JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail This has been a year for the flourishing of wildlife, critters small and great. They're everywhere.

By John McCoy/Gazette Mail

Looks like West Virginia's squirrel hunters are in for a good year.

Nourished by last fall's abundant nut crop, bushytails enjoyed a good spring and summer breeding season.

"With good reproduction, squirrels should be relatively abundant this year," said Keith Krantz, a game management supervisor for the state Division of Natural Resources. "Anytime squirrels go into the winter well-nourished, their populations tend to rise.

"Last year, acorns and other mast items were spread all across the landscape. Squirrels didn't have to go anywhere to find food. Chances are they enjoyed good reproduction." That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that they'll be easy to hunt when the season opens just before dawn on Sept. 8.

"Around opening day, they're a little more difficult to hunt because leaves are still on the trees," Krantz said. "You might know there are squirrels in the top of a 100-foot red oak, but will all the leaves on you'll probably have a hard time spotting them."

The season used to open in early October, when hardwood trees have already shed some foliage. Krantz said DNR officials moved it to early September for one overarching reason: "The earlier opening day gives people a chance to take kids and non-hunters out hunting at a time when they don't have to compete with the archery season for deer."

The archery season used to begin in mid-October, a week after the "traditional" squirrel opener. That gave squirrel hunters a week of fairly easy hunting without having to stay away from archers' tree stands. It also gave bowhunters a week of squirrel hunting they probably would have ignored if they'd been chasing deer.

When DNR officials moved the archery opener to the end of September, hunters shifted their focus to whitetails. Squirrels became an afterthought.

In an effort to get hunters thinking about bushytails again, the DNR asked the state Natural Resources Commission to move the season to early September. The move wasn't without controversy. A couple of retired agency biologists argued that opening the season that early could result in the killing of female squirrels still nursing late-season litters of pups.

Krantz acknowledged that might happen, but said it would have almost no impact on the overall squirrel population.

"We have so many squirrels in the state, losing a few isn't going to hurt anything," he said.

Besides, he added, with leaf cover still heavy in early September, only the most skilled and die-hard hunters will be able to fill a six-squirrel bag limit.

"If your goal is to kill a limit, chances are you'll be frustrated during the first two to three weeks of the season, because it's going to be difficult to see them," he said. "I like to go out early in the morning, roam around in the woods for a couple of hours, and be done by 10 a.m. If I get a squirrel or two, great. If I don't, at least I've had a nice time in the woods."

Though he enjoys using a small-caliber rifle to hunt squirrels, Krantz said that on early-season outings he carries a shotgun.

"That's mainly for safety," he said. "With the leaf cover, you have a hard time telling what's behind the squirrel you're shooting at. There might not be an adequate backstop if you happen to miss."

While it might not be an ideal time to hunt squirrels, Krantz said early September is still a good time, particularly when young hunters are involved.

"The weather is warm, sure, but that's easier on kids than cold weather," he said. "In late afternoon, when temperatures start cooling off, it's easy to grab the kids and spend the last couple of hours of daylight out hunting."

Knowing where to hunt is the trick. Chances are, that will be near trees that have borne nuts. The DNR compiles an annual Mast Survey and Hunting Forecast which details which species of trees produced the best crops. Unfortunately for early-season squirrel hunters, that survey usually isn't complete until the end of September.

Krantz said hunters can figure it out for themselves by doing a little pre-season scouting.

"I'd advise them to go on a walk in the areas they'd like to hunt," he said. "With a pair of binoculars, they should be able to see which trees are bearing nuts and which ones aren't."

The squirrel season is West Virginia's longest. With Sunday hunting now legal on both public and private lands, a squirrel hunter who went hunting every day until the season closed on Feb. 28 would spend 173 days afield — almost six full months.

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