Squirrel hunting is a tradition that dates back to early Kentucky.
During the settlement era, as other wildlife became scarce, subsistence hunters turned their attention to squirrels to feed their families, trapping them with long, small-caliber flintlock rifles and smoothbore hunters, loaded with buckshot.
In the vast forests of Kentucky, squirrels are abundant and active for most of the year.
According to the 2012 Kentucky Forest Inventory and Analysis Fact Sheet, 48 percent of Kentucky is forested, about 12.4 million acres. An estimated 70 percent of Kentucky’s forests are made up of lumber—mature, harvestable trees.
Across Kentucky, 75 percent of all forests, 9.5 million acres, are made up of the oak and hickory type of forest, where squirrels thrive. Currently, Kentucky squirrel season is one of the longest in the annual hunting calendar, beginning in late summer and continuing through late winter.
A second squirrel season debuted in the 1990s, when biologists discovered that they can be hunted in the spring without endangering populations, because squirrels have two breeding seasons.
Kentucky’s spring season is timed to coincide with the increase in squirrel numbers after the first nesting period of the year and before breeding resumes in July. The spring season began as an experiment in four state wildlife management areas in 1994, then went statewide in 1999 and was extended for two weeks in 2011.
This year, the spring squirrel season lasts 28 days. It opens on Saturday May 20 and continues through June 16, 2017.
The daily limit is six squirrels. The shooting schedule is from half an hour before sunrise to half an hour after sunset.
Hunters will have to do some searching to find squirrels since they won’t be in the same places they are in the fall. In the spring, squirrels eat mainly softwoods, such as the seeds of maples, ash, elm, wild cherry, mulberry, hackberry, and elder.
Stream bottoms are a good place to start looking for squirrels, as well as thickets of large cedars where squirrels often nest.
In spring, squirrels eat grass, mushrooms, berries, and insects, such as grasshoppers, grasshoppers, and locusts.
With bare trees, squirrels have a lot of cover, so a .410 or 20-gauge shotgun is a good choice for spring squirrel hunting, but rimfire rifles (.22 cal), BB guns (. .177, .20 and .22 caliber) and small caliber muzzleloaders (.32 and .40 caliber) are also effective.
For details on hunting regulations and all legal weapons for spring squirrel season, see the 2017 Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide.
Good squirrel hunting is available in all 120 Kentucky counties, and hunting pressure is light during the spring season. The gray squirrel is the dominant species in the heavily forested eastern third of Kentucky, with a higher percentage of fox squirrels in the small wooded patches and wooded fences of agricultural areas in central and western Kentucky.
Squirrels are the most stable and abundant small game species in Kentucky. Local populations wax and wane from year to year, depending on the availability of food.
The spring woods are beautiful and squirrels abound. It is a good time to find out what our ancestors lived through when they hunted one of their favorite game animals.
Art Lander Jr. is the Outdoors Editor for NKyTribune and KyForward. He is a Kentucky native, a graduate of Western Kentucky University, and has been a hunter, fisherman, gardener, and outdoors enthusiast his entire life. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist, and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide and the Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-author of the column of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper.