How venerated is opening day of squirrel season?

So much so that the groan heard across south Louisiana a couple of Saturdays ago came after the announcement that the Oct. 1 Kentucky at LSU was set for an 11:21 a.m. kickoff.

How could the Southeastern Conference schedule a home LSU football game for the same morning as the opener of the squirrel season?

“They (the SEC) really did it to us this year,” veteran squirrel hunter Randy Danos said. “I sold my (LSU-Kentucky) tickets last week. My two sons and I will be in the woods Saturday morning and, maybe, have enough time to make it home to catch kickoff.”

While Danos is making for home Saturday morning, members of the East Ascension Sportsmen League will gather in Gonzales for the 29th annual Squirrel Rodeo weigh-in, a competition that challenges its members to bring in the heaviest eight-squirrel limit.

The questions most hunters are asking is: are there enough squirrels to make the sauce piquante that follows the day after the rodeo; have south Louisiana’s forests and swamps recovered enough to replenish what some hunters believe is a decline in squirrel populations after major storms in 2005 and 2008; and, what are the effects of this year’s drought?

Last year’s “mast” crop - acorns and other nuts - was above average, a good sign Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Jimmy Stafford said.

“Squirrels generally are better in the years following a bumper mast crop,” Stafford said, adding that next year’s squirrel numbers will tell the drought story .

“Any time there’s a drought during periods when acorns are forming, it leads to acorns falling prematurely, and that’s not a good thing,” Stafford said before explaining the drought will affect northern, central and southwestern parishes more than it should affect areas along the major rivers.

Stafford said major floods along the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers “may result in slight gain in mast production in those areas, because the soils remained hydrated throughout the summer. As long as the water didn’t stay on the land too long, the animals and the mast production should be good.”

For veteran hunters like Danos, the challenge will be to find trees holding enough food, oaks that didn’t shed budding acorns during the summer.

“We walked the woods and it’s dry,” Danos said. “The white oaks still have some acorns the squirrels are cutting, and it looks like those are the trees we’re going to have to find to find the squirrels.”

Even with Wednesday’s rain, hunters can expect to find the forest floors crisp in most areas, even in some swamps. A dry floor means hunters risk making lots of noise moving through the trees.

“I guess we’re going to search for cuttings under a tree and stay in that area and stay quiet,” Danos said. “There are some years when we’ve had rain that it’s better to ease through the woods to take a limit. On the dry years, you find a good spot and stay there, trying not to make noise and let the squirrels come to you.”

Saturday also marks the opening day of the rabbit season, but dedicated rabbit hunters like to wait for the first frost to knock back heavy grasses in order to see rabbits better. The cooler weather is also better for their beagles.

Both squirrel and rabbit season will run through Feb. 29.