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OUTDOORS: Hunters gearing up for squirrel season

With Georgia’s squirrel season but days away, hunters should make plans now to get out and pursue this traditionally popular game species. (Photo courtesy of Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resource Division)

With Georgia’s squirrel season but days away, hunters should make plans now to get out and pursue this traditionally popular game species. (Photo courtesy of Georgia DNR, Wildlife Resource Division)

Looking for some early season hunting enjoyment? Like the thought of participating in a traditional, time-honored all-American sporting activity? Just plain like being in the woods and can’t wait until fall to get out and shoot? Ever think about squirrel hunting anymore?

Hunting squirrels continues to be a worthwhile sport for many, particularly sportsmen and women who appreciate keeping in touch with the “roots” of American shooting sports. From the earliest days of westward expansion on the North American continent, the squirrel has figured heavily into American outdoor life, both as table fare and worthy hunters’ quarry. Today as well, the pursuit of bushytails is an enjoyable tradition for hunters of all ages and walks of life. Squirrels are the second most pursued game species in Georgia, behind doves.

Whether one prefers stand hunting, stalk hunting, or following a fun-to-watch squirrel dog through the woods, the beginning of squirrel season for Georgia hunters is less than a week away. For those looking to get a jump on later-opening seasons, mid August marks a good time to take to the woods, particularly for anyone interested in introducing a youngster to the sport of hunting. Squirrel hunting can provide the perfect opportunity to introduce youth or a novice to the hunting experience. Unlike some big game hunts, the pursuit of gray and fox squirrels often involves more action for energetic youth, providing a greater level of interaction with the outdoors.

Georgia’s very liberal squirrel season begins Aug. 15 and runs through the end of February. During that time, hunters can pursue both of the state’s native squirrel species and bag a daily limit of 12 (gray, fox, or a combination).

“Prior to the successful restoration of white-tailed deer, pursuing squirrels in the fall was a significant cultural tradition in Georgia,” said John Bowers, chief of game management for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division. “Squirrel hunting today provides one of our best opportunities to introduce the younger generation to hunting and instill in them our responsibilities to wildlife conservation. This is especially true since Georgia’s squirrel season begins so early and runs for so long. Additionally, it’s fun, less expensive, and provides nearly constant action. Squirrel hunting, especially with squirrel dogs such as feists, terriers, and curs, is a great way to introduce youth to hunting and the outdoors.”

As for opportunity, there are countless acres of private and public land that offer prime squirrel hunting in the state throughout the season. Georgia’s wildlife management areas provide nearly one million acres of hunting opportunity for the price of a wildlife management area stamp ($19) and squirrel hunting is allowed on WMAs at specified times during the statewide squirrel season. Hunters are advised to check the hunting regulations for specific WMAs and hunt dates.

Both the gray and fox squirrel can be found throughout the state with ranges overlapping in most areas. The gray squirrel, abundant in both rural and urban areas, is the most common species. Though mostly associated with hardwood forests, grays can also be found in mixed pine-and-hardwood locations. Predominately gray, with white underparts, gray squirrels appear more slender-bodied than fox squirrels, weighing anywhere from 12 ounces to 1 ½ pounds.

Fox squirrels have several color phases, varying from silver-gray with a predominately black head, to solid black, to a light buff or brown color tinged with reddish yellow. Generally larger than grays, fox squirrels range in weight from one pound to nearly three, and are more closely associated with mature pine and mixed pine-and-hardwood habitats. The largest Georgia fox squirrel populations are found in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions.

This time of year, hunters and wildlife watchers often come across a few squirrels with an out-of-the ordinary, so-called “lumpy” appearance. These lumps, contrary to what some believe, are not tumors and actually are caused by warbles, which are botfly larvae growing just under the squirrels’ skins.

Botflies naturally parasitize gray squirrels, fox squirrels, and chipmunks throughout the eastern and Midwestern regions of North America. Affected squirrels typically are observed during late summer and early fall, from mid July to the end of October.

Adult botflies lay their eggs in the vicinity of the squirrel’s habitat or directly on the squirrel. Once the larva hatches, it enters a body opening and migrates to a location underneath the skin of the squirrel. The larva creates a warble pore where it grows for three to ten weeks, matures, and exits, falling to the ground. There, it burrows to pupate and the cycle repeats itself the following year. Affected squirrels tend to recover quickly once the larvae leave the warbles and fall to the ground.

While the sight of a squirrel with warbles may be a bit unsettling, they generally pose no threat to uninfected squirrels, other wildlife, humans, or domestic animals, and are perfectly safe for squirrel hunters to skin and eat.

So, while fall may be a more traditional time to hit the woods and go squirrel hunting, there is ample opportunity just around the corner to go out and bag a few bushytails. When you go, take your son or daughter. You may wind up having just as much fun as they do.

For more information on the 2013-2014 squirrel hunting season or other small game hunting seasons, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/hunting/regulations . To renew or purchase a hunting license, visit www.georgiawildlife.com/licenses-permits-passes.