ELKINS, W.Va. — There was a time in West Virginia when the opening day of squirrel hunting season was the equivalent to today’s opening day of bucks only gun season. Younger hunters will have a hard time believing that, but old timers, roughly those of us over the age of 50 can attest, around the second week of October everybody who owned a shotgun in the Mountain State was staring skyward into the branches on a foggy autumn morning.
Mountaineers have filled many a cooking pot on the stove with fresh squirrel for generations. During lean times, it was often the meat which kept a lot of people alive. However, times have changed significantly. Today, fewer and fewer hunters take the time to enjoy squirrel hunting. Studies have proven those losses in participation over the past couple of decades. The concern, at least for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, was squirrel hunting is where many young hunters learned to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors and hunting in general. Fewer people hunting squirrels translated into fewer people hunting at all.
A few years back, the agency modified the season and moved it from the second week of October to the second week of September. The change aimed at hopefully encouraging more people to give it a try or to do it again.
“That was the issue,” said Keith Krantz, Game Management Supervisor for the DNR. “Before we changed the season, in the 20 years prior to that according to national surveys we had lost two-thirds of our squirrel hunters.”
The activity was lost, according to Krantz, as deer became more plentiful in the state. Squirrel season took another hard hit when bow hunting exploded in popularity.
“People had just quit hunting squirrels. So the thought was if we bring the season in earlier, maybe we could convince dyed in the wool bow hunters to rediscover squirrel hunting and also take their kids,” Krantz said.
The idea has worked to a degree. The opening day of squirrel season this weekend will probably draw more attention that it would have five or ten yeas ago. Krantz acknowledged conditions now are far different than they would have been if the opening day were in October.
“All these leaves make it hard, but it also puts a little sporting back into it. It’s more challenging,” he said.
Those who complain about the season opening with too many leaves on the trees can always wait and make their personal opening day a month later. During the early season, the best place to setup for squirrels will be a hickory tree. If you find one loaded with nuts, Krantz said the squirrels will be there.
“That’s like an ice cream plant for a squirrel. If they can get hickory nuts, they’ll choose that over any of the other nut species,” he said.
After a couple of strong mast years in 2018 and 2019, the squirrel population in the state will be strong for 2020. Krantz hoped people would enjoy the opportunity.
“I encourage everybody to go rediscover it. It’s a lot of fun!” he said.