They set up camps where they played dominoes around a campfire at night before heading deep into the woods early in the morning.
Some would sit, back up to a tree watching and listening. Others quietly slipped through the woods hoping to catch sight of their game before it spotted them.
Some hunted alone, others with a friend or mentor to a child. A few even brought specially trained dogs to aid in the hunt.
The hunters didn’t carry high-powered rifles or big bore shotguns. It was .22s and .410 bores. They didn’t need much. They were hunting the fox and cat squirrels that scampered high up in the pines and hardwoods.
Those days mostly ended in the 1970s when deer herds, decimated by overharvest and habitat destruction decades early, were rebuilt by state stocking and enforced regulations. Since then deer hunting has continued to thrive while squirrel hunting has become an almost lost sport with the exception of some who started in their youth during the sports heyday.
For the most part the squirrel camps are gone. Few venture out more than a morning or two during the season. And it has become a solitary hunt. There are even a few who have squirrel dogs, but like coon hounds, their numbers are bound to be dwindling.
Another squirrel season rolls around Monday in East Texas, and again it won’t open with a bang. Hordes of hunters won’t crowd stores getting gear for the season, but a few, a diehard group, will be back in the woods one more time.
Monday’s morning low is supposed to be in the 60s, perfect for an early hunt. Otherwise, those in the know might have chosen to open the season a little later in the month, once the mosquitoes have disappeared from the bottoms and more moisture has taken the crackle out of the fresh, falling leaves.
They can’t start too late because most have to compete with deer hunters and deer hunting traffic in the bottoms.
While other Texas game populations suffered during two years of drought, East Texas’ squirrels did fairly well.
“The squirrel densities generally track hard mast production very closely, as years that provide good mast crops also produce good habitat conditions for squirrels. The past few years the mast production has been very favorable for squirrel populations even considering the droughty conditions statewide,” said Tucker Slack, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wildlife biologist at the Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area.
Cyclical populations are normal with squirrels, but Slack explained since they are capable of producing a fairly large numbers of offspring in good years, the numbers often bounce back quickly.
Squirrels will have two to four young a year, and along with a mid-winter nesting period, there is often a smaller, early fall season as well.
Most urban Texans know only the fox squirrel, the golden-colored variety with the long tail that can be found pestering dogs in city trees, or often dead on the road.
A second, less prevalent species is the smaller gray or cat squirrel. Hunters prefer cat squirrels because they are more tender. The bigger fox squirrels often find their way into the pressure cooker.
“Fox squirrels occupy large home ranges normally located in open upland forested sites in the eastern two-thirds of the state, whereas gray squirrels are confined to smaller home ranges in bottomland forests located in the easternmost portion of the state,” Slack said.
Although about the same color overall, the gray squirrel has a white or gray underbelly and a noticeably short tail. It will tip the scales at about a pound while a mature fox squirrel can weigh up to two pounds.
“Gray squirrels are by far more prevalent in East Texas and likely account for more than three-quarters of the total squirrel population. They are more sociable and much more likely to be found in groups,” Slack said.
The biologist said both species are a sporting target.
“Gray squirrels will respond to danger by running, jumping, climbing, and otherwise presenting an unparalleled aerialist show without ever stopping to look back. Fox squirrels prefer to play hide and seek as they freeze, shift, bob and weave in order to keep some obstruction between themselves and the threat,” he said.
The fall/winter season in 51 East Texas counties remains open through Feb. 3. The daily bag limit is 10, but a true squirrel hunter is probably only going to take enough for a meal that night.
For those without access to private squirrel woods, most TPWD wildlife management areas in East Texas are open to hunting either all or most of the season. An annual $48 public hunting lands permit is required to access the areas. The permits are available anywhere hunting licenses are sold.
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