It might seem that hunting is essentially over for the year. Nearly all of the deer seasons have gone, fall wild turkey is only a memory, and some other hunts have passed into history.
But there's one season that Buckeye hunters can still enjoy, a season that will see you in the woods alone or nearly so, and that's early winter squirrel hunting. Ohio's 2006 bushytail season began Sept. 1 and will end Jan. 31 with a six-animal limit, but the last weeks draw few hunters.
Why chase these lively critters now? Because they're much more of a challenge than when sought with leaves on the trees, and because any time they're legal, squirrel is one of the finest eating of all wild game. Such notable early long hunters as Daniel Boone and Lou Wetzel often said that the only game better than squirrel was cougar, and they should know. So, it's no surprise that growing up in the hills of southern Ohio, my idea of the finest meal to be had was fried squirrel, squirrel gravy, boiled potatoes hand mashed with butter, kale or collard greens, and hot biscuits slathered with honey. That's a meal fit for a king.
It's important to remember that late season squirrel hunting is a far different sport from early season efforts. During the first weeks, it's mostly a matter of slipping along watching for limbs and leaves to shake and listening for the patter of fallen nut fragments. Then ease close and make your shot. Now, the leaves have long gone and so have the nuts. Squirrels still live in trees, mostly in hollows or in nests made of dead leaves, but they spend little time there.
What food is left is on the ground, so they'll spend most of their time either bouncing along sniffing through the leaves for left-over morsels, or digging to bring up a cache planted earlier. So, you look for them mainly on the ground. And since they can see you as well as you can them, you'll need to either sit quietly in a likely spot or wear camouflage that matches surrounding woods, travel slow, and be prepared to take longer shots with a scope sighted .22 or shotgun, hopefully full choked. You'll get close shots, but they'll be few.
Time of day is a benefit of late season hunting. Instead, of getting up before dawn to be in the woods and waiting come daylight, you can have a leisurely breakfast and be out there at 8, even 9 a.m. Squirrels this time of year are seldom early risers, though once out they'll often run around until noon or later and repeat the activity in late afternoon.
And since these winter squirrels are fat and in their prime, if the weather is bad, they might not come out at all, contenting themselves either staying cozy warm in nest or hole or making just a brief foray or two to dig up a nut. So, if it's bitter cold, snowing heavily, raining or whatever, stay home and read a good book.
Where you hunt can make a difference, too. If there's a good stretch of timber along a still standing cornfield, always check it out. Bushytails favor the high energy kernels in cold weather. And you're unlikely to have much luck in stands of hickories or beech, unless there's a good mix of other trees. Hickory nuts are a favorite food of these lively animals and they're the first to be "cut" or dug up and consumed. Ditto for beechnuts.
The prime winter food for squirrels is sweet and tasty white, bur and post oak acorns, with the more bitter red, black, and scarlet oak acorns eaten as a last resort. If you find a good stand of the proper oaks and can recognize them, either from the bark or leaves fallen on the ground, this is a good place to start.
Finally, hope for a good snowfall the day or night before you hunt. You may be hunting an 80-acre woodlot where most of the game is more or less clustered in one area. Snow and the bouncing fours of tracks, often with brush marks in the crystals, show you where some are and where they're not. Hunting concentrations always beats hunting where one might pass sometime during the day. Or maybe not.
Dick Martin is a free-lance writer from Shelby. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ohio sportsmen will notice a few changes in next year's hunting and trapping regulations, based on proposals to the Ohio Wildlife Council by the Division of Wildlife. Fall turkey hunters would be able to hunt the entire season, from Oct. 11 through Nov. 30 with a shotgun, muzzleloading shotgun, bow, or crossbow. This proposal adds 35 days to fall turkey gun hunting. Nine additional northeast Ohio counties would be open to fall turkey hunting, bringing the total to 46 counties statewide.
Proposals regarding Ohio's deer hunting will be held during a separate wildlife council meeting on Feb. 6. This will follow state wildlife biologists assessment of the 2007-2008 deer season. Open houses will be held March 2 in each of the state's five wildlife district offices to provide the public an opportunity to discuss proposed hunting and trapping regulations. Directions to the open houses can be obtained by calling (800) WILDLIFE.