ELKINS, W.Va. — Many years ago in West Virginia it was the biggest opening day of any hunting season, but squirrel hunting doesn’t enjoy the popularity today it once did among those over the age of 35 or 40. Today, the abundance of deer and the improved chances of success for whitetails,has replaced those peering through the branches in search of a bushy tail wagging.
“Those guys that grew up squirrel hunting are really good hunters,” said Keith Krantz, small game biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “They learned their trees, they learned to read sign, and they learned to still hunt through the woods. That’s how you grow good hunters and as they transferred into bow hunting and deer hunting, I think they’re a little more adept than some who just perch in a tree.”
The statewide squirrel season opens Saturday, September 9th this year. A few years ago the Natural Resources Commission agreed to move the season back almost a month to accommodate those who were having to make the choice between bow hunting and squirrel hunting. It was a move made to hopefully lure some folks back into the woods to relive their childhood and for others to learn the enjoyment of hunting a tall stand of hickory possibly for the first time.
“It’s not made any difference in the squirrel population,” Krantz explained. “It was done specifically to allow more recreation to occur.”
Those who choose to be in the woods for a September opening date will find conditions vastly different than in decades past. A lot of changes happen between the second Saturday in September and the second Saturday in October in the Mountain State. The leaf cover increases the challenge of squirrel hunting dramatically.
“If you expect to kill a limit of squirrels on opening day, the rigor with which you have to hunt is a little higher than it was when the season used to open,” Krantz offered. “You might know there are three squirrels in a hickory tree 75 feet off the ground, but seeing them might be another thing.”
Still, the early opening date generally means more pleasant weather and an opportunity to get into the woods, especially with children to teach them how to hunt.
Another change between now and October is the level of hickory nuts available. To the squirrel, the hickory is chocolate, and especially in a poor mast year, the hickory would be long gone by October. The September opening day affords the opportunity to scope out stands of hickory and be ready.
“The fresh cuttings are already starting to accumulate,” said Krantz. “You’ll see green patches under these trees. They’re already in there starting to cut those hickories.”
Hickory nuts appear to be more abundant this year, but we won’t know for sure until the statewide mast survey and index is completed for the season. Last year’s mast crop was not a strong one, and it will translate to fewer squirrels in West Virginia this fall. A good mast year means females had plenty to eat to make it through the winter and were able to bare a second litter of offspring. During a poor mast year, they’ll manage only one litter and therefore reduce the number of squirrels in the following fall.