Deer hunters went nuts last season only because there were so many nuts.

Wildlife biologists call it “mast,” the food oaks, beech, hickory and other nut-producing trees provide for most of Louisiana’s wild animals.

There was a bumper crop last fall, and deer hunters who sweated through the late summer planting food plots for whitetails found the deer stayed in the woods to feed on this abundant food source.

For squirrel hunters, it meant good hunting last fall and into the winter, and, better yet, it could mean an even more successful year for the upcoming Oct. 3 through Feb. 29 season.

“That good mast crop is a good indicator for the next fall’s squirrel numbers,” state Wildlife Division chief Kenny Ribbeck said. “And the squirrel population should look pretty healthy this year.”

Even better are the field staff reports Ribbeck is getting now. He was in the woods over the weekend and watched, and heard, squirrels cutting on what appeared to be a hickory tree loaded with nuts.

“All the early indications from several folks is that it looks like another good mast crop is in store this year,” Ribbeck said. “That’s good for all the wildlife.”

Female squirrels, healthy after feeding throughout the fall on that mast crop, apparently produced a robust number of young during the first breeding season near winter’s end earlier this year.

Squirrels go through two nesting periods, one in the late winter and another in May and early June.

Ribbeck said the abundance of food sources enhances the production and survivability of both nesting periods.

“I’m sure everyone who watches squirrels, even in their backyards, has seen squirrels bury acorns,” Ribbeck said. “And these acorns remain a viable food all the way into the next fall when the next (mast) crop becomes available.

“And squirrels are omnivorous. Squirrels will eat animal matter, like insects, as well as fruit. At certain times of the year, you see them on the ground eating seed crops at the end of the summer. In the spring, they are eating the new buds on trees and other soft mast like berries — the red mulberry you find in the swamps are a good spring mast crop — and squirrels get an unbelievable amount of fruit from vines.”

Ribbeck said field personnel have reported squirrels cutting pine cones in the past three weeks to remove the seeds before pint nuts fall to the forest floor.

And for rabbits

A wet spring was just what the doctor ordered to get rabbit population to big numbers for the upcoming season.

What mast is for squirrels, tender, leafy vegetation is for rabbits.

A lush landscape provides food for healthy females and their offspring and cover from predators.

“Other than the last few weeks, we’ve had weather conducive for rabbit populations,” Ribbeck said. “It should be a good season.”

But there’s more for rabbit hunters than the obvious good news about rabbit numbers.

“For the department (of Wildlife and Fisheries), it’s more about getting the rabbit hunters the ability to get into the woods and fields,” Ribbeck said. “They feel like deer hunters have shut them out.”

Two decades of ever expanding deer hunting seasons left rabbit hunters with few days at the end of their season to run dogs, mostly beagles, and engage in their favorite sport afield.

About five years ago, rabbit hunters organized and began pleading with wildlife managers for more days and more hunting areas.

Reacting to those calls, rabbit season — squirrel seasons, too —were lengthened, and the LDWF’s Wildlife and Refuge divisions worked on establishing a Small-Game Emphasis Areas Program on wildlife management areas.

“We love to get more opportunity for small game hunters,” Ribbeck said. “We’ve recognized that small-game hunting has more ‘buy-ins’ for young hunters than putting youths in box stands to hunt deer.”

The “buy-in” reference is that young hunters show more interest in trailing rabbit dogs in a field or through a swamp, or working with a squirrel dog in the woods.

“Young hunters have to have fun, and getting them on a rabbit hunt is fun, and getting them on a squirrel hunt with a mentor means they’re also learning about the woods and hunting in general,” Ribbeck said.

To that end, Ribbeck said State Deer Study leader Scott Durham is working with LSU biologists to study the impact by running beagles for rabbits during the deer season.

“We want to know if it impacts deer movement,” Ribbeck said. “Hopefully, this will show us what we think we already know, and that running beagles for rabbits means a temporary displacement for deer, if there is any displacement at all.”