Squirrel season opened last Saturday, and after a couple of lean seasons the cyclical population is expected to be on the upswing this fall.
There should be plenty of squirrels.
The same can’t be said for squirrel hunters.
Squirrel hunting, like other small-game hunting, has been on a decline for two decades, and this season will probably continue the trend.
There are numerous theories about why. For starters, there are fewer places to hunt. Part of the charm of squirrel hunting used to be its convenience – just grab your .22 or 410 scattergun and head across the field to a nearby hickory ridge.
Today that hickory ridge has a cul-de-sac and is covered with houses and lawns and swimming pools.
For folks in an increasingly urbanized society, going on a squirrel hunt involves about as much time, travel and expense as going on a deer hunt or turkey hunt.
That helps explain a change in hunting mentality, with more of a focus on big game like deer and turkeys than on small game. Most hunters would rather spend their time and gas money on bagging a buck or a gobbler than in bringing home a few little bushytails.
That’s unfortunate, especially for younger hunters who’ll never know what they’re missing out on. Hunting squirrels can be as challenging and rewarding, in terms of an outdoors experience, as going after big game.
Some of my most enduring memories are about squirrel hunting – slipping into the dripping woods at first light and listening to the forest slowly awaken.
A cardinal – always an early riser – chirps faintly. A chipmunk rustles through the leaves, a rooster crows “good morning” from a distant farm.
High up in a shagbark hickory a limb shakes, sending down a shower of dewdrops, followed by a trickle of gnawed nut hulls.
You ease around, trying to get an open shot, while the bushytail plays hide-and-seek. Finally it scampers out on a branch, pauses, and breakfast-time is over.
Hunting squirrels is an ideal way for a youngster to learn woodcraft and master basic hunting skills. It teaches stealth and patience and waiting for a clear shot – lessons too many youngsters skip over in their rush to hunt bigger game.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, in an effort to encourage more people to get into the woods, offered a Free Hunting Day last Saturday, in conjunction with the opening of squirrel season. No hunting license was required that day.
The intent is good, but the timing is bad. Late August is not an ideal time to go hunting, especially for youngsters who may be making their venture into the woods. It’s hot and muggy and ticks and mosquitoes abound.
A hot, sweaty, skeeter-bitten kid is not likely to enjoy the experience, and may not be eager to go again. The TWRA would be better served to hold its Free Hunting Day in September or, better still, October when the weather is cool and the autumn woods are starting to acquire a golden tint.
Squirrel hunting is all about a pleasurable outdoors jaunt, not about stocking the meat locker or bagging a trophy. It’s supposed to be carefree, relaxed and fun.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer hunters experience it.