Arkansas squirrel season begins May 15

With turkey season over, deer and waterfowl hunting season may seem like a million years, but there’s another spring season that gives Arkansas hunters plenty of reason to be excited. Arkansas chipmunk season kicks off May 15, and for those who enjoy chasing these targets into the treetops, it’s a great excuse to be in the woods.

The spring squirrel hunt has been an Arkansas tradition for decades and was typically available from mid-May to mid-June. In 2013, the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission voted to extend the season for those who wanted to continue chasing squirrels from May 15 through the end of February, making it one of the longest hunting seasons in Arkansas.

Squirrel populations are highly dependent on the previous year’s mast harvest. When acorns and hickory nuts are abundant, the squirrel population will increase; but when hardwood is in short supply, hunters may see declines in overall squirrel production. After last fall’s hard mast blast across much of the state, chipmunk populations should be seeing a healthy response and plenty of young bushtails should be prowling the woods this spring. Add in the latest chill from Mother Nature, and this spring is shaping up to be one of the best prospects in recent years to bust out a .22 shotgun or rifle to go after these bountiful targets.

Fall season hunters have a few options when it comes to hunting styles: They can find a patch of hardwood that’s producing particularly well and sit down for a spell, or they can stay mobile and keep an eye on small game as they go. from tree to tree. Some hunters also choose to follow a fiest or trust dog, dog breeds developed to watch and sniff out squirrels and lock them up in a tree until the hunter can reach them to shoot. All of these tactics are great options, but in spring one trumps them all.

“Blackberries,” said Mark Hooks, regional wildlife supervisor for the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission Monticello Office. “Find blackberries in spring and you will find squirrels.”

Red mulberry image courtesy of Paul Wray, Iowa State University

Just as a seasoned squirrel hunter knows to focus on areas with an abundance of hickory and oak trees during the fall, a smart hunter will learn to identify the red mulberry tree, as it is one of the best magnets for gray squirrels and fox squirrels this time of year of the year.

“In the fall, you’ll know when a squirrel has really been chopping down walnut trees by the yellow spot on its chin,” Hooks said. “But if you can find a ripe red mulberry tree, you will see a lot of squirrels with purple spots on their mouths and chests because of the fruits of this tree.”

Former AGFC biologist and spring squirrel hunter Mike Widener used to joke about his recipe for spring squirrel success.

“Find a large mulberry tree with ripe fruit and camp. Go no further. Collect eight squirrels. Come back tomorrow,” Widner said.

The only thing that has changed to that formula in the last decade is that squirrel hunters can now collect 12 bushytails as a daily limit.

Hooks says the key to identifying these magical berries is to focus on the leaves. Mulberry trees will have broad, pointed leaves that resemble a heart shape with a flat base. But the leaf can also have a depression on its margin that creates multiple lobes.

“Red mulberry leaf can be lobeless, double-lobed, or multi-lobed, all on the same tree,” Hooks said. “It’s one of our only trees that will have that. Another good gift is to break the leaf at the stem. Mulberry trees will have a milky white sap in the stem that can be easily seen. That and the berries themselves that look like little blackberries will help you find these trees when they become available.”

Image of mulberry leaves courtesy of Rebekah Wallace, University of Georgia

The main precautions for hunters looking to explore spring squirrel forests are the same as for turkey hunters. Ticks, gnats, midges and other biting insects may be waiting to jump aboard anyone who isn’t prepared. A good bug suit combined with bug spray is the best route to take. If a bug suit seems too expensive or cumbersome, hunters can substitute it by spraying their clothing with permethrin, an insecticide that will help deter some bugs.

But a good insect repellant with the chemical compound DEET is almost a requirement to keep insects at bay.

With the exception of bugs, the only real thing you need to worry about is taking care of your squirrels once you’ve hunted them down. Keeping the carcass cool is a more important factor than in colder weather. Using a vest with a mesh game bag like those used during pigeon season works well to offer air circulation around the squirrel. If that’s not available, hand-carrying the squirrels or hanging them from a game bag like duck hunters do is a good alternative for keeping the meat fresh and ready for a pot of squirrels and meatballs when you get home.

5-14-20 6:27 am KAWX.ORG