There’s been a decided shift in recent decades away form small-game hunting and toward deer pursuits. According to the state’s recently retired deer study leader, hunters who have abandoned small game don’t know what they’re missing.
Talk to a hunter who belongs to the Baby Boomer generation about his first hunting trip, and odds are it will be about squirrel hunting. Talk to a hunter who is a member of the next generation (Generation X) about his first hunt, and chances are it will be about a deer hunt. In the 1950s and ’60s, small-game hunting was the No. 1 hunting activity in the state. Squirrel, rabbit, quail and, of course, waterfowl hunting were the dominant hunting activities.
In Northwest Louisiana, where I grew up, all the timber company land, as well as most of the private lands, were open to all hunters. Landowners didn’t mind you hunting on their property, as long as you asked. The deer population was low, with limited areas open for hunting, but Wildlife and Fisheries biologists were actively engaged in a statewide deer-restocking program, just like all the other southeastern states.
By 1970, the state had been restocked with deer, and most parishes had a deer season. By 1980, deer numbers were increasing dramatically, and the sale of big-game licenses was on the increase. By 1990, whitetail mania was running rampant, not only in Louisiana but throughout the country as well.
Magazines devoted solely to deer hunting were hot commodities. It seemed that hunters could not get enough information about deer hunting and management. Seed companies, along with countless other deer hunting and management enterprises, were reaping the benefits from the whitetail movement.
As a result, all of this land that once was open to hunters has been leased up, primarily for deer hunting. If a person who is not in a lease wants to hunt today, he either gets an invitation from a friend or goes to a public area.
With all the emphasis on deer hunting and management, small-game hunting has been pushed to the side. Bowhunting opens Oct. 1, and the bowhunters don’t want the small-game hunters in the woods disturbing the deer. Many clubs have begun limiting small-game hunting until after the deer season.
Rabbit hunting, for instance, is basically done only during the month of February. Woodcock and quail hunters, few in numbers compared to the 1960s, have to work in hunts around the deer season.
As a card-carrying member of the Baby Boomer generation, I have seen first-hand these changes. All my friends and family in Northwest Louisiana, including myself, cut our teeth on squirrel and dove hunting during our beginning years. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, after deer numbers began to increase in our area, that we started chasing the whitetails.
The manager at the ArkLa Gas Plant and the Bistineau Baptist preacher had the best quail dogs, and I learned to keep my mouth shut about coveys and shooting quail without dogs.
Waylon’s Dad had the reputation for being the best squirrel hunter in the community. There wasn’t much talk about big bucks and deer hunting.
Despite all of this whitetail mania, much of which I helped fuel while serving as the deer study leader for LDWF, there is still hope for the small-game hunter in the state. The public lands, state WMAs, Kisatchie National Forest and the federal refuges, still provide excellent opportunities for small-game hunters. Most of these lands have a gun season for deer that is shorter than that on the outside. Small-game seasons are basically open for the full season with the exception of the either-sex days.
Many of the department-owned WMAs provide excellent squirrel hunting. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, Pearl River WMA had, in my opinion, the best squirrel hunting in the state. The reason for this was the diversity of oaks and other mast-producing trees. Water oaks, obutsa oaks and Nuttall oaks are the red oak varieties found on the area, and cow oak and overcup oak are the white oak varieties.
Mixed in with the oak component are bitter pecan, hickory, beech, magnolia, swamp tupelo gum, sweet gum, pine and bald cypress. Understory species such as American holly, ironwood, swamp dogwood and arrowwood provide additional mast along with the woody vines.
This diversity of hardwood- and soft mast-producing trees ensured that there was always something for a squirrel to eat in the fall. It was simply up to the hunter to do some scouting and locate the feeding areas.
The squirrel population on Pearl River took a major dive following Hurricane Katrina due to squirrel mortality from the storm and the loss and damage to the oak and hardwood component of the forest.
