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Today marks day one for squirrel hunting season

By Steve Vantreese

The opening of squirrel hunting season stinks in its own wonderful way.

It smells like rotting leaves and various bacteria and fungi that live on the forest floor. Add the stench of insect repellent and sweat that's beginning to dampen one's clothing.

If things are going well, there's that whiff of burned powder from an expended shotgun shell. (And who has not overtly sniffed one of those?) Maybe a still-warm squirrel, the first bulk in the game bag, contributes its own scent to the mix.

You can get some of that flavor just by rooting around in the woods in the summer, although that's something most people avoid. It might take the current event, today's start to the traditional squirrel hunting season, to administer the full serving of that musky ambiance.

Indeed, Kentucky's squirrel season this year is Aug. 16-Feb. 28, unbroken except for a two-day time-out for the opening weekend of the modern gun deer hunting season, Nov. 8-9. The squirrel opening date is a tradition in itself, long set for the third Saturday in August.

They call it the fall squirrel season, but nobody who gets out there on opening day thinks of it that way. It's summer, the heat and wet-blanket humidity constantly reminding us of that. Likewise, so do the insects, the droning mosquitoes hovering just outside the force field of repellent and the gnats that circle maddeningly in front of the eyes.

Bugs sort of set the tone for early squirrel season. The sticky heat is one hurdle to the pursuit, but tiny biters and bloodsuckers represent another. You have to be able to put them out of mind enough to enjoy the experience or all is lost. That's why you don repellent, that and the shield it creates against chiggers and ticks, the torment of which you'll discover later if not fended off during the hunt.

Early season squirrel hunting is almost a chance to get claustrophobic in the outdoors. This is possible from the full season's growth of foliage that envelops our woods and woodlots. With leaves masking almost all open space in the trees and understory, too, visibility is minimal. You won't see the squirrel very well, but conversely they might not see you, either.

And back to the meteorological conditions, all that foliage smothers any available breeze. Without air movement, that heat and humidity pretty well smothers the hunter, too.

If there's any advantage to August squirrel hunting, it may be in squirrel motivation. They have one right about now in early-ripening hickory nuts. If a hunter can find a hickory tree where the hard mast is ready for consumption by incisor-toothed rodents, chances are squirrels have already found it, too.

Early-ripening hickory nuts are a concentrating factor for squirrels. There won't be too many trees offering them, but those that do exist will be feeding stations of choice for the neighborhood bushytails.

Find a hickory with ripening nuts and almost certainly you'll find cuttings, squirrel-chewed nut husk pieces on the ground beneath it. Find the cuttings and squirrels may be overhead already, but if not, sit and wait. Most likely they'll be along shortly.

Because visibility in the foliage-choked woods is so pitiful in August, much hunting is done with the ears. Sometimes it's easier to hear the pitty-pat of nut shaving falling onto hickory leaves than it is to see the squirrels creating the audible clues.

Hickory nuts, nut-cuttings and limb-shaking squirrels are things that many hunters learned about first in any sort of game pursuit. The simplicity of squirrel hunting and the wide availability of suitable habitat to hunt long have made it a portal endeavor for new hunters. While it's fine for full-grown, experienced humans, it ideal for kids in training and young hunters first out on their own. The way it used to be, people who hunted most everything almost always started with squirrels.

Times have changed, however. Nowadays, a lot of kid hunters start out hunting deer, a species not even available to youths of a few decades ago. It's also more common today for kids not to become hunters at all, societal demographics transforming as they have. Fewer kids grow up in rural environments where there is hunting out the back door, and more kids grow up in single-parent homes where there is less likely to be a mentoring hunter available.

Even older hunters nowadays are focused more on other game, species that weren't to be had back when. And with larger and more glamorous species in the mix, squirrels and other small game tend to be overlooked more.

Those just discovering this hunting and older-timers still dancing to the strings of tradition, however, yet may find some magic in the heat, humidity, pestilence and malodorous misery that opening day and other early squirrel season outings can bring.

Just about the time that the distasteful elements seem to be winning, a limb swishes. And there you go.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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