Garden State's small game season for gray squirrel and cottontail rabbit opens at sunrise, Saturday, September 24.

Hare and jackrabbits are included, but good luck finding one of these. In fact, these are so rare, if they even still exist in New Jersey coverts, that the daily take is limited to one of each. Again, good luck finding one, much less rousting it from its hideaway.

“Swampers,” those big bunnies found in the lowland swamps and thickets in the southern tier counties, while approaching the size of a hare, are classified as cottontails and fall under the four rabbit daily limit.

Squirrels, which we affectionately refer to as bushytails, have a five-critter daily bag limit.

Tom P.
Tom P.

In to mid-October, we look for rabbits on the grassy edges of cover at first legal shooting light when they venture out for some early eats. Then it’s a matter of some quick handling with a scattergun (we’re 20 gauge fans) as they dart back in the high stuff and vanish.

When conditions are right, we’ll sometimes try to sneak close and take headshots with our .177 caliber pellet rifles. These, and .20 and .22 caliber pellet rifles are legal, and it can be a real challenge.

Later in the season when numbers have been pruned and they stick to the thickest cover is when we beg a hunt(s) with acquaintances who have a beagle or two. Then it’s strictly shotgun time as the bunnies run and pull assorted evasive maneuvers ahead of the trailing, howling hounds.

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When it comes to squirrels, it’s either a sit and wait, or a slow stalk. The latter is exciting and the way to go when the ground and leaves are wet, thus silencing footsteps while scanning the upper limbs trying to sight a bushytail busy cutting mast or making its way from one tree to another.

The former entails locating a patch of oaks or other nut-bearing trees, taking a seat against a tree trunk, and waiting for the squirrels to show themselves. Another productive location to set up shop is just to the inside of a cornfield. Bushytails relish ears of corn and will go to great lengths to get to them. We’ve seen ears stashed in crooks in trees, and anyone who’s used corn for deer bait can attest to the rodent’s affinity for the yellow kernels.

Tom P.
Tom P.

While pellet rifles in the aforementioned calibers are legal, as are bows armed with flu flu arrows and blunt heads, we prefer the 20 gauge Nos. 5 or 6 payloads, especially as the bushytails are lightning-fast running along the ground or through the treetops.

The season for cottontails and squirrels extends through February 25, 2023. It is closed December 5-10 and 14. Legal hours are sunrise to half an hour after sunset, except November 12 (opening of pheasant and quail) when the opening is 8 am.

For those with a frontier bent, there is a muzzleloader season in two areas of the state, encompassing significant portions of its southern and northern regions. See page 60 in the ‘22-’23 Hunting & Trapping Digest for the map. Projectiles are limited to .36 caliber or less. A rifle permit is required. The season extends from September 24-November 11, then January 7-February 25, 2023. The legal hours and daily bag limit are the same.

Fluorescent (hunter) orange (cap, or a jacket or vest with at least 200 square inches visible from all sides) is required whether hunting with a scattergun, pellet rifle, muzzleloader, or bow.

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