On opening day last year, conditions were favorable for squirrel hunting at Sherburne Wildlife Management Area and the adjacent Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge.
Winds were calm, temperatures were tolerable and the forest floor was moist as hunters made their way into the 44,000-acre wetlands complex.
Well before sunrise, Joe Speyrer and his three sons boated south along Big Alabama Bayou, making their way through the area locally called the “narrows” and traveling past the Bayou Des Glaises junction.
Arriving on a section of bottomland hardwoods on the bayou’s southwestern banks, Speyrer dropped his sons off adjacent to an area he chose for himself.
“We always walk deep into the woods before daylight, and then we hunt as we make our way back in the direction of the boat,” the 54-year-old Speyrer said.
At daylight, he scored his first squirrel of the day, and he was delighted to hear shots from his sons about the same time.
“The squirrels were moving well, and I kept shooting until I had a limit at about 10 (a.m.),” the elder Speyrer said.
A good portion of his bag was made up of fox squirrels he found feasting on pecans in open areas and near the edges of Big Alabama Bayou.
When his sons Gage, Payton and Parker met him back at the boat, they counted 26 squirrels — including a black fox squirrel.
The Speyrers did well, considering there were 300 hunting efforts resulting in a harvest of 802 squirrels for 2.67 squirrels per effort.
The Speyrers are just some of the die-hard hunters who will be hitting the woods this month, but the numbers of small-gamers are falling.
Cody Cedotal, a LDWF biologist with resident small game and wild turkey program management duties, said the 2014-15 Louisiana Big and Small Game Harvest Survey reveals that about 87,000 hunters pursue squirrels each year.
While it sounds impressive, it’s actually a small number considering that in 1981 the same survey indicated there were approximately 250,000 squirrel hunters in the Bayou State.
There was much celebration back then with some parish school systems actually scheduling a vacation for their students the Friday before the squirrel opener.
Some high school football games were pushed to Thursday evening, and they were fondly called the “squirrel games” by some newspaper sportswriters.
The current reduction in squirrel hunter numbers is largely due to the expansion of Louisiana’s white-tailed deer population and hunting seasons in the mid-1980s.
What might surprise many, however, is that squirrel hunting still ranks No. 2 in terms of hunter numbers.
Waterfowl hunters take the No. 3 spot, coming in 4,000 hunters short of the number of squirrel pursuers.
So what can the squirrel-hunting horde expect this year?
“In most regions of the state, the red oak crop increased in 2015 compared to 2014,” Cedotal said. “The white oaks and hickories, however, were down in production.
“It looks like we are going to have lots of red oaks and pin oaks, so I am predicting an average to below-average year in squirrel production for 2016.”
In looking at last year’s public land results during early-season managed hunts, it was clear that Sabine Island WMA delivered more squirrels per hunter than any other state WMA (see chart).
During the 2015 opener, 68 Sabine Island hunter efforts produced 232 squirrels for 3.41 squirrels per effort.
However, there is a caveat to the tract of land.
“Sabine Island is very small (8,743 acres), and there were very few hunting efforts there last year,” Cedotal said.
The WMA is, as its name indicates, surrounded by water. Access is made possible via nearby Niblett’s Bluff Park near Vinton.
The park and launch site, however, has been closed temporarily due to rebuilding and renovation efforts following damage received during March when the Sabine River overflowed its banks after record flooding of Toledo Bend.
Cedatol also touted Dewey Wills WMA in Central Louisiana. The popular area delivered 648 squirrels in 211 hunter efforts for 3.07 squirrels per effort.
Located just 20 miles northeast of Alexandria, Dewey Wills is consists of 63,900 acres of bottomland hardwoods, with access via Louisiana Highway 28.
Another WMA that traditionally sports high squirrel-hunting success is Attakapas WMA in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin.
Six hunter Attakapas hunter efforts during the season opener produced 18 squirrels, which translates to three squirrels per effort.
Though relatively few hunters chase squirrels here, there are 28,000 acres available to hunters. Access to the swampland is by boat, with the Charenton Landing being the most popular launch site.
Another top producer is the 69,806-acre Richard K. Yancey WMA in Concordia Parish, Cedatol said.
For the 2015 season opener, 385 hunting efforts resulted in 740 squirrels, or 2.6 squirrels per effort.
Access to this popular WMA is via Louisiana Highway 15 and Highway 910, and the area offers five primitive campsites for hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts.