Many squirrel hunters in Central and South Mississippi are taking a “ho-hum” approach to a major change that opens their seasons two and four weeks earlier, respectively.
Kenny Latham of Ludlow in Scott County is not one of them.
“I couldn’t be more tickled,” said Latham, a veteran hunter, and retired conservation officer and boating safety administrator for the state. “I have already signed up for the permits I need at the National Wildlife Refuges and at the state Wildlife Management Areas.
“Come Oct. 1, me and my dog will be out there. You can count on it.”
The consolidation of what was previously three squirrel zones in Mississippi, with staggered starting dates north to south, into one statewide season that opens on Oct. 1 is among several major changes hunters will enjoy this fall and winter.
“And, don’t forget next spring either,” Latham was quick to add, referring to Mississippi’s first spring squirrel season May 15-June 1, also statewide. “Can’t wait.”
The apathetic attitude displayed my some squirrel hunters is totally off base, Latham said. For every negative reason they give, he has an answer that trumps them.
“I’ve heard them, and I think they are dead wrong,” he said.
First, they say it will be too warm.
“Hey, we get stretches of hot weather here in November, December, January and February, too, so that’s crazy,” Latham said. “This is Mississippi and you know we’re going to get warm weather off and on all winter. I’ve hunted on many an 80-degree day in the winter.”
To further the point, Latham is likely to get in a hunt or two in the last week of September. The statewide youth week — only children ages 15 and under can shoot squirrels — is Sept. 24-30.
“If the grandkids want to go, we’ll go,” he said.
Second, they say, the trees will be too leafy to spot the trees. This one really gets a laugh out of Latham.
“A hunter who tells you that isn’t that experienced at all, at least not one that hunts with a dog,” he said. “I’d much rather hunt when the trees are filled with leaves; the more the better. You think about and follow my logic.
“In late winter, when all the leaves are gone, squirrels are quick to disappear when a dog trees them. They either get in a hole in the tree and stay there, or hold so tight to the tree that they actually become a part of the tree and you just can’t see them, or they vamoose before the hunters reach the tree where the dogs have them treed.”
Latham then talks about their behavior in leafy trees.
“Totally different,” he said. “They act totally different, and it is because they feel secure up there among the leaves. They think they are hidden and they are more likely to take off and give themselves away. A squirrel might lock down on a branch for a minute or two, but it will eventually take off and give itself away.”
With a keen shot like Latham, it’s more like the squirrels give themselves up.
And, in case of a rare miss, Latham still has his secret weapon to keep the game alive. His dog, Latham’s Hoppy, or just Hoppy, which could just as easily be called tripod, is a champion.
It has three legs. It’s missing its right real wheel.
“Never had a fourth, so he doesn’t know he’s supposed to have one and he just takes off,” Latham said. “People laugh at me and him, at least they used to. When I first started taking him to hunts and everything, they’d make jokes and kid me about my ‘po’ ol’ three-legged dog’ and I’d actually get them to spot me a squirrel or two or three.
“That didn’t last long. Now they want me to spot them a squirrel or two.”
Or, it would seem, they just back away from the competition. Hoppy secured his Grand Champion status last year.
It is because of Hoppy that Latham looks forward to the first-ever spring squirrel season, which produces the third negative view of the changes. A lot of hunters think it is a lot to do about nothing, that nobody will go.
“I can promise you they are wrong about that, because I’m going to go and I know a lot of other squirrel dog owners who are excited to get those extra days in the spring with their dogs,” Latham said. “I think a lot of the negativity you hear is simply because it’s new and they just don’t know what to expect. All I know is that any more time they give me to hunt with my dog is a good thing.”
Latham has heard the concerns of many that the spring season could negatively impact squirrel populations due to a conceived disruption of mating and/or birthing season.
“Ask a biologist; they’ll tell you there is absolutely no biological reason not to have a spring season,” Latham said.
During discussion in the legislature when the bill was working its way through the system last spring, biologists said exactly that and, after several years of attempts, the bill cleared with both the new fall structure and spring season included.
“When it first came out, I was kind of like ‘no big deal’ when I thought it was just about the spring season,” said Jimmy Thornhill of Petal. “Then I found out they were unifying the fall season to an Oct. 1 start statewide, and then I was real excited. For those of us that live down in the Piney Woods of Southeast Mississippi, in what used to be the South Zone, we get at least four more weeks of hunting each year, and we got some great hunting down here, too, on some excellent public land.
“The early October start gives us a lot of time before the woods start filling up with deer hunters. We will get some good hunting in at Leaf River WMA, Chickasawhay WMA and at the Pascagoula WMA. I got some buddies over at Columbia who like to hunt at Marion County WMA and they like how remote the Wolf River and Old River WMAs are.”
Latham is also a big fan of public land hunting, and travels a good bit to the Delta to hunt at Panther Swamp and other parts of the Theodore Roosevelt National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
“A whole lot of land; a whole lot of squirrels, too,” Latham said. “The big Sunflower WMA on the Delta National Forest is good, too, but it can be pretty crowded.
“I also like to stay close to home a good bit in East Central Mississippi and we’ve got plenty of good public land at the state’s WMAs on the Bienville National Forest, including Caney Creek and Tallahala. Both of them are good.”
Latham, who is a member of the Board of Directors of the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District, which oversees Barnett Reservoir, once did a lot of hunting on reservoir property along the river.
“Yeah, and it’s good hunting, too, but it became real popular in recent years,” he said. “If you got a boat and don’t mind using it to access some isolated bottomland hardwoods, then the PRV lands along the river both on the upper end of the reservoir and along the Pearl River above lowhead dam, are excellent places.”
North Mississippi is certainly included in the conversation about excellent public squirrel hunting opportunities.
“When I left home and went to Ole Miss, I thought I was gonna miss out on a lot of squirrel hunting down at my deer club around Port Gibson,” said Ronald Graves of Jackson. “Then I found out about the Upper Sardis WMA, which is real close, and then Chickasaw and Calhoun County WMAs and it’s been good.
“Some years are better than others on the different WMAs, but as soon as I got out of a dorm and into an apartment, I went home and got my dog. I got a job after graduation and stayed in Oxford and still hunt the WMAs up here more than making the drive down to Port Gibson. I also discovered Malmaison WMA, too. It’s a jewel.”
Saving the South Delta and Southwest Mississippi for last was not because of the opportunities. It is one of the hottest squirrel hunting areas in the state and some areas offer the unique possibility of scoring a triple — a black, red and gray squirrel in the same day.
“Everybody knows about Mahannah, Twin Oaks, Sunflower and those popular WMAs, but I really l like to make a trip or two to Shipland each year and try to get the triple,” said Riley Thomas of Vicksburg. “It’s a small WMA on the levee, but it has a solid squirrel population.
“I hunt all the other ones, and I really like them but the seasons are inconsistent because of the emphasis on draw deer hunts at Mahannah and Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks used to be the best squirrel hunting in America but it has been really hunted hard. I still make a trip or two every year and I can still get a triple, but the limits are getting tougher and tougher to come by.”
In Southwest Mississippi, the two most popular WMAs for squirrel hunters are the two located on Homochitto National Forest lands, Sandy Creek and Caston Creek. Both are open daily to squirrel hunting during the season and allow dogs.
“Get ready for some tough walking, but some great hunting,” Thomas said. “I like it in October and in February, but I skip them during the gun seasons on deer. It’s not so much that I’m scared of getting shot as it is I don’t want to mess up their hunts and I don’t want them to mess up mine.
“And, yeah, I guess I don’t want to get shot either.”