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Squirrel season a matter of tradition

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trees still have leaves and there's no real nip in the air just yet, but West Virginia's squirrel-hunting season is almost upon us.

Opening day is Sept. 14. State wildlife officials expect thousands of sportsmen to take advantage of the 4 1/2-month season before it closes on Jan. 31.

"West Virginia has a lot of squirrels, and it has a lot of squirrel hunters," said Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources' assistant wildlife chief. "There's a strong squirrel-hunting tradition in this state."

Statistics confirm Johansen's statement. A 2010 survey revealed that nearly 80,000 Mountain State residents hunt squirrels. That total exceeds by roughly 20,000 the number of spring turkey hunters, and by more than 60,000 the number of bear hunters.

Only deer hunting, with 179,000 participants, outstripped squirrel hunting.

"There are a couple of good reasons why we have so many squirrel hunters," Johansen said. "First, close to three-fourths of West Virginia is forested, and most of that forest is the oak-hickory type. Conditions for squirrels are almost ideal here. You might even say West Virginia is 'almost heaven' for squirrels."

Back when deer, bear and turkeys were relatively scarce, people had little choice but to hunt squirrels. That, in part, helped ingrain squirrel hunting as a "must-do."

Those hunters introduced their children and grandchildren to the pastime, a practice that has been upheld by generation after generation.

"That's a big part of why the squirrel-hunting tradition is so strong in West Virginia," Johansen said. "Many hunters' first experiences in the woods were gained while hunting squirrels with dad or granddad."

Johansen called squirrels "an ideal animal for a young person's first hunt."

"Squirrels are very abundant," he explained. "So there's a very good chance that the young hunter is going to get to see [his or her quarry] in action, moving around in the forest canopy."

Squirrel hunters don't have to worry about disguising their scent, and while they should remain quite still, an occasional movement or whisper isn't likely to ruin the hunt.

"Also - and especially since we started opening the season in mid-September instead of early October, weather conditions tend to be very moderate," Johansen said. "When you have youngsters out there, it's a lot easier to teach the principles of woodsmanship when the kids are comfortable than when it's freezing cold and their teeth are chattering."

DNR officials caught some flak in 2011 when they went to the earlier opening day. Critics complained that female squirrels might be killed while they were still nursing pups born just weeks earlier.

Johansen said there is "no evidence that any effect on the population has taken place," although he acknowledged that agency biologists have no data to confirm that.

"Basically, squirrel populations are more dependent on mast abundance than on anything else," he explained. "If you have a good mast crop, with plenty of acorns and other nuts, squirrels will produce a lot of young for the following season."

Last year's mast crop was what DNR biologists call "spotty," meaning there were areas of abundance and areas of scarcity.

"Overall, squirrel populations should be pretty good this fall," Johansen said.

If anecdotal reports can be believed, squirrels could be extraordinarily plentiful next year. DNR biologists say beechnuts and hickory nuts, two early season squirrel staples, appear to be quite abundant. Ditto for walnuts, which squirrels tend to exploit a little later in the season. The acorn crop once again appears to be spotty.   

Those observations will be confirmed or modified in late September, when DNR officials publish their annual Mast Report and Hunting Outlook.

By then, though, the season will have been open for a week or more. Hunters who head afield early in the season would be well advised to find nut-laden hickory or beech trees, since squirrels tend to concentrate on those species first.

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.


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