of snowfall might have on the ecosystem - how the mild winter might help more animals to survive, or how the lack of snowmelt might affect the groundwater supply - things like that.

Fortunately for you readers, I'd rather write about hunting and fishing and other fun stuff.

So I will.

Earlier this week, state wildlife officials issued a news release that urged hunters to take advantage of the hunting seasons still open.

Rabbits, grouse, raccoons, foxes and bobcats can all be hunted through Feb. 29.

In the release, Division of Natural Resources biologist Jeff McCrady outlined why February is a particularly good time to hunt for those species.

Rabbit hunters, for example, can take advantage of improved visibility and scent conditions.

By February, McCrady explained, trees and shrubs have almost completely lost their leaves, and dead weeds have been tamped down by snow and heavy rains. It's easier for hunters to keep track of their beagles, and to see the rabbits once they're flushed.

He added that the ground tends to be unusually damp, and damp ground holds the rabbits' scent better than dry ground. Winter's cool temperatures also help to keep rabbit dogs from becoming overheated.

February's advantages for grouse hunters are similar. Since grouse tend to prefer the very thickest cover, midwinter's lack of foliage becomes especially helpful.

McCrady pointed out that raccoons usually aren't very active on cold nights, but a few days of warm weather tends to get them moving. In February, stretches of relatively warm weather become increasingly frequent, especially as March draws closer. Hunters who monitor the weather reports might just be able to bag a few more coons before the season draws to a close.

For predator hunters, February is a happy time. As McCrady pointed out, prey becomes pretty scarce in mid to late winter. Hunters who camouflage themselves well and stay downwind of their quarry have a good chance to call in foxes, bobcats and coyotes.

Electronic calls are legal for varmint hunting. Rabbit or mouse distress cries are the most effective calls.

This winter's benign weather should also benefit anglers who hope to do some February fishing.

Except for Spruce Knob Lake and a few small high-mountain impoundments, the state's lakes are ice-free. So are most of the boat ramps. Launching and navigating a boat should be a snap. With lakes at their drawn-down "winter pool" levels, fish don't have as many places to hide. Such conditions bode especially well for walleye, bass and muskie fishermen.

The secret, as if there were one, is to fish deep and slow. This winter may be mild, but water temperatures will still be pretty cold. Fish might be more active after several days of sunshine and mild temperatures. Even if such a spell never comes, keeping an eye on the weather reports makes for harmless wintertime entertainment.

Trout fishermen should be excited to have such mild conditions. Trout love cold water, and get very active when water temperatures approach the high 40s.

Most Mountain State trout streams are shallow. A little sunshine warms them up quickly. And since most of them are ice-free right now, there's little chance that melt water might lower the water temperature.

So, what are all you folks waiting for? Get out there and have some fun!


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