West Virginians seldom have a hard time finding squirrels to hunt, and this year should be no exception.
Hickory nuts, acorns and other favored squirrel foods were abundant in many parts of the Mountain State last year, and those local bounties appear to have spurred an increase in squirrel numbers.
“I’ve seen a lot of young squirrels in the Randolph County area,” said Keith Krantz, a Division of Natural Resources biologist who lives near Elkins. “Hard mast, especially hickory and oak, was abundant last fall. That led to good survival during the winter, and good reproduction in the spring. We had good recruitment [of young squirrels] into the population.”
That’s good news for Krantz, a self-described avid squirrel hunter who, at times, had trouble locating bushytails last fall.
“They were kind of hard to find around here,” he said. “That wasn’t the case everywhere, of course. This past spring I was gobbler hunting over near Stonewall Jackson Lake, and squirrels were everywhere. I’d never seen that many squirrels in my life.”
Squirrel populations rise and fall with the amount of available food. Hard mast was fairly abundant throughout the state last fall, which bodes well for populations in general. Krantz said, however, that numbers will vary from locality to locality.
“It’s important to find out which mast species are abundant in the area you plan to hunt,” he said. “Concentrate on trees, or groves of trees, that are bearing lots of nuts. If you live in a county where the mast didn’t do well and have access to counties where it did, go over there. You might experience something totally different.”
Krantz also cautioned against relying too heavily on “tried-and-true” locations.
“If you go to the hickory grove you always hunt and there’s no mast, don’t sit down and hunt,” he added. “Adjust your strategy based on the amount of [available] hard mast.”
West Virginia’s squirrel season will open on Sept. 14. That early in the fall, squirrels tend to concentrate on hickory nuts and beechnuts.
“My advice is to always, always, always look for hickories that still have nuts,” Krantz said. “Squirrels will gravitate toward any hickory tree where the nuts haven’t already been cut out. Hunters should take a walk in the woods before the season starts and see if hickory trees — especially shagbarks — have been cut out.”
To find out if squirrels are still cutting hickory, Krantz said to examine shells found on the forest floor.
“You should look for shells that are still green and lush-looking,” he said. “If the shells aren’t green, chances are they were cut out weeks ago and the squirrels are long gone.”
After the hickory is consumed, squirrels shift their focus to other mast species.
“If there’s beech where you live, squirrels will be all over that,” Krantz said. “And after they cut out all the beech, they move on to acorns and walnuts.”
The season didn’t always begin in September. For many years, it opened in mid-October. DNR officials decided to move it, however, because many former squirrel hunters became preoccupied with bigger game.
“We moved the season up [to early-mid September] to allow people to enjoy squirrel hunting again before the bow [for deer] season began,” Krantz said. “The reality is, as soon as the bow season begins, people are sitting in trees.”
With its beginning in September and its end on the last day of February, the squirrel season is West Virginia’s longest. Krantz said, however, that most of the action takes place early on.
“From the beginning of the bow season to the end of the year, people are focused on deer,” he said. “And the portion of the squirrel season that falls in February is mainly for people who like to use dogs. I’d say most of the squirrel hunting in West Virginia takes place in September.”