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Arkansas squirrel hunting season open


LITTLE ROCK — It may be a few months from the opening of Arkansas’s duck, dove and rabbit hunting seasons, but there’s another reason to keep the shotgun handy now — Arkansas’s squirrel season opens May 15 and it’s a fine time to bag a few bushytails before the summer heat kicks in.
Spring squirrel hunting has been an Arkansas tradition for decades, and typically was available from mid-May through mid-June. In 2013 the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission voted to extend the season for those who wanted to continue pursuing squirrels from May 15 to the end of February, making it one of Arkansas’s longest hunting seasons. Hunters can harvest up to 12 squirrels per day.
Spring season hunting revolves around the food, but instead of searching hickory trees and oaks for nervously twitching tails and listening for the sounds of rodent incisors on acorn hulls, the focus needs to be on the fruit, particularly red mulberries.
It’s not uncommon to find squirrels in spring that have chests and chins stained purple from all of the red mulberries on which they’ve gorged themselves. The key to identifying the trees that hold these magical mulberries is to focus on the leaves. Mulberry trees will have broad, pointed leaves that resemble a heart shape with a flat base. But the leaf also may have a depression in its margin that creates multiple lobes. In fact, a red mulberry tree is one of the only Arkansas trees that typically have a few unlobed leaves, a few leaves with two lobes and other leaves with multiple lobes all at the same time. The mulberries themselves look similar to small blackberry fruits.
Spring squirrel hunting is made for the shotgun. Instead of walking over crunchy, newly fallen leaves, you’ll be walking over spring growth, which is much quieter. Those leaves on the trees make it harder to get a clean shot with a rimfire rifle, but they also let you get much closer to your squirrels than in January when the bushytails can see you a mile away. The shotgun’s limited distance also offers an added bit of safety when the leaves obscure your target’s background in the distance. A 12-gauge or 20-gauge shotgun with a pocketful of shells loaded with No. 6 shot is all it takes to harvest fox squirrels and gray squirrels in spring. Be sure to bring your empty shell hulls back home with you and dispose of them properly with the rest of your trash from the day.
The main precautions for hunters looking to explore the spring squirrel woods are the same as those for turkey hunters. Ticks, gnats, mosquitoes and other biting insects can be waiting to hop aboard anyone who isn’t prepared. A good bug suit combined with insect repellent is the best route to take. If a bug suit seems too expensive or cumbersome, hunters may want to substitute for it by spraying their clothing with permethrin, an insecticide that will help deter some insects. Permethrin is especially handy against ticks and chiggers. When it comes to mosquitoes, a good bug spray using the chemical compound DEET or a Thermocell for those who will be sitting in one spot for more than 5 minutes are must-have items to keep the bugs at bay.
With the exception of the bugs, the only real thing to worry about is caring for your squirrels once they’re harvested. Keep the meat cool to prevent any spoilage by wearing a vest with a mesh game pouch like those used during dove season. You also can carry your squirrels by hand or hang them from a game strap to ensure the meat stays fresh for that pot of squirrel and dumplings when you get home.
As if you needed another good reason to hit the squirrel woods this spring, anyone interested in showing off their campfire culinary skills is invited to enter this year’s World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off scheduled for Sept. 7 at the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale. The relocation and return of the cook-off was the buzz of Northwest Arkansas last fall, with nearly 40 teams pitting their critter-cooking skills against each other to see who does squirrel right. More than 3,000 guests visited the center for the family-friendly event, complete with music, interesting eats and a good old-fashioned squirrel skinning contest.
Visit https://www.facebook.com/squirrelcookoff for more information and how to sign up.