When you step into the woods to squirrel hunt this season, you’re joining a centuries-old tradition.
Kentucky’s squirrels were so abundant in the 1700s that settlers were legally bound to hunt them. Squirrels, or “bushytails,” were viewed as a plague upon the crops of the pioneers who were cutting down the state’s forests to make way for farmland.
The state’s plentiful squirrels became an essential ingredient of pioneer-era hunter’s stew, which we now know as burgoo.
Hunting for small game such as squirrels rose in importance in the early 20th century as other game species declined. White-tailed deer were nearly extinct in the state by 1915; game managers eliminated spring turkey season in 1935 because so few turkeys remained.
Squirrel hunting has lost some of its luster in the past few decades as deer and turkey populations started rebounding after World War II. Still, squirrel hunting remains the best way to introduce young hunters and beginning hunters the woodsmanship necessary for most kinds of hunting in the state.
Squirrel season opened August 20 in Kentucky and runs through February 28. The season will temporarily close November 12-13 during the opening weekend of modern gun season for deer. The daily limit of squirrels is six. An adult hunting license for Kentucky residents costs $15 while hunters under 16 must possess a junior hunting license, which costs $8.75. Anyone born after Jan. 1, 1975, must pass a hunter education course, offered free by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Dates and locations of these courses are available on the Internet at www.fw.ky.gov.
September is a prime month for squirrels because the only other hunters in the woods are deer and turkey archers.
Kentucky’s main species are gray and fox squirrels. Grays are smaller and more abundant than the burnished orange-colored fox squirrels. Gray squirrels stick to wooded areas while fox squirrels prefer more open terrain, such as field edges and wooded fence lines. Both species live throughout the state.
In September, look for squirrels in nut-bearing trees, such as hickories. The best times to hunt are the first and last few hours of daylight, when squirrels are most active. Later in the year, squirrels will spend more time on the ground, looking for fallen nuts.
Experienced hunters use a .22-caliber rifle, while most beginners choose a shotgun. Younger hunters should use a 20-gauge or smaller shotgun, which has reduced recoil.
Need a place to go? Most of Kentucky’s wildlife management areas have good populations of squirrels. Visit the department’s Internet site for maps and the location of the area nearest you.
This month is the deadline to register for a Kentucky deer quota hunt. These public land hunts are ideal for people who want to hunt but don’t have a place to go. Consult your hunting guide (available wherever hunting licenses are sold) or visit the department’s Web site for more information.