Mostly neglected squirrel seasons opening

Squirrel season is open or about to open all over the Mid-South. Some states near Mississippi have had their seasons open for quite some time. Missouri, for example, keeps its season open during a large portion of the year, and a few hunters take exceptional pleasure hunting in August and early September, when hickory nuts are maturing. Squirrels (especially grey squirrels) are hooked on this high-protein diet that fattens them up for the winter.

When the hunting woods are well-supplied with mast such as hickory nuts, acorns and pecans, the animals do well and store enough food to be healthy and in good breeding condition. This is the reason for the best squirrel populations occurring the year after a fine mast crop.

Mississippi has always been somewhat conservative when it comes to open seasons and bag limits on squirrels - something of a mystery to most hunters since neighboring states are always much more generous with open seasons and limits.

When I regularly hunted pheasants in South Dakota back in the 1960s, that state had no closed season or bag limit on squirrels. Our hunting party stayed with a fine old semi-retired farm couple near the town of Mitchell, known at that time as the "Pheasant Capital of the World." It was well-named. We had wonderful week-long hunts there for quite a few years.

The farm house was situated in a cottonwood grove with a large number of huge old trees. Some of them were hollow, making fine dens for the fox squirrels that were all over the place. They apparently lived mostly off of corn that the farmers kept in cribs. The cribs were pretty decrepit and no obstacle for animals who got in and enjoyed at their leisure a bountiful supply of one of nature's finest foods.

Oscar, the old farmer, hated the squirrels with a passion. He looked forward to our visit because we hunted them with .22 rifles every morning before the pheasant hunt began at noon.

We Mississippi fellows managed to prevail upon the landlady to cook some of the squirrels for us. She at first remarked that she had "just as soon eat a rat." Finally she agreed to cook some of them, using my own "down-home" recipe. They were, of course, very fine eating. After a few tentative bites, she even began eating some of them, but she continued to deride us somewhat.

I thought it best not to tell her that I knew starving rural people who back in the worst of the Great Depression did eat rats and declared them delicious. Once as a small boy I watched an elderly black sharecropper skin a few big rats, and I must say, they looked very much like dressed grey squirrels. But enough of rats. Those of the younger generation who read this probably will not believe me. (Find a genuine old-timer who grew up in the real rural South. I'm sure he will verify my information.)

Squirrel hunting has lost favor with many former hunters - for reasons that aren't clear to me, except that deer hunting has become possible for virtually everyone and that deer seem to rank higher in the social scale than squirrels. Not so many years ago squirrel meat was a highly regarded part of a family's diet, and hunters went after them very seriously.

I well recall week-long hunts back in the deep woods along the Mississippi when hunters brought in hundreds of squirrels. They stored the squirrels in those old-fashioned milk cans with friction tops, preserving the meat with ice carefully brought into camp packed in boxes of sawdust to delay melting for as long as possible.

Camp hunting for squirrels has virtually disappeared in my area, having been replaced by deer and turkey camps (to say nothing of duck camps for those lucky enough to have a place to camp in good duck-hunting regions). It was lots of fun while it lasted, but all good things must come to an end eventually.

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