Understanding mast crops and weather helps with squirrel hunting

During Arkansas squirrel season, which runs through February 28, hunters may encounter a variety of hunting conditions, each of which has a unique effect on the success of the squirrel hunt. Consequently, to get the most out of every field trip, those looking for bushy tails need to be aware of how various conditions affect squirrel behavior. How will the squirrels behave when rainy or snowy weather comes? What effect does a year of poor mast production have? Will squirrels behave differently on warm, calm days than they do on cold, windy days? If so, how should the hunter respond to these variations?

compression mast

Acorns are the staple and most abundant food for fox squirrels and Arkansas gray squirrels, but it cannot be assumed that acorns will be abundant each fall in all areas.

There are two main groups of oaks: white oaks and red oaks. Except during years of drought or other unfavorable conditions, white oaks produce mast (nuts) every year. Red oak acorns do not exhibit annual mast production. Its acorns require two years to mature; therefore, red oak crops are staggered.

Squirrel hunters should also remember that all wildlife prefer white oak acorns because they are sweet. Red oak acorns produce more tannin and therefore have a bitter taste. Squirrels will eat them if necessary, but when given a choice, bushy tails are almost always found in greater numbers in stands of white oak. Some oaks may also attract more squirrels simply because the trees produce larger acorns or because their acorns are exceptionally abundant.

What does this all mean? Simply this: don’t be fooled into thinking that squirrels will be found in every expanse of oak trees. The cunning squirrel hunter doesn’t just hunt squirrels in oak trees; he looks for them in or near particular varieties of oak, even narrowing it down to specific trees. To determine which individual trees or groves may provide the best hunting opportunities, you need to do a bit of scouting, watching the trees and ground for squirrels and determining where acorns are most abundant. While in the woods, he also looks for fresh “cuttings” (fragments of walnut shells gnawed by squirrels) on the ground. Fresh cuttings have brightly colored edges, a sign that squirrels are foraging in the area and should be good for hunting.

In mountainous regions, acorns can be abundant in some places and absent in others, leading savvy hunters to seek out nut-rich environments where squirrels are likely to concentrate. Jim Spencer, an avid squirrel hunter from Calico Rock, finds this useful when he hunts

Mountain regions.

“When nuts are available,” Spencer said, “I look for nut cuttings that indicate squirrels

they are in one area. I usually start at the top or bottom of a slope and work my way up or down until I find a level where the trees are producing masts. So I stick with that level when I hunt. Some years, only the black oaks (members of the red oak group) on the hilltops are producing nuts, and that’s where I’ll find squirrels. Other years, the white oaks along the lower slopes are more productive, so I will focus my hunting efforts at lower elevations.”

Spencer usually works on the northern slopes first when hunting in the mountains.

“Northern slopes are more protected from sunlight and tend to retain moisture better,” he said. “Consequently, the northern slopes tend to have more hardwoods, better mast harvests, and more squirrels.”

Of course, oaks are not the only trees that produce food for squirrels. Walnuts, beechnuts, hickory nuts, pecans and other hard nuts are eagerly sought after by hungry bushytails. Cunning hunters also seek out special forage items that other hunters may miss. For example, fox squirrels love corn at all stages of their development; therefore, forest edges near cornfields are sure to be good places to take a stand.

During late winter and spring, squirrels can also be found gorging on the buds and flowers of maple, birch, linden, elm, and other trees. Seasonal fruits such as wild cherries, wild grapes, hackberry, blackberries, and persimmons are especially important to the hunter because they often concentrate squirrels in small areas, even if only for short periods. The hunter who knows what is the best option on the squirrel menu in his area will probably enjoy a fried squirrel or squirrel and meatballs dinner.

The weather and squirrel hunting

Squirrels, like people, enjoy pleasant weather. Calm, sunny mornings and evenings will usually find the squirrels actively foraging.

If the woods are dry on these days, hunters should listen as much as they look because squirrels are often heard before they are seen. Listen to the rustle of leaves and the rustle of branches as they move from tree to tree. Their loud chattering can also give them away.

When the woods are dry, it is also advisable to sit while hunting, instead of loitering noisily. Squirrels have a keen sense of hearing, and leaves or twigs crunching under a hunter’s feet will send a wary chick scurrying toward its burrow or nest. The hunter who finds a comfortable place where he can rest while watching and listening to his prey is more likely to enjoy success.

If the forest is dry and it doesn’t suit you to sit down, all is not lost if you can find a nearby body of water. Expert squirrel hunters know that they are more likely to hit a cap if they wade in the shallow edges of a river, stream, or swamp, or lurk slowly along the wet shores of a lake, pond, or swamp.

Hunting afloat by canoe or johnboat is another preferred hunting technique in many parts of the South. This is a great way to get very close to feeding squirrels, even when the woods are dry as dust. The wooded edges of streams provide perfect habitat for squirrels, and for some reason stream squirrels seem to pay little attention to floating hunters.

Humid forests and light rain change the image. If the temperature is mild, squirrel hunting can be excellent. Bushytails don’t mind wet days and often feed on the ground with their tails splayed over their backs and heads like a thumbnail.

parasol. During these periods, the moist forest floor creates ideal conditions for the silent stalker.

Fast approaching fronts and persistent stormy weather often shut down squirrel activity, like turning off a water faucet. The squirrels hunker down until the weather changes, drastically reducing the hunter’s chances of success. However, if a heavy rain suddenly stops and the sun comes out, head to the forest as soon as possible. In this situation, the treetops and forest floor are likely to be teeming with hungry squirrels.

Hunting in snowy, leafless forests in the dead of winter is difficult. Squirrels do not hibernate, but can remain inactive in their dens for several days in cold weather.

The best way to hunt during these times is to locate active squirrel dens in hollow trees. Binoculars help look for holes that the squirrels have worn down and smoothed out. Bagging squirrels then becomes a matter of keeping an eye out for active burrows and being ready when a squirrel emerges.

You don’t have to give up the joys of squirrel hunting just because the weather isn’t perfect or you’re having a hard time finding acorns.

oaks Knowing how your quarry will react to various conditions can help you make the most of your time in the field.

Learn how to model squirrels using the tips just presented, and your hunts will be more successful.