Squirrel hunting is a Kentucky tradition that dates back to the pioneer era.
But hunting squirrels in the spring is relatively new. The season started as an experiment on four state wildlife management areas in 1994, and went statewide in 1999.
“Squirrels are our most stable and abundant small game species,” said Ben Robinson, wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
While squirrel hunting is typically a fall pursuit — a time when nuts ripen on hickory, oak and walnut trees — wildlife biologists studying the squirrel’s life cycle determined that it makes biological sense to hunt them in the spring, too.
“In June there are a lot of squirrels in the woods,” said Robinson. “Young squirrels are away from their parents, out on their own.”
The 2010 spring squirrel season is June 5-18, with a daily bag limit of six squirrels.
Squirrels have two breeding seasons: December through January, and again in June through July. “Squirrels nest in tree cavities, and make leaf nests, too,” said Robinson. “Young leave the nest after 45 days. Litters are typically three to four squirrels.”
Kentucky’s spring season is timed to coincide with the spike in squirrel numbers after the year’s first nesting period — a time when hunting won’t severely impact populations.
Since trees are leaf-covered in early June, squirrels have lots of places to hide. Therefore, .410 and 20-gauge shotguns are a good weapon choice for hunters, but rimfire rifles (.22 caliber), air guns (.177, .20 and .22 caliber), and small caliber muzzleloading rifles (.32 and .40 caliber), are also effective.
Hunting squirrels with dogs puts a new spin on a hunting sport that most people associate with a solitary hunter, quietly sneaking through the woods.
“Hunting with dogs is very different, it’s a social atmosphere,” said Karen Waldrop, the department’s director of wildlife, who has been squirrel hunting with dogs since age 20. “Spring is an ideal time to introduce a youngster to squirrel hunting. There’s a lot happening in the woods besides the squirrels; flowers are blooming and birds are singing.”
Waldrop said the Feist and Mountain Cur are two breeds of dogs used for squirrel hunting. They are high energy, hardworking little dogs that use all their senses to find squirrels.
“They follow the trail of the squirrel to a tree and the good dogs stay on the tree, with their feet up, baying,” said Waldrop. “With my dog there’s a different bark, if she’s seen a squirrel, or just smelled one.”
Good squirrel hunting is available in all 120 Kentucky counties. The state has an estimated 72,000 squirrel hunters, according to the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife Associated Recreation. “We have a core group of avid squirrel hunters,” said Robinson. “From the entries in wildlife cooperator surveys, we see that a lot of our squirrel hunters average more than 12 trips afield.”
The gray squirrel is the dominant species in the eastern third of Kentucky, with a higher percentage of (red) fox squirrels the further west you go. Squirrels live about three years. Gray squirrels are most often found in large tracts of forest lands. Fox squirrels prefer small woodlots and wooded fencerows of agricultural areas. In the wild, they fall prey to foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls.
Ultimately, the size of the fall nut crop limits the size of squirrel populations because of food availability. Nuts mature in mid- September and October, but weather extremes, such as late frosts in spring and summer droughts, can limit the amount and quality of mast.
Squirrels have a high reproductive potential. Squirrel numbers are able to quickly rebound after a poor mast year. “Over time there’s been no drastic change in squirrel populations, only season fluctuations,” said Robinson.
In early summer squirrels seek out the cooler temperatures found in stream drainages, and deep hollows. Float trips combining hunting and stream fishing are an excellent way to enjoy the outdoors in early June. Remember to always ask the landowner for permission to hunt and fish on private lands.
As in the fall, both gray and fox squirrels are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
The habitat preferences of squirrels, and food availability, vary from season to season. In the spring and summer, squirrels eat mostly soft mast — the seeds of maple, ash, elm, wild cherry, hackberry and box elder trees. They consume some green vegetation (grasses), and occasionally mushrooms and blackberries. Insects, including grasshoppers, katydids and locusts, are also a part of their diet. Fox squirrels will occasionally gnaw on ears of standing corn in late summer.
Old-timers often called spring squirrel hunting “the mulberry season,” because bushytails show a preference for the red berries that darken as they begin to mature in early summer.
Spring squirrel season may be a new experience for some hunters.
It’s like a hunting scene depicted in a Currier & Ives print — sportsmen in their shirtsleeves shooting at upland game amid forest greenery and blue skies. But hunters who try spring squirrel hunting, will enjoy it.
“June is a great time to be in the woods,” said Robinson. “The weather is mild and squirrels are active.”