SPRINGDALE, Ark. (Arkansas Game & Fish Commission) — Arkansas squirrel hunters have two big dates to remember this year. May 15 is the annual opening day of squirrel season, and September 23 will be the best way to use those tasty squirrels. That’s the day the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center will host Joe Wilson and the 2023 World Champion Squirrel Cook Off.

Wilson cooked up his nutty competition in 2012 on the square in downtown Bentonville and has also held it at the Benton County Quail Barn. After a brief hiatus due to issues surrounding COVID-19, he’s back and he’s partnered up with the AGFC to put on the show.

“This event brings the squirrel to the forefront of the culinary world, and that’s a heap better than going to waste in the attic or at the bird feeder,” Wilson said.

The event will be limited to 40 teams during its return, so cooks interested in entering should get in touch with Wilson as soon as possible to ensure they have a space.

“We’ve had people from all over the world come to cook in the past,” Wilson said. “Two bankers from New York, a team from the Netherlands, Florida, you name it. But we’ve also had a few folks from right in the Ozarks come and show their chops with limb chicken.”

The AGFC is already planning a pellet gun shooting competition for the kids during the event, and there have always been a few musicians willing to join in the old-fashioned fun for some song and dance.

Although it’s built for fun and squirrel humor runs rampant, the event has a few simple rules. Each three-person team has roughly three hours to prepare their squirrel and a side dish for the judges. Everything – grilling, frying, smoking, roasting, poaching, whatever – has to be done on-site. All entries must contain 80 percent squirrel. Proof of squirreliness will be required before cooking.  Presentation, taste, tenderness and texture all are important aspects of judging. That’s it in a nutshell.

Visit https://www.facebook.com/squirrelcookoff to follow the cook off and learn the details for this year’s event.

If you’re looking for a bag full of bushytails in May and June, one of your best bets is going to be focusing on the food. Instead of hickory nuts and acorns (akerns to us Arkansawyers) found in fall, soft foods make up the squirrel’s spring dinner menu.  Red mulberries, a tree that thrives throughout Arkansas, are the catch of the day in a squirrel’s eye, and a crafty squirrel hunter would be smart to keep a record of these trees on their favorite hunting grounds in spring. The mulberry itself is similar-looking to a raspberry or blackberry, and changes in shade from green to white, then pink and finally dark purple when it’s sweetest. It’s not uncommon to find squirrels in spring that have chests and chins stained purple from all of the red mulberries they’ve gorged themselves on as these small berries ripen.

The key to identifying the trees that hold these magical mulberries is to focus on the leaves, which have a fine, sawtooth edge. Mulberry trees often have three different leaf types on the same tree: a broad, heart-shaped leaf, one that has one lobe and looks like a mitten and others that have multiple lobes. That and the small berries hanging from them in May and June are dead giveaways that the tree is a mulberry and one you need to camp out on for a squirrel hunt.

Maybe mulberry-fed squirrels will be the secret sauce to this year’s winning cookoff recipe. Nothing screams The Natural State more than a little fruit flavoring from a native wild tree, except the idea of a World Champion Squirrel Cook Off.