By Bruce Ingram
Last December when I met Chris Ellis at his Fayetteville home in preparation for a late-season deer-hunting trip to Jackson County, I was surprised when, as we were leaving, he called for his dog to come along. Ellis, who is the wildlife marketing representative for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), had a ready explanation for his pooch’s presence.
“I love late-season deer hunting, especially with a bow, don’t get me wrong,” Ellis said. “But late December is also a great time to go squirrel hunting, and I just can’t pass up the opportunity to take my dog out into the woods. I love heading out for a day of squirrel hunting with a dog by my side. And when I see a barking dog tree a squirrel and then know that I only have a few seconds to get into position for a shot before the squirrel holes up, well, in my opinion, that’s just as exciting as hunting for deer or turkeys.”
Pursuing squirrels and rabbits is a traditional West Virginia pastime. Veteran sportsmen will no doubt remember that not too many decades ago, bushytails and rabbits were the focus of many, if not most, Mountain State hunters. The decades of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s were times of low deer and turkey populations, and squirrel and rabbit dishes were important staples in the diets of many state residents.
As a boy in the 1950s, I can well remember visiting my grandma and having fried squirrel, gravy and biscuits for breakfast and then dining on fried squirrel again for dinner. The entire family held my late Uncle Vernon in high esteem, as he was someone who could be counted on to bag a limit of bushytails, and thus supply enough meat for several meals.
Regardless of whether you pursue gray or fox squirrels or hunt in Monroe or Monongalia counties or dwell in the Eastern Panhandle or far western West Virginia, two important points need to be made about bushytail hunting in general. First, the No. 1 factor influencing squirrel populations in any given year is the mast conditions of the previous year.
For example, in 2002, the state as a whole endured a poor mast crop. This resulted in squirrels experiencing a rough winter with the animals either dying or entering the breeding season in poor shape. Thus, squirrel numbers in most areas of West Virginia were well below normal in the fall of 2003 and success rates were down for many hunters.
A second major factor, although not as important as the first, is the harshness of the winter. The winter of 2002-03 was considered severe in most areas of the state and that fact, too, contributed to squirrel mortality. The survivors entered the breeding season in less than peak condition. In short, the poor mast production and harsh winter combined to knock back the state’s squirrel population.
Fortunately, squirrels have the ability to recover quickly from adverse weather and food conditions. Both the fox and gray species typically produce two litters a year and litters of five are not uncommon. Unfortunately, however, in 2003 (the mast-producing year that will have the most effect on squirrel populations for this year), mast production was far from satisfactory.
Every year for the past 35 years, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) has conducted a mast survey where the agency evaluates nine hard mast and nine soft mast-producing trees and shrubs. DNR biologists Jim Pack and Bill Igo have conducted this survey for many years with the assistance of biologists and volunteers around the state.
The survey takes place at nearly 300 sites in all regions of the Mountain State. As noted earlier, the 2002 mast situation was described as spotty and 2003 was described as being “not a boom year, either.” This means that the squirrels likely entered the 2004 brooding season in poor condition. And that fact translates into fewer animals being available this fall and tough hunting likely in many areas.
A closer examination of the 2003 mast production bears this out. It was the third year in a row that mast production was below normal. That year also saw the second lowest production of acorns since 1970. The cold rains that occurred during the spring of 2003 had a very negative impact on the flowering of many of the oak species, such as the white and chestnut varieties. Overall, nine of the 18 mast producers on the survey had lower production than the 34-year average.
For squirrels, the only good news, report Pack and Taylor, is that the “most important food for squirrels (hickory) doubled the figure from 2002.” West Virginia’s squirrel contingent relishes the nuts of such hickory species as shagbark, mockernut, pignut, and those trees produced fruit in great quantities. However, the hickory production was not able to offset the poor production of many other hard and soft mast trees and shrubs. And a look around the state shows this to be true.
In the eastern part of West Virginia, squirrel numbers were down because of the poor mast situation. Counties with fair bushytail populations, relatively speaking, include Berkley and Hampshire. The mountain counties of the central and southern regions also were described as having a lack of mast, and squirrel numbers were listed as being low or poor. Squirrels were most abundant, again relatively speaking, in Greenbrier, Pocahontas and Webster counties.
