Art Lander Outdoors: Squirrel Hunting for Both Food and Sport Has a Long History in Kentucky

The fox squirrel, one of two species native to Kentucky, abounds in the park-like savannahs of the interior of the state. (Photo by Gary Eslinger, US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Squirrel hunting for food and sport is a tradition deeply rooted in Kentucky hunting culture.

In early Kentucky, squirrels were present in our woods in surprising numbers.

Dave Baker, editor of Kentucky Afield magazine, recounted an astonishing observation of the abundance of squirrels in an article he wrote, citing the memoirs of naturalist John James Audubon.

Art Lander Jr. is KyForward’s Exteriors Editor. 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.

In the article, Baker wrote that “in 1819, Audubon was in a boat floating down the Ohio River when he began to see thousands of squirrels (jumping) into the water and swimming across the river toward Kentucky, (first) near present-day Ohio. Milton, in Trimble County. The waves of squirrels continued (on and off) for about 300 miles, until the boat was near “Smithland,” at the confluence of the Cumberland River.

“The boys, along the shores and in boats, were clubbing the squirrels in great numbers, though most of them made it across safely,” Audubon wrote.

Biologists today still debate the reasons for these migrations, huge mass movements of squirrels from their home territories, a phenomenon that has not occurred frequently during modern times.

ideal habitat

The high-quality, diverse forests of early Kentucky were ideal habitat for the state’s two native squirrel species.

The gray squirrel thrived in the old-growth forests that covered about 90 percent of the state’s more than 40,000 square miles. The fox squirrel was most abundant in the rolling land of the interior, where park-like savannahs stretched for miles, with stands of huge oak, hickory, walnut, and blue ash trees interspersed with grasslands and river reedbeds.

In the 19th century, large game animals such as bison, elk, deer, and wild turkeys began to disappear due to habitat loss and unrestricted subsistence hunting.

“With the scarcity of other game animals, squirrels became the main source of wild meat,” Baker wrote.

The squirrel was often one of the main ingredients in the popular vegetable and meat stew known as burgoo, which was simmered in a large iron pot and served with cornbread at family or community gatherings in the region.

The Kentucky Rifle

A long flintlock rifle was commonly used for the squirrel in the early days of hunting. (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

A sleek, long-barreled, highly accurate muzzle-loading rifle, the Kentucky Rifle was ideal for the eastern frontier, more than adequate for squirrels and any larger game that could be found. It was typically .40 to .45 caliber, so less lead and powder were required, which meant the rifle was inexpensive to fire compared to larger calibers, and more ammunition could be carried.

The Kentucky Rifle fired round lead balls, wrapped in an oiled patch, that were slightly smaller in diameter than the rifle’s bore. A hickory ramrod was used to push the ball down the barrel and seat it on the powder.

The hunter of that time carried the rifle accessories in a leather shoulder bag and the black powder was secured in horns or brass flasks. The harvested squirrels were placed in another shoulder bag, usually made of cloth, which was the origin of the modern term “bag limit”.

barking squirrels

Shooting squirrels with a flintlock rifle demands a high degree of accuracy, and good shots sometimes showed off their shooting skills by engaging in friendly competitions for bragging rights.

John James Audubon (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

In John James Audubon, The Naturalist, a memoir edited by his widow and published in 1870, an entry details a hunt in Frankfort, Kentucky, in which celebrated frontiersman Daniel Boone demonstrated the sport of “barking squirrels.”

Audubon wrote: “We walked together and followed the rocky banks of the Kentucky River until we came to flat land covered in black walnut, oak, and hickory trees. Since the mast was good that year, squirrels were seen frolicking in all the trees around us.

My companion, a portly, strong, athletic man, dressed in a home-knitted hunting shirt, with bare legs and (in) moccasins, carried with him a heavy rifle which, as he loaded it, he said had proved effective in all his attempts. chores. previous undertakings, and that he hoped not to fail this time, as he was proud to show me his ability. He cleaned the gun, measured the powder, patched the bullet with six-hundred-thread flax, and sent the load home with a hickory stick.

We did not move a step from the spot, because the squirrels were so numerous that it was not necessary to go after them. Boone pointed out one of these animals that he had observed us and was crouched on a branch about fifty paces away, and he asked me to mark well where the ball should hit. He gradually raised his piece until the bead (which is the name Kentuckians gave to the sight) on the barrel lined up with the spot he intended to hit, and he fired.

Daniel Boone (Image from Wikipedia Commons)

I was astonished to discover that the bullet had struck the piece of bark immediately below the squirrel and reduced it to splinters; the shock it produced killed the animal and sent it spinning through the air as if it had been inflated.”

Squirrel Hunting in Kentucky Today

Squirrel populations are not as high now as they were 200 years ago.

Deforestation and the loss of the state’s majestic chestnut trees, which fell victim to a blight in the early 20th century, have been contributing factors.

But the outlook for squirrels and squirrel hunting in Kentucky is excellent, as 46 percent of the state, or about 12 million acres, is forested, according to the Kentucky Division of Forestry. A high percentage of Kentucky’s trees are mature, on which squirrels thrive, since the oldest trees produce the most masts (nuts).

Squirrels remain a popular small game species and the fall/winter squirrel hunting season is the longest in Kentucky’s hunting season calendar, at 195 days in length.

The 2019-2020 squirrel hunting season in Kentucky is split. It opened on August 17 and lasted until November 8. Three days later, the season reopened on November 11 and will continue until February 29, 2020.

The end of the season is a good time to hunt squirrels.

In winter, the food that squirrels seek is found mainly on the ground. The squirrels create a cache of nuts and seeds. They return to nuts that they have buried or hidden in tree cavities.

A proven late-season hunting strategy is to walk around for a while, then sit for a while and wait for the squirrels to show up. The squirrels are noisy, barking and chattering, and chasing each other as their second breeding season is about to begin.

Shots tend to be longer, and small caliber muzzleloaders are ideal for bagging squirrels.

The squirrel harvest decreases at the end of the season in part because there are fewer hunters. Years of Squirrel Hunter Cooperator Survey data have found that hunter effort is greatest toward the beginning of the fall season and decreases as the season progresses. In most years, less than five percent of squirrel hunts take place in January, and even fewer in February.

Hunters typically see about half as many squirrels at the end of the season, compared to August and September.

Squirrel hunting with a long flintlock rifle takes hunters back to the roots of hunting in Kentucky. The hunting of this rudimentary game animal is celebrated and revered as a symbol of our proud frontier heritage and hunting culture.