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Wintry squirrel hunting is the last-ditch, small-game option

By STEVE VANTREESE

We've pretty much arrived at the shank end of small game hunting for the 2013-14 seasons, coming down to late, late squirrels.

Rabbit and quail seasons for Kentucky's western zone ended early this week. Some furbearer options, crow season and, over in the east, grouse hunting straggles on for a couple more weeks. But in terms of formal small game species here in the west, all that remains is the bitter end of the squirrel season.

Squirrel hunting runs through Feb. 28 statewide, a long haul from its third-Saturday-in-August opening. We're talking about participating in weeks 27 and 28 of a 28-week season.

Actually, this ultralate hunting might not be so bitter. The past several days, when temperatures were reeling back into single digits and the ground was spackled with hard-crusted frozen mix â “ yes, that was bitter. The remaining days of squirrel season â “ with a little luck, maybe not so much.

With temperatures moving back to the plus side of the freezing mark, the wild lives of wildlife are getting back to business. With extreme cold and snowy/icy ground cover, squirrels often take off work. In conditions during which foraging for food uses more calories than it gains, bushytails tend to spend more time holed up in dens, nibbling on accessible cached food if they've got it.

A warming trend like that just ahead, however, can put squirrels into a period of brisk activity, busily searching out food and feeding their little rodent faces to make up for environmental lethargy and snow days.

That warming trend is not lost on human hunters, either. Several more degrees of temperature make a visit to the woods much more tolerable, and melted or melting snow means one can traipse through the trees without footsteps sounding like an ongoing train wreck. (There's no such thing as sneaking on hard-crusted snow for human-sized beings.)

February squirrel hunting should focus on areas that produced significant numbers of acorns, hickory nuts or other edibles for the limb-leapers back in the autumn. Squirrels do accumulate somewhat where the food exists. For sure, squirrel numbers go down in areas that are barren of squirrel vittles. Some relocate, some may die, some weaken and get picked off by predators, but their numbers decline markedly in the hungry neighborhoods.

Latter-days squirrel hunting might be a good time to exercise rimfire rifles. One certainly can make do with a shotgun, but the barren woods of February allows maximum visibility for both hunters and the hunted. It's more difficult to stalk close without being seen by squirrels, but using a .22 rifle, longer shots can be taken.

A hunter can go out and cruise for activity, but someone with a scope-sighted rifle might want to plop down on the ground in a stand of seasonally-productive oak or hickory trees and wait for the game to appear. Being still and quiet is the easier way to get close to an active squirrel at this stage of the season.

The daily bag limit on squirrels is six â “ the same in February as it was back in August or September. It wouldn't hurt to lower expectations this late in the season, however. Frankly, the squirrel population has declined since the numbers bulged in autumn, when the last crop of young squirrels (from summer breeding) hit the woods.

So, does hunting this late in the winter put excessive pressure on a bedraggled squirrel population? In actual practice, no. The rise and fall of mast crops are the major factor in squirrel numbers. Hunting within regulations has insignificant impact on the squirrel population compared to the variations in the food supply.

Atop that, squirrel hunting draws a declining group of participants even in gentler times nowadays. By the time late February rolls around, most Kentucky squirrel hunters could be delivered to the woods in the same pickup truck.

If you're squirrel hunting today, you're one of the few, the proud, the brave, or those who don't know when to quit.

n The exceptionally cold winter of late is taking a toll on an early fishing schedule. FLW Outdoors' Walmart Bass Fishing League/Music City Division isn't opening its season today on Kentucky Lake as originally planned.

The Music City Division's initial tournament has been postponed until March 8, and the location for the season opener has been moved from Paris Landing State Park to Birdsong Marina at Camden, Tenn.

The problem with the scheduled date at Paris Landing is ice that had the bay at the park locked up as the tournament date approached.

Registration for the reslated, relocated tournament will be at the Camden Walmart, 2200 U.S. 641 North. Phone FLW Customer Service, 270-252-1000, for more information.

 

Steve Vantreese is a freelance outdoors writer. E-mail outdoors news items to outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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