Southern West Virginia hunters had to deal with decreasing squirrel populations and poor mast, with the highest squirrel populations, comparatively, in McDowell, Mercer and Clay counties. Northern West Virginia saw squirrel numbers in 2003 similar to those in 2002 – that is, poor. Lewis and Upshur counties offered the best hunting, relatively speaking. The same statement was valid for northern West Virginia with Doddridge and Gilmer counties offering the best hope for success.
If this news was not gloomy enough, then squirrel enthusiasts should consider another downer of a fact – the weather in April and May of 2004 was cooler, damper and wetter than normal. No doubt, mast production of such trees as white oaks was negatively impacted by the inclement weather. Squirrel hunting could be very difficult and the bushytails are hard to find this fall and winter as well (the season continues through Jan. 31).
To confirm – or disprove – that last statement, biolo
gist Chris Ryan urges squirrel hunters to visit the agency’s Web site at www.wvdnr. gov. In the search engine, type in “mast survey.” Doing so will take you to the “2004 West Virginia Hunting Outlook.”
There you can preview the overall forecast for squirrels, plus rabbits and other big-game and small-game species, on a region-by-region basis. Plus, there is information about specific counties and comments from mast survey participants. The hunting outlook and mast survey will obviously not tell hunters what precise conditions exist in, say, southern Mingo County; but the report will give solid, general information about overall hunting prospects. Based on the poor mast situation and the downward trend in squirrel numbers, at press time Ryan was not optimistic about the coming season.
When the quarry is a squirrel, public-land options are numerous. Although numbers will be down on both public and private land, the enterprising hunter should still be able to bag enough bushytails for a meal. My favorite public land to squirrel hunt on is Potts Creek WMA (18,526 acres) in Monroe County. The reason for this is that this unit of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest surrounds land that I own in Monroe County. Potts Creek is not any better to hunt on than many other state public lands, I prefer the WMA because it is convenient.
I suspect other West Virginia squirrel hunters who hunt public land have similar feelings for why they like one WMA over another. Let’s face facts. I doubt if there are few, if any, West Virginia squirrel hunters who are going to drive several hundred miles to go afield on a WMA. If an individual does not have access to private land, he will journey to the closest public domain – where the hunting will likely be just as good as a WMA many miles farther away.
With squirrel numbers being down because of the poor mast years of 2001 through 2003, there is little reason for an individual to think that he can drive great distances to experience better hunting. Again, to emphasize, if an individual is willing to still- hunt through any given WMA and spend several hours doing so, he should be able to bag several squirrels.
The first time I squirrel hunted in the Potts Creek WMA was with Jim Craft, now the supervisor for the Neola WMA. The same conditions that made this public land a good place to pursue squirrels during that hunt still exist now. For example, oak-hickory-pine forests blanket most of this mountainous area in Monroe County. A good game plan is to hunt along the hollows that lead down from the mountains. If one of those hollows happens to have a tributary of Potts Creek, so much the better.
Another place where I have experienced good squirrel hunting is on the Neola WMA (97,928 acres) in Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties. Again, the reason I enjoy hunting the Neola is because it is conveniently located to where I live. Oak-hickory and oak-pine forests blanket the vast majority of the Neola – in other words, it contains great squirrel habitat.
Another thing I like about the Neola is that old logging roads honeycomb this public land. I can wander along these passageways until I find an area where hard or soft mast exists. Then based on whether fresh cuttings are present, I can either take a stand or continue on my way.
Yet another public land where I have experienced quality squirrel sport is the Potomac WMA (139,786 acres) in Randolph, Pendleton, Grant and Tucker counties. Oak-hickory and northern hardwoods comprise the majority of this domain. The elevations on the Potomac range from 900 to 4,862 feet. Sportsmen should concentrate their efforts in the lower elevations, as gray squirrels are likely to be very low in number at the higher elevations.
