Gearing up