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John McCoy: Officials say squirrel hunting should be good this fall

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail
Most trees still have lots of leaves when West Virginia’s squirrel season opens, but that can be a blessing as well as a curse. Heavy leaf cover allows hunters to approach within easy shotgun range of their sharp-eyed quarry.

Game populations may rise and fall, but West Virginia always seems to have plenty of squirrels.

Wildlife officials say the situation is no different this year. Hunters who venture afield on the state’s Sept. 9 opening day should have no trouble finding game.

“With squirrels, we seldom have shortages,” said Keith Krantz, game management supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources. “We have average [population] years, and we have bumper crops. This should be one of those years when the number of squirrels is about average.”

Krantz said that if his recent mast-survey work is any indication, hunters who want to find those early-season squirrels should look for hickory trees.

“In the areas I surveyed, in Ritchie and Doddridge counties, hickory and walnut were abundant,” he said. “There’s no guarantee that will be the case statewide, but if it is, squirrels will be cutting that hickory when the season opens. Our season is early enough that there should be quite a bit of hickory left for them to work on.”

Krantz said he also saw an average amount of white oak, but not much red oak.

“Hunters should keep in mind that mast crops are often regional, so they should get out and do some scouting of their own to see which species are abundant locally,” he added.

The early-September opener has a couple of drawbacks. The days are usually hot, and the trees still have almost all their leaves. Krantz said, however, that neither of those should prevent anyone from hunting.

“It’s an excellent time for anyone to go, because it’s beautiful out there,” he explained. “If it’s hot, hunt early in the day. Mornings are usually in the high 50s and low 60s, so it’s actually pretty pleasant to be out there. When I go, I’m usually done by 10 a.m., when temperatures start to rise into the 80s or higher.”

Krantz said he also likes to hunt in the evenings after work. “I just put on a t-shirt and go for a slow, leisurely walk. It’s a blast.”

The heavy leaf cover makes it easier to sneak up on squirrels, which are notoriously sharp-eyed and quite wary of humans. Hunters who take move slowly and step softly stand an excellent chance of getting within easy shotgun range.

“Early season squirrel hunting is also great for kids,” Krantz said. “You can go after school and have a really nice time of it. If you hunt in a place that has decent numbers of squirrels, chances are the kids will at least see a few, and that helps hold their attention.”

Krantz believes squirrel hunting teaches kids more about woodsmanship than most other kinds of hunting.

“When you’re bowhunting for deer, for example, you’re basically spending most of your time looking for a place to put your tree stand,” he said. “With squirrels, you’re actually hunting, trying to sneak up on them. You also learn the best types of trees to find them in.”

Squirrels taken before the season’s first hard frost sometimes have warbles, which are parasitic botfly larvae that live under the skin.

“Some people won’t eat squirrels they find warbles in,” Krantz said. “That’s a mistake. Those larvae aren’t actually in the flesh, they’re in the skin. When you skin the animal, you’ll often find a reddish mark where the warble was. That reddish spot doesn’t mean the meat is tainted. I’ve eaten every single squirrel I’ve found a warble on.”

Research done years ago revealed that roughly 11 percent of all squirrels killed have warbles on them. Lately, though, Krantz said the percentage doesn’t seem to be that high.

“In the past two years, I’ve probably killed 50 squirrels,” he explained. “I didn’t find warbles on any of them.”

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