In the area I hunted on Pearl River, it was not unusual to have a limit of eight cat squirrels within an hour. On one exceptional hunt, I killed a limit with only five shots.
On opening weekend this past October, the average kill per hunter was ½ squirrel. I hunted the area on Monday following the opening weekend, saw eight squirrels, killed five and had a major workout getting through the Katrina woods.
The squirrel population will recover; it will simply take time for this to happen. I doubt that I will get to see the forest like I experienced it for 29 years.
There are other WMAs owned by the department where the timber is being managed to promote this diversity of hardwood species, providing good habitat for squirrels. The LDWF Forestry Section is recognized as a leader in bottomland hardwood restoration. Red River/Three Rivers, Sherburne, Boeuf, Russell Sage, Big Lake, Ouachita and Buckhorn all have active timber programs to produce this diversity of oaks and other hardwoods. This equates to good squirrel hunting now and down the road.
Most of the WMAs have camping areas that provide opportunities for families looking to enjoy a weekend of small-game hunting. I know one family from Northwest Louisiana that makes an opening day pilgrimage to the Sicily Island Hills WMA for squirrel hunting, camping and fellowship every year.
During the late season, most areas are open for squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting and raccoon hunting with dogs. I have experienced the enjoyment of watching a puppy grow up and become a good squirrel dog.
While hunting in February is not quite as productive as October, it gives good opportunity to us older guys who need the exercise. Many areas have good rabbit habitat for the beagle hunters. Jackson-Bienville WMA provides good quail hunting for those who still have a dog. In fact, it probably is one of the better areas in the state.
Hunting squirrels with a dog not only adds a good set of eyes to the hunt, but most importantly, a nose designed specifically for sniffing out these tree rats. As the food source falls from the trees to the ground, so do the squirrels. Many times if the ground cover is thick around a good squirrel tree, Lizzie will be working through this cover, and the squirrel runs back up the tree into my gun sights. It is important that the squirrel dog also barks whenever she trees or sees a squirrel.
If spring comes early, squirrels may be feeding in elm or maple trees in February. In the spring, trees that produce soft mast fruit such as red mulberry or black cherry are often good feed trees to locate. Maple fruit would still be available during the spring season.
The spring squirrel season was designed to provide additional hunting days for the small-game hunter. December is the peak month of breeding activity for squirrels, and with a 44-day gestation period, squirrels would be born in February or early March. Another breeding period occurs in June, and produces young squirrels for the fall. The May squirrel season takes place between the two breeding periods and prior to the hot days of June.
Many southeastern states also have good small-game hunting opportunities for the Louisiana hunter who wants to see new country. The squirrel season in Missouri, for instance, opens in May and runs through mid February.
I made a trip to Missouri with some friends in October for their fall turkey season and some squirrel hunting. The cost for a non-resident squirrel license was $11 a day. The daily limit is six.
The squirrel hunting was every bit as good as what I had experienced on Pearl River prior to Katrina. It was also nice hunting in a mountain habitat. I bagged a limit the first day, after finding the area that had some acorns (Missouri suffered a hard freeze last spring, and mast was limited).
The second day, I had five gray squirrels in my pack within 30 minutes, and decided to set-up for turkeys with the idea that I would bag a fox squirrel later in the day. However, when that big red fox squirrel started cutting acorns over my head, my plans changed, and I moved the turkey hunt to another area following my shot.
Hunters who focus only on big game are missing out on some good times in the fields and woods. I have found that squirrel hunting, especially with a .22 rifle, has helped me to be a more patient deer hunter and a much better shot. Small-game hunting is both challenging and enjoyable.
Small-game seasons provide opportunities to introduce new hunters into the hunting community. It is even more fun when a dog is involved in the activity.
Lizzie, whose picture is in Chef John Folses’ new cookbook, is a very serious hunter, and we have had some good times together in pursuit of busytails. We have a new puppy in the family, and I hope she turns out to be as good as her grandmother is.
It won’t be long until we find out!
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