Cumberland Times-News

August 25, 2012

Squirrels? Who cares?

Michael A. Sawyers
Cumberland Times-News

— The Maryland squirrel season opens Saturday. So what?

Does anybody hunt squirrels any more? Nobody I hunt with in Maryland does. Nobody I hunt with in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle does. A couple of my hunting associates in Lewis County, W.Va., still get after the gray and fox squirrels some, but not like in the old days.

For a while, I was shooting and eating one squirrel a year just to say I did and to stay in touch with my hunting roots. But during the past two seasons I didn’t hunt squirrels at all.

I hate skinning squirrels. I’d rather skin three deer than one squirrel. Just never mastered that skill and I have tried every possible method. My father was an expert squirrel skinner, using the technique where you make a cut through the base of the tail and down the two back legs. Then he would stand on the tail and pull on the legs and undress the tree rodent the same way some folks take off their pajama tops inside-out in the morning.

I love to eat squirrel, but somebody else has to do the cooking. I do what I consider to be a pretty good job of preparing wild game for the table, with the exception of squirrel.

My first hunting trip was in 1958 and about the only critters to hunt were squirrels. There was some fall turkey hunting, some ruffed grouse hunting, some deer hunting, but there was a lot of squirrel hunting. We didn’t have any rabbit dogs.

When my father was transferred from Altoona, Pa., to Cumberland in 1960, we then hunted squirrels frequently on the Green Ridge State Forest’s Polish Mountain area. We hunted them from can-see to can’t-see unless we limited out. In those days, every little pull-off on Troutman, Williams and Jacobs roads was occupied by the vehicle of a squirrel hunter on opening day.

Long about November or December I’d be with my father somewhere when another hunter would ask him, “Hey, Frank. How many quarts of squirrel hearts do you have put up this season.” That was the standard squirrel hunter joke of the era.

Those days of long barrels, full chokes and paper shotgun shells are long gone and it isn’t difficult to understand why. Just check the harvest numbers for deer and turkeys. Just look at how many ways we have to hunt deer now that didn’t exist in the 1960s. An early goose season exists now. A hunter only has so much time you know.

Chris Ryan with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Section said a survey for the 2010 hunting season showed there were 79,768 resident squirrel hunters in the Mountain State.

That’s more than I would have guessed. That’s an average of 1,450 bushytail hunters per county.

This year, the West Virginia squirrel season begins Sept. 8.

There are a lot of good things about squirrel hunting.

I believe that using a .22 caliber rifle to hunt squirrels makes you a much better shot. Pinching down just right and sending a small bullet at a small target will make it seem like easy pickings when you line your .270 up on a whitetail later in the year.

Squirrel hunting is the primo way to introduce a youngun to the woods and hunting.

A 410 or 20 gauge shotgun, a kid, a squirrel and a Kodachrome October afternoon make one of the best memories available and you will know whether or not your child or grandchild or nephew or niece will be a hunter.

Some will. Some won’t, but it’s worth exposing them to something that isn’t an electronic game.

The number of Pennsylvania squirrel hunters dropped from 615,000 in 1983 to 150,000 in 2009, according to that state’s Game Commission. Squirrel harvest plummeted from 2.2 million to 635,000 during the same span.

In Maryland, the squirrel hunting statistics are pretty grim, according to Pete Jayne of the Wildlife & Heritage Service.

The number of squirrel hunters dropped 89 percent from 1981 to 2010.

“It is our opinion that this loss of squirrel hunters is due to a general decline in hunter numbers and, more importantly, a voluntary shift in hunter interest to other species,” Jayne wrote in an email.

There is no lack of squirrels, according to Jayne, who said they seem to be as numerous as ever in good habitat.

Although a general decline in hunter numbers is a factor, the decline in squirrel hunters is much more severe.

“... from 2001 to 2010, squirrel hunter numbers declined 55 percent while the sale of regular resident licenses dropped 18 percent.” Jayne wrote.

Knowing that Mepps, the lure company in Wisconsin, buys squirrel tails to dress the treble hooks on their spinners, I contacted them to find out how the world of squirrel-tail buying is going.

“To say it is tougher to get squirrel tails is an understatement,” said spokesman Jim Martinsen. “We could use 300,000 tails a year, but we can’t even come close.”

Martinsen said the states from which hunters sell Mepps the most squirrel tails are Arkansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri and Minnesota.

To find out how you can sell squirrel tails to Mepps, go online (www.mepps.com). It is near the bottom of the home page.

And, if you decide to go squirrel hunting this year, it shouldn’t be crowded.

Contact Outdoor Editor Mike Sawyers at msawyers@times-news.com.