Bushytails and bugs

Throngs of mosquitoes looking for a warm-blooded meal are, alas, one of the window dressings of the early days of the “fall” squirrel season that opens Saturday. There are squirrels to be found out there, but insects and arachnids are far more abundant, making a case for judicious repellent application.

One school of thought is that Kentucky’s traditional squirrel hunting season opens on the third Saturday of August because there’s hordes of mosquitoes, chiggers and ticks out there that need feeding.

Or maybe if you are big into conspiracy theories, it could be the mid-summer opening of the season was promoted originally by, dare I say, the industry giants who peddle insect repellents. It probably spun off a late-night strategy session among fat cats with huge shares of stocks for the stinky potions.

They may have found some under-the-table allies with calamine lotion magnates, who recognize a peak season for poison ivy would coincide with summer squirrel hunting.

Whatever the original thinking, Kentucky’s long-established “fall” squirrel season begins tomorrow, that third Saturday of sultry August. It is really only a fall season in that it runs completely through the autumn. This year, the opening is Aug. 15 and continues deep into winter, through Feb. 28, broken only for a two-day moratorium (Nov. 14-15) during the opening weekend of the firearms deer hunting season.

Hunters will find consistency in squirrel hunting this season. Regulations are essentially unchanged from those of the past several years. It is a traditional season, largely a rubber stamp to annual versions that go back generations from the present crop of hunters.

For instance, the daily bag limit on squirrels is six. I believe that is the same harvest maximum that was our rule when JFK was president.

The mid-summer start to the traditional squirrel season assures some characteristics of the early days of hunting also are status quo. The environment of August squirrel hunting is fixed in summer swelter. It might feel hot and sticky outdoors in general, but sashay into a thick woodlot and it is like being wrapped in a wet blanket.

It is shaded, but that is the only relief. Any breeze that helped in the open is smothered among the trees. The woods hold all available humidity captive. It is a sweatbox.

In the muffled air among the hardwoods, much of the soundtrack is insect activity. And many of those bugs are coming for you. Legions of winged and droning mosquitoes, biting midges, gnats and flies seek to have their way with you. Unheard and typically unseen, pedestrian arachnids lie in wait. Ticks and chiggers position themselves to latch on and feed when you bumble past them and brush against their ambush posts.

August squirrel hunting is one of those pursuits that the late outdoor humorist Patrick McManus might have been talking about when he coined the Hemingwayesque phrase “a fine and pleasant misery.” There is a sort of magical, churchy reverence in the season opening squirrel woods, but it is not the sort of reverence in which there is comfort.

The link between the August squirrel woods and bugs is inseparable. The only thing that makes early season squirrel hunting remotely tolerable is insect repellent.

It makes one appreciate early man’s endeavors in the forests. Early hunters learned to use various plant oils to fend off bugs. Otherwise the constant torment, I’d imagine, would have been unfathomable. Watch a few episodes of “Naked and Afraid” to confirm that.

My research indicates that one way to repel insects is to burn peacock feathers. I’ve not been able to put this to the test yet.

Some of my earliest memories of squirrel hunting are shaped around scent — the aroma of leaf litter, all the sweet rottenness of decay and micro-beasties working in the subsoil around the trees, various vegetation in the hardwood jungle and the pervasive stench of the insect repellent of those days, which always seemed to me to smell a lot like vomit.

Mosquitoes, however, also seemed put off by that nauseating smell, so I embraced the vile protection the repellent offered.

I believe I had stepped up to “6-12” insect repellent — available in lotion or stick form — by the time my Scout camping team won the fire-building competition. We used 6-12 lotion as an accelerant on our twigs. (Hey, improvise and overcome, I say.)

The development of the repellent chemical DEET during World War II was big. It proves more effective and has fewer side effects than alternative products. I do not think DEET was offered as a consumer product until 1957, but since then it has been the gold standard repellent.

Authorities still recommend repellents of DEET, although concentrations of no more than 30% are identified as proper for children.

DEET is pretty stinky, in significant concentrations is still feels sticky/yucky on the skin, and it has the scary property of melting some plastics on contact. I have had high concentration DEET repellents leave my hide reddened.

I am more sold on picaridin repellents nowadays. They repel bugs as well as DEET without the stickiness, plastic-melting and inflammatory characteristics. It doesn’t smell like vomit, either.

Maximum protection is picaridin spray on exposed skin and wearing clothing that has been sprayed with a permethrin repellent. This is tick/chigger specific but works great for mosquitoes. It keeps working for three or four weeks even through multiple washing of the treated clothing.

No repellent applications are as pleasant as not needing repellent. But just try some of this opening weekend squirrel hunting without some. You’ll lose your repellent objections right away.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at outdoors@paducahsun.com.