Squirrel hunting was once the icon shooting sport in Mississippi, but its popularity was greatly diminished during the white-tailed deer population explosion of the latter 20th century.

Despite a slight resurgence in the last decade, it’s unlikely that the sport will ever be celebrated with the ardor it once was.

That is a shame.

Squirrel hunting is fun, and most veteran hunters contend it is the best way to teach a new hunter proper woodsmanship. Wild squirrels are not the tree rats people see in the green spaces of suburban America. They are crafty and wise, and a challenge to the stalking skills of any hunter.

Thankfully, these wonderful — and downright tasty — little critters can be found on public lands in most every area of the state. Some locations are considered better than others, and some are as challenging to the hunter as they are to the hunted. 

Let’s talk squirrels.

Dogs or no dogs?

There are two basic, popular and productive ways to hunt squirrel — with or without a treeing dog.

Using a dog is as old as squirrel hunting itself, and many hunters will do it no other way. While the dog does the work of finding the squirrels and then treeing them, the hunting party is free to move and talk, even on ATVs, giving a father or other mentor an opportunity to show children different signs made or left behind by many different creatures.

But, dogs do not always make it easier. In the early season, when most trees have a good cover of leaves, spotting a squirrel can be difficult, and frustrating for the dog. Some dog men will not hunt until after Thanksgiving for that reason.

A well-trained squirrel dog is a prized companion. Most consider the feist to be the top breed, but curs and mongrels can also fill the bill. (Visit the Mississippi Hunting Dog Association website at mshuntingdog.com for additional information about the breeds of dogs used in squirrel hunting).

Hunting without a dog is usually often referred to as still hunting, though often it is done with a lot of walking and stalking, and good woodsmanship is definitely required. A hunter who is alone, without a dog, is required to use stealth to catch a squirrel moving or feeding. 

The most basic method is truly to be still — sitting motionless on the ground or on a log near a feed tree — and allow the squirrel to come to your. With patience, a hunter might can get two or three to be feeding in the same tree before moving the firearm into shooting position. If a squirrel doesn’t see the hunter or any movement, it will feel free to move about in the tree to feed. 

If danger is spotted, and the hunter’s cover is blown, that’s when it gets interesting and extremely difficult. Squirrels seemingly have the ability to make themselves part of the tree. It can take many minutes of scanning every limb or notch to spot one that knows it is in trouble.

That’s when two hunters together have an advantage. One can circle the tree, pull on a vine or shake a sapling a tree to make the squirrel move into view. Another tactic for two hunters is to move parallel along a ditch or drain. By staggering their watching and moving time, one will often see a squirrel move while the other hunter is moving. It takes patience, but the method is very effective. It’s a smart use of the stream set-asides in large pine forests. The stream set-asides are usually hardwoods such as oaks, ash and beech. 

Weapon of choice

At the 2016 Mississippi Wildlife Extravaganza in August, Mississippi Sportsman had the opportunity to ask hunters if they squirrel hunted, and, if so, did they prefer a rifle or shotgun. 

What we learned is that there is a nearly 50-percent split — half for shotguns and half for rim-fire rifles — among squirrel hunters.

Most users of shotguns said they used No. 6 shot, with only a smattering choosing No. 5s. 

For riflemen, the .22 Long Rifle garnered more popularity than the sizzling 17s, which was surprising. The .17 HMR has been around for more than a decade and its sales remain strong. 

The Rez: Not just for fishing

There are some public areas where hunters have no choice.

In the central part of the state is the Ross Barnett Reservoir, managed by the Pearl River Water Supply District. In addition to the management of the 33,000-acre lake, PRVWSD also manages close to 10,000 acres of shoreline from the dam to Mississippi Highway 13, nearly every inch prime habitat for tree rats and open to the public without special permit.

But, only shotguns are allowed.

Some of the areas are easiest accessed by boat, and some only by boat, allowing hunters greater options and an air of excitement. Maps indicating the open areas can be obtained at the district office located at 115 Madison Landing Circle, Ridgeland, or found at the agency website www.therez.ms.gov. 

“Much of the area has been discovered and has been utilized,” said Kenneth Latham, PRVWSD Board member and avid squirrel hunter. “There are some big deer clubs that landlock some of the parcels, so only a boat will get a hunter in there. The land lines are clearly marked, so straying onto private property shouldn’t be a problem.”

Over 50 WMAs open for squirrel

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks manages more than 50 Wildlife Management Areas where squirrel hunting is allowed. To identify a specific location in each venue would take most of this magazine, so lets start with generalities.

“We should have a pretty normal year for squirrels,” said Rick Hamrick, the agency’s small game coordinator. “In a few areas of the state a below average mast crops in 2015 may have placed some stress on reproduction, but there should be plenty of food sources this season, and hunters are encouraged to spend time in the woods.”

According to Hamrick, squirrels have two litters each year, and the young are weaned at six weeks of age. One litter comes at the end of winter and the second in late summer, being weaned about the time hunting season opens. The winter litter is weaned by the time the spring season (May 15 – June 1) opens with a bag limit of four.

“It sounds so simplistic, but squirrels are where you find them,” Hamrick said. “Nests in trees, fresh cuttings under mast producing trees, and hearing the squirrels bark are all indicators they are in the area.”

The Delta triple

Some hunters have the opportunity to achieve a squirrel trifecta — taking a black, red and grey squirrel on the same day.

The black is simply a color phase of the delta red squirrel. The color phase can consist of just a little black or the entire coat. These highly prized animals are found predominately near the Mississippi River, and that includes some WMAs. Hunters at the Mahannah and Twin Oaks WMAs see them frequently. Shipland and Sunflower WMAs also have all three.

Just a note: Red or fox squirrels can have a life span of five years, while the smaller greys on average live 1.5 years. Hill country red squirrels, a.k.a. the Bachman fox squirrel, have a black face mask and white nose. Red squirrels without the facial features are called Golden-bellied or Delta fox squirrels.

Best WMAs?

When looking into which WMAs offer the best squirrel opportunities, it might be easier to search and eliminate those that do not. There just aren’t that many.

Just a sampling of good management areas in each region to check out: 

* Mahannah, Twin Oaks and Sunflower WMAs in the south Delta.

* Caney Creek (the Smith County area where Caney Creek joins the Strong River), Pearl River and Tallahala WMAs in the central part of the state.

* Yockanookany, Tombigbee and the other WMAs positioned along the Tenn-Tom Waterway in the northeast.

* Pascagoula River and Ward Bayou WMAs in the southeast. 

For information on special youth seasons and other WMA regulations, consult the Mississippi Outdoor Digest. Visit www.mdwfp.com for a full listing of wildlife management areas where squirrel hunting is good.

Feds have them, too 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has lands open to squirrel hunting. Hillside NWR, Noxubee NWR and Panther Swamp NWR are three areas every squirrel hunter should have on their bucket list.

Some special restrictions apply to these venues, such as the use of non-toxic shot. Permits are required hunt Federal lands. Those hunters with access to a computer should check out the U. S. Fish and Wildlife site for particulars. Visit www.fws.gov/southeast for additional information on National Wildlife Refuges in Mississippi.

No more zones

In years past, Mississippi’s squirrel season had staggered openings over three different regions defined mostly by U.S. Highways 82 and 84. Northern areas had a 14-day head start on central areas and a 28-day head start over the south.

That changed a few years ago, and now the state has the same season of Oct. 1-Feb. 28. The youth season is Sept. 24-30. The bag limit is eight in the fall/winter season; four in the spring season.