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Squirrel

Squirrels can be difficult to see while leaves are still on the trees, and that makes hunting them quite a challenge during the early days of West Virginia’s squirrel-hunting season.

Squirrels.

They’re everywhere in West Virginia. Decades ago, before deer became abundant, they were the state’s most popular game animal. Just about everyone hunted for them.

Today, not so much.

“There are so many people bowhunting, the squirrel resource doesn’t get tapped into,” said Keith Krantz, a Division of Natural Resources biologist and avid squirrel hunter.

“That’s one of the reasons we began opening the season in September. We thought it would give people time to do some squirrel hunting before the archery season got underway.”

Historically, the squirrel season began in mid-October. Now it begins in early September. This year’s season will open one-half hour before sunrise on Sept. 12 and will end one-half hour after sunset on Feb. 28.

Krantz said opening the season a few weeks sooner has been popular with hunters.

“I’ve had a lot of people thank me now that we’re bringing the season in earlier,” he added. “They say it has allowed them to get out earlier, while the weather is still warm.”

Hunting squirrels in September can be challenging. Trees still have all their leaves, and spotting a slender foot-long animal amid all that greenery isn’t easy. Fortunately, the sheer abundance of bushytails keeps it from becoming too difficult.

Krantz said squirrels should be particularly abundant this fall.

“Last year, there were squirrels everywhere,” he explained. “We had a good mast crop, so they had plenty to eat through the winter. We had a mild winter, too.

“Those factors led to good reproduction in the January litter, and also in the summer-born litter. There should be a great population of squirrels out there for people to find this fall.”

Early in the season, squirrels tend to focus on two principal food sources — hickory nuts and beechnuts.

“If you find a hickory tree that has nuts, you should do well,” Krantz said. “When I did my mast surveys in Doddridge and Ritchie counties, I didn’t see a lot of hickory. That should concentrate squirrels around those trees that do produce. In fact, those trees will draw squirrels from quite some way.”

Krantz said preliminary mast reports from the state’s southern counties indicate that beechnuts should be fairly abundant.

“Squirrels absolutely love beechnuts,” he added. “If you have a beech grove you can get into, you can do very, very well.”

Later in the season, squirrels will switch to acorns and walnuts if they’re available. Krantz said he didn’t see much white oak during his mast survey, but he did find lots of scarlet oak.

“If you can find what squirrels want, you can just sit there and wait for them,” he said. “One year, we didn’t have many acorns in Randolph County, where I live. I found one big red oak that bore fruit. I’d be willing to bet every squirrel in the woodlot was there.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected hunting and fishing seasons throughout the country in one way or another, and the upcoming squirrel season probably will be affected, too.

“With the coronavirus, people have time they didn’t have,” Krantz said. “Think about how much time people spend going to Little League games and football games. A lot of that stuff has been canceled. A lot of kids aren’t able to go to school at all.

“That creates a neat opportunity. Parents, in particular, have time to be mentors who can take a young person out and introduce them to hunting by going after some squirrels.

“I think older people are rediscovering squirrel hunting because it now begins outside of the bowhunting season. The early season can be challenging, but if you can find some hickory or beech, you can have a heck of a good time squirrel hunting.”

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.