Springtime Squirrels

Warm-weather seasons: a reason to hit the woods

When I run into something out of the ordinary, my first instinct is to play devil’s advocate-especially since I’ve been a journalist most of my life. So when Brian Smith, Kentucky’s small-game biologist, tried to explain why his state had started a “spring” squirrel season that actually runs from May into June, my antennae went up.

“Well,” he began, “that’s a time when there’s very little going on in hunting. In fact, that’s when nothing else is going on; it’s all about fishing.”

There’s a reason for that. By mid-May it’s hot in the South, hot and buggy. Southern boys know the summer woods are for snakes and spiders, poison ivy and ticks, tree-huggers and granola-crunchers. Real outdoorsmen stay on the water in the summer.

Now, as a resident of New Orleans, I realize I live in one of the deepest parts of the Deep South; any deeper and the squirrels would speak Spanish. Down here, the only thing we hunt in the hot months is a lime for our gin-and-tonics.

But I also travel a bit, and I can remember June mornings spent sweating bullets and swatting bugs while walking mountain streams in Kentucky, Tennessee and other Southern highlands. So, why would any sensible hunter do anything in June except think about October?

“Well, we’ve only had it a few years,” Smith said, “and it’s been an under-utilized season.”

So, you’re telling me that hunters in Kentucky are smarter than the wildlife biologists?

“Well, actually the idea for the season came from the hunters,” Smith continued. “Tennessee and Missouri already had hunting in May and June, and it really appealed to some of the dedicated squirrel hunters here in Kentucky. They liked the idea of a few more weeks of hunting rather than that long layoff.”

Oh, sure. But how do the squirrels feel? Isn’t this season something of a home-wrecker, even for tree rats?

“Not really,” Smith said. “Our field studies and other research show that by mid-May the first litter of the season is old enough to be self-sufficient. That tells us two things. The younger squirrels will be out moving around, which means the largest percentage of the bag will be the juveniles, just like it is in the fall. And the adults that are taken won’t have an undue impact on those young squirrels, because they’re already pretty much on their own.

“The season fits nicely between the two litters, and the squirrels that are harvested can be replaced before next season,” Smith added.

Speaking of health, how healthy is it to eat a squirrel in the heat of the summer-excuse me, the “spring?” What about parasites and disease?

“The concern most hunters have is the botfly, but the May-June season is a little too early for them to be a real problem in Kentucky,” Brian pointed out. “At that time, if they’re present at all, they’re still larvae developing under the skin. It becomes a problem later in the summer; spring squirrels should be good for the table.” But who would have the energy for a squirrel cook-off in the heat of June? Why not let them hang around all summer, multiply and fatten up?

“Well, we’re always looking for ways to increase opportunity for sportsmen,” Brian said. “This was requested, and it really appeals to guys who want another chance to get out into the woods and hunt.” Tell them good luck. And if they see a lime, they know where to mail it.