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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Squirrel season has a long tradition in Ky; spring season makes biological sense

During the settlement era in Kentucky, squirrels were an important source of food as larger game became less plentiful (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

During the settlement era in Kentucky, as white-tailed deer, bison, elk, wild turkeys and black bears disappeared from the landscape, rural folks hunted small game for food.

Subsistence hunters were often afield at times other than fall and winter, and they keyed on squirrels when they were most active and plentiful.

In the 19th century, squirrels were hunted with small caliber muzzleloaders — flint long rifles and percussion half-stock rifles. A true test of marksmanship, hunting squirrels for food and sport became a strong tradition in Kentucky.

Biologists studying squirrels have found they can be hunted in the spring without endangering populations because squirrels have two breeding seasons (KyForward file photo)

During the modern era of wildlife management, biologists studying squirrels found that they can be hunted in the spring without endangering populations because squirrels have two breeding seasons.

Kentucky’s spring squirrel season is timed to coincide with the spike in squirrel numbers after the year’s first nesting period, and before breeding resumes in July.

The season started as an experiment on four state wildlife management areas in 1994, went statewide in 1999, and was extended by two weeks in 2011.

Season Regulations

This year, Kentucky’s spring squirrel season is 35 days long.

The season opened on May 18 and continues through June 21. The daily bag limit is six squirrels. Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

Legal hunting gear includes rimfire rifles and handguns, muzzle-loading or breech-loading shotguns (shooting lead or non-toxic shot no larger than No. 2), archery equipment or crossbows, and air rifles shooting .177, .20, .22 or .25 caliber pellets.

For the complete regulations on spring squirrel season, consult page 10 of the Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide.

Finding Spring Squirrels

Hunters will have to search a little to find squirrels since they will not be in the same places they are in the fall.

In the spring, squirrels eat mostly soft mast, such as the seeds of maple, elm, wild cherry, mulberry, hackberry and box elder trees. When soft mast begins to form on trees, squirrel activity spikes.

Creek bottoms are a good place to start a search for squirrels, also thickets of large cedar trees where squirrels often nest.

Good squirrel hunting is available in all 120 Kentucky counties, and hunting pressure is light during the spring season Photo from KDFWR)

In the spring, squirrels also eat grasses, mushrooms, and blackberries. Insects, such as grasshoppers, katydids and locusts, round out the squirrels’ diet, so look for squirrels on woods’ edges.

With trees already leafed out, squirrels have lots of cover.

A .410 or a 20-gauge shotgun may be the best choice for squirrel hunting, but lots of hunters prefer .22-caliber rifles, air guns (shooting .177, .20, .22 or .25 caliber pellets), or small caliber muzzleloading rifles.

Good squirrel hunting is available in all 120 Kentucky counties, and hunting pressure is light during the spring season.

The gray squirrel is the dominant species in the heavily-forested eastern third of Kentucky, with a higher percentage of fox squirrels in the small woodlots and wooded fencerows of agricultural areas in Central and Western Kentucky.

Squirrels are the most stable and abundant small game species in Kentucky. Local populations go up and down from year-to-year, based on food availability.

The Kentucky Division of Forestry reports that 48 percent of Kentucky is forested, or about 12.4 million acres of forestlands — so there are lots of places to hunt.

The oak-hickory forest type is the most common, about 75 percent of all forests in the state.

The spring woodlands are beautiful and squirrels are plentiful. It’s a good time to discover what our ancestors experienced when they hunted one of their favorite game animals.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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