The news for rabbit chasers is considerably better than it is for squirrel devotees. According to biologists Pack and Igo, the rabbit population has been improving in recent years. Whereas the wet, cool springs in recent years have had an adverse impact on hard mast production, which is so important for squirrels, that same weather pattern has been a boon for cottontails. The moist conditions have resulted in lush vegetation, which has helped rabbits to hide from predators during the spring and summer months and on into the fall.
During the spring of 2004, the weather was once again cool and wet – a terrible condition for turkeys and ruffed grouse reproduction, for instance, but a very positive event for cottontails. If autumn rainfall was average or above normal in your home area may well mean that there will be abundant cover – and some quality rabbit hunting – in November and December. The cottontail and snowshoe seasons continue through Feb. 28.
In 2003, rabbit reports from around the state generally noted that populations were stable or slightly increasing. The relevance of those reports for 2004 is that the areas that had adequate populations in 2003 will likely have more rabbits available to produce offspring in 2004.
In the eastern part of West Virginia, rabbit numbers were generally stable with the prospects being better in Berkley and Jefferson counties. The same was generally the case in the mountain counties with Greenbrier, Pocahontas and Webster offering the best opportunities.
Southern West Virginia also had a stable rabbit population with Clay, Fayette, Lincoln, McDowell and Mercer counties perhaps having the best numbers.
Rabbit numbers seem to be trending upward in the northern reaches of West Virginia with the counties of Barbour, Marion, Monongalia and Taylor showing increasing numbers of cottontails. Rabbit numbers were described as being the same or slightly better in the Northern Panhandle with Brooke, Marshall and Ohio counties offering the most fetching sport.
Generally speaking, given the fact that unbroken tracts of hardwood forests characterize the majority of West Virginia public lands, rabbit hunting on these areas cannot compare to the sport that can be found on nearby private lands. This is especially true if these private lands feature agricultural pursuits, livestock operations, regenerating, overgrown fields, or recently timbered forests in the early stages of regeneration.
A major exception to the unbroken forest trait of most state WMAs is the McClintic WMA (3,655 acres) in Mason County. This District 5 spot, Chris Ryan said, features the most diverse habitat of any public land in the Mountain State. Situated near Point Pleasant and Mason in the western part of the state, McClintic is characterized by farmland, brushy fields, wetlands and mixed hardwoods. Given this great diversity of habitat and good game populations, McClintic is one of the most popular public lands in West Virginia. If you live in that region of the state and need access to some quality public land for rabbit hunting, McClintic is a great option.
For rabbit fanciers living in the central part of the state, the best public-land choice would probably be the Stonewall Jackson WMA (18,289 acres) in Lewis County. Stonewall Jackson has a high proportion of forestland, but this area also features old farmland, rolling
hills with plenty of brush and edge habitat along the edges of Stonewall Jackson Lake.
Very few sportsmen go after snowshoe rabbits in West Virginia. This species is probably not abundant anywhere and exists mainly in the higher elevations of some of the state’s most mountainous WMAs that make up the Monongahela National Forest.
The most extreme elevations include Beaver Dam WMA (37,674 acres) in Randolph County, and the Blackwater WMA (58,978 acres) in Tucker and Preston counties. Also, Cheat WMA (80,771 acres) in Randolph County, the Cranberry WMA (158,147 acres) in Nicholas, Webster, Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, the Little River WMA (124,483 acres) in Pocahontas County, and the Tea Creek WMA (67,919 acres) in Pocahontas, Randolph and Webster counties are possibilities.
To emphasize, even in these WMAs that do contain snowshoes, the numbers are not high and the mountainous terrain and the elevations where this species is found combine to make hunting extremely difficult. If you should go after snowshoes in December, expect snow to already cover the ground in the upper elevations of these WMAs. Hunters and their beagles will have to be in tiptop shape in order for them to succeed.
Last January, I spent two pleasant Saturday afternoons squirrel and rabbit hunting. I bagged a total of two squirrels and missed both rabbits I shot at. I found the squirrels difficult to find and the rabbits difficult to hit. The bushytails will likely be difficult to locate this year, although rabbit numbers will be about the same or slightly better.
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