CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trees still have leaves and there's no real nip in the air just yet, but West Virginia's squirrel-hunting season is almost upon us.
Opening day is Sept. 14. State wildlife officials expect thousands of sportsmen to take advantage of the 4 1/2-month season before it closes on Jan. 31.
"West Virginia has a lot of squirrels, and it has a lot of squirrel hunters," said Paul Johansen, the Division of Natural Resources' assistant wildlife chief. "There's a strong squirrel-hunting tradition in this state."
Statistics confirm Johansen's statement. A 2010 survey revealed that nearly 80,000 Mountain State residents hunt squirrels. That total exceeds by roughly 20,000 the number of spring turkey hunters, and by more than 60,000 the number of bear hunters.
Only deer hunting, with 179,000 participants, outstripped squirrel hunting.
"There are a couple of good reasons why we have so many squirrel hunters," Johansen said. "First, close to three-fourths of West Virginia is forested, and most of that forest is the oak-hickory type. Conditions for squirrels are almost ideal here. You might even say West Virginia is 'almost heaven' for squirrels."
Back when deer, bear and turkeys were relatively scarce, people had little choice but to hunt squirrels. That, in part, helped ingrain squirrel hunting as a "must-do."
Those hunters introduced their children and grandchildren to the pastime, a practice that has been upheld by generation after generation.
"That's a big part of why the squirrel-hunting tradition is so strong in West Virginia," Johansen said. "Many hunters' first experiences in the woods were gained while hunting squirrels with dad or granddad."
Johansen called squirrels "an ideal animal for a young person's first hunt."
"Squirrels are very abundant," he explained. "So there's a very good chance that the young hunter is going to get to see [his or her quarry] in action, moving around in the forest canopy."