Mississippi is not having a banner year for acorn production, and that is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to squirrel hunting.

According to wildlife biologist Dave Godwin of Tupelo, the small game program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, it is the previous year's hard mast crop that matters most to squirrel populations.

"And we have had two or three great years, at least above average, of acorn production," said Godwin, who is also an avid squirrel hunter. "We also had a mild winter last year, so the squirrels were not put under any unusual stress.

"What that means for hunters is that there should be a lot of squirrels in the woods. Our season has been open in Zone 1 for a week and the youth season a week before that, and we've had some good hunts. We've seen plenty. I don't think there's a reason why that wouldn't be the case statewide."

It won't hurt, Godwin said, that acorn production is a little off this year.

"No, it won't because, fewer producing acorn trees will concentrate squirrels around the hot trees, making them easier to find," he said.

The season opens Saturday (Oct. 13) in Zone 2, which, when added to Zone 1, means hunting will be allowed in all areas north of U.S. Highway 84 and those areas west of Highway 84 that are west of Interstate 55.

In Zone 3, the area south of 84 and east of I-55, the youth season opens Oct. 20 and the regular season opens on Oct. 27.

The daily limit in all zones is eight.

Mississippi's second most popular small game season, for rabbits, also opens on Saturday and is statewide.

"It's harder to predict rabbit numbers because they are so habitat related," Godwin said. "But I think it is safe to say that wherever there is good rabbit habitat, or rabbit-tat, we will have plenty of rabbits."

Many of the state's public Wildlife Management Areas offer excellent small game opportunities, especially squirrel.

"Most of them offer excellent squirrel hunting, and we also have a lot that we manage for rabbit habitat," Godwin said. "I would suggest that hunters visit our web site online, following the hunting prompts to WMAs and study the different WMAs. The regulations vary from WMA to WMA and you will need to know them. There are WMAs in each region of the state that have good small game hunting."

Avid rabbit hunter Tony Holeman of Pisgah urges dog owners to use caution early in the season.

"Two reasons why most people concentrate their rabbit hunting in late January and then all of February, and the first one is heat," he said. "It's still pretty warm in October and you can run a pack of dogs into the ground in no time, especially if they haven't been running in pens. Keep an eye on the dogs and watch for signs of exertion. Carry water if the area you hunt doesn't have any.

"The other reason is that most landowners and hunting camps won't allow rabbit hunters to run dogs during deer season, but by late January they ease up and it's easier to get access."

Saturday is also the opening day for the second North Zone dove season. The South Zone opened last weekend. Both will be open through Nov. 11.

"I think we're seeing more migratory birds in the Delta, a lot more than we usually have this early," said Tommy Harris of Greenwood. "Maybe it's because the drought didn't leave much food on the ground for them in the upper Midwest. All I know is that we have a lot of big fat birds sitting on the power lines.

"The trouble, like it is every year, is finding concentrations. We've got a lot of food sources on the ground in the Delta right now. Those of us who planned a late round of sunflower production will have the best opportunity to see a lot of birds. Otherwise, it will be tough to find limit-filling numbers."

Lee Benoist of Jackson offers this second season tip, which he first found producing during the third and final winter season.

"I have had really good luck mid mornings, walking gravel roads and catch them gravelling," he said. "If you got some roads like that that are not public roads on your property, and you don't mind the exercise, you will be surprised at how many you can walk up."