Once Mississippi’s favorite game animal, squirrels still provide hunters plenty of enjoyment across the Magnolia State
We see them in parks, we see them from the deer stand and in the yard, and we sometimes hear them in the attic.
Squirrels are around all the time, or so it seems. Many big-game hunters cut their hunting teeth on woodlot squirrels. Before deer and turkey were successfully re-introduced to Mississippi, squirrels were the top game animal, and they remain fun to stalk and harvest, excellent table fare and the perfect teaching aid for adults to introduce children to hunting.
Squirrels are everywhere there is a food source. Hard mast, like acorns and hickory nuts, is a favorite, but by no means the only course when they all come to Mamma-and-Them on Sunday. Studies have indicated they can remember locations where acorns were hidden in the fall and will return to the buried fare until it is depleted. Other nuts are stored in the hollows of trees and logs, so there is always a backup. Dogwood mast, pecans, fruit orchards and late summer grapes such as muscadines are quite an attractant as well.
“Hard mast is really important during the fall and winter. If those food resources aren’t there, squirrels will likely be less abundant,” said Rick Hamrick, small-game coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “Some will move elsewhere in search of food, and those that remain have to work harder to find it. That could have an effect on the population next season. Fewer individuals carrying over through the winter could mean less production in spring and summer.”
Population abundance is difficult to measure, Hamrick added. Observation is a key, and looking at snapshots of the harvest from October to mid-November the past couple of seasons, the Delta and southwest portions of the state could be seeing lower squirrel populations. Most of the other regions’ trends show a stable to increased harvest.
Harvest figures don’t always tell the whole story, but they often follow population trends. However, it’s been a wet year, and some of the decline in harvest may be a result of access and conditions more than population declines. The weather also stayed through hot much of October.
“Overall, the hardwood mast crop might be categorized as good at best,” Hamrick said. “In different parts of the state, it ranges from fair to excellent, so there’s a lot of variability. In a statewide context, it appears below what we’d seen the last few years. I believe squirrel populations are mostly good this year, but we could locally see fewer squirrels next season, given a lower mast crop overall.”
As the winter supply begins to dwindle, bushytails will begin to attack the emerging leaf buds of elms and hickories. Pine cones with the treasure of nuts encased tightly near the core will be getting hammered. Any kind of fungi that is not toxic is also fare game. Squirrels are not above putting on a few extra ounces eating the corn hunters have provided for deer. All this is to say that the only creature that eats better than a squirrel is a wild hog.
Hardwoods are the best places to start hunting. Stream set-asides in national forests and Wildlife Management Areas provide enough hunting for an entire season. Delta bottomland and other large stands of hardwoods are enough to provide a lifetime of squirrel chasing.
Mississippi’s fall season ends Feb. 28. The daily bag limit is eight, regardless of species. A short spring season — May 15-June 1 — gives hunters a chance to take four squirrels per day, again, regardless of species.
Dogs vs. Still hunting
Take the time to examine a squirrel, and you will understand why they are sometimes difficult to hunt. Large eyes can scan the forest floor and ears can detect sounds out of the ordinary. However, squirrels have short memories. If a hunter can be still for a time, a squirrel will make a dash to safety — especially if there is a hollow tree nearby.
Randy Brown of Vicksburg has hunted ducks and deer in the Delta, but for the past 20 years, he has been squirrels almost exclusively. Still-hunting is his preferred method.
“Slipping along, keeping my eyes in the trees, is the best method I’ve found,” Brown said. “I always stop beside a tree and get comfortable. Then, if I see a squirrel at a distance, I try to sneak to within range. I have a couple of .22 rifles I have worked on to make them into tack drivers. One is a semi-auto, and the other is a single-shot.”
Brown most enjoys being in the outdoors and being a part of nature. He moves slowly and stops a lot to scope the area around him. He tries to set up shots where the animal is against the side of the tree. That way, if he misses his shot, the bullet will hit the tree and not travel for a long distance.
“I like hunting in the Delta where the big squirrels are,” Brown said. “Mahannah is a favorite and has all three of the color phases: the gray, red and black squirrels. The fox (red and black) phases can vary from a cinnamon brown to completely black. I’ve even seen some cat squirrels with a reddish tinge in their tails.”
Twin Oaks is another WMA that Brown hunts when Mahannah is closed due to flooding. The newly acquired land bordering Mahannah will soon open close to 17,000 additional acres to the public. Specific rules and regulations will be posted for the 2019-2020 hunting season.
For hunters wishing to enlist the services of a dog, stealth is not quite as important, but two hunters are always better than one. Once the dog trees, hunters can circle the tree and may cause the squirrel to move, allowing for a safe shot. Another method used by many still-hunters is to shake vines, especially when a squirrel nest is in the tree. This shaking will spook the bushytail from the nest and allow a ready hunter a quick shot.
Plan to bag a grand slam
Fox and cat squirrels are common in every Mississippi county. The black phase of the fox squirrel is more common in the river and Delta counties, but they have been killed on occasion in the Pearl River and Leaf River drainages. Mahannah, Twin Oaks and Sunflower are excellent WMAs to begin a quest for a squirrel grand slam. Consult the Mississippi Outdoor Digest or visit MDWFP.com for more areas and specific information.
Air rifles are anything but new. The Lewis and Clark expedition used an air-rifle on its trek to what is now the Northwest. Large-bore air rifles capable of killing deer have been re-introduced in recent years, and the small-bore models are a far cry from the Red Ryders we carried as children.
Make no mistake, modern air-rifles like the Gamo Maxxim Swarm in .22 caliber are serious shooters for anyone needing a low-noise, close-range solution for dealing with yard pests or small game afield. They demand all the respect of their modern rimfire and centerfire cousins.
The family of .22 rimfires is arguably the most-popular choice of squirrel hunters in Mississippi. The .22 long-rifle has been around for more than a century and has been chambered in every conceivable action. Ammunition improvements have kept it in the game as a modern medicine for small game.
The .22 Winchester Magnum adds substantial thump and extends the range of its little brother. That can also be said of the .17-calibers that have arrived on the scene more recently. Accuracy and shootability have never been better. Within the ranges for which each was designed, these rimfires get the job done.
Shotguns run a close second to .22s in the popularity race. No. 6 shot seems to be the most-popular choice with Nos. 5 and 7½ making a good showing. Gauge doesn’t seem to be as important as recoil. Guns chambered in .410 are good choices for recoil-sensitive hunters with 28- and 20-gauge guns being completely adequate. A good used shotgun will be the most-economical way to get started squirrel hunting.