Squirrel hunters should go nuts
Biologist predicts best season ever By Gary Garth
Special to The Courier-Journal
It's impossible to say how many hunters will be in the woods Saturday morning for the opening of Kentucky's 2004-05 squirrel season, but those that are there should find plenty of game.
"We're expecting this to be the best squirrel season we've had on record," said John Morgan, small-game specialist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. "We expect hunters to see an average of about 2.5 squirrels per hour. That's pretty good."
Averages can be a little misleading, of course. An early-morning hunter under a hickory tree where squirrels are feeding probably will bag a limit and be home in time for breakfast, while another hunter two ridges over might be fortunate to hear a squirrel bark.
Morgan's point is this: Squirrels are plentiful. He bases this prediction on data gathered from hunters who participate in the department's voluntary surveys, which have been conducted annually since 1995. Hunters keep a record of their hours in the field, numbers of squirrels spotted and killed and counties in which they hunted.
Morgan admits this is not the most scientific method of gathering data. Only a handful (114 last season) of the state's estimated 110,000 squirrel hunters participate in the program. But because squirrels are notoriously difficult to count, Morgan is thankful for any help he can get.
A slightly more accurate way of measuring squirrel production is by making a grocery count. Fish and Wildlife officials do this by tracking annual mast production, something that's been done since the 1950s. Mast means the acorns, hickory nuts and other foodstuff that squirrels eat.
Biologists make their population estimates based on how much food is available. A strong nut crop directly relates to good squirrel production.
"Basically, if there is a good mast crop, then the squirrels are healthy going into their breeding season," Morgan said. "Our mast survey from last year was the best we've had in 20 years. We've had good mast production three years in a row, and typically it has been pretty consistent across the state."
Squirrel season has been extended through the last day of February. For nearly as long as anyone can remember the traditional closing date had been Jan.31, but the Fish and Wildlife Commission added a month to give hunters extra time in the field.
If recent trends continue, few will take advantage of the February extension. Most squirrel hunters do their work early. Morgan said 43percent of the squirrels killed are taken during the first seven weeks of a season that lasts more than six months. This is a little surprising because squirrel hunting is generally more productive and more comfortable after the trees shed their leaves, oak mast matures and the temperature and humidity drop.
The reason: Deer.
"Squirrel hunting should actually get better as the season progresses," Morgan said. "But once modern gun (deer) season kicks in, you can almost write off squirrel hunting."
Small-game hunting in general has declined in recent years, a drop that officials attribute to the surge in deer hunting. However, squirrel hunting remains fairly popular.
Squirrels abound in nearly every county. In August and September they generally are most active during the early morning and late evening. Morgan recommends early-season hunters focus on hickory mast, which matures earlier than oak.
"There are plenty of opportunities and plenty of (game) resources," he said. "All people have to do is go."
Kentucky's 2004-05 squirrel season will be Aug.21-Nov.12 and Nov.15-Feb.28 (small-game seasons are closed during opening weekend of the modern firearm deer hunt). The daily limit is six squirrels. For more information check the current hunting guide, call (800) 858-1549 or go to fw.ky.gov.
In Indiana, squirrel season opened Sunday and will run through Jan.31 south of U.S. 40 and Dec.31 north of U.S. 40. The daily limit is five. For more information check the 2004-05 Indiana hunting guide, call the Department of Natural Resources at (317) 232-4080 or go to state.in.us/dnr/fishwild/index2.htm.
This should also bring a booming TICK season too.
I've been meaning to hit the woods for some pre-season tree rat hunting.
Conditions have been right this year for a good mast crop. One can only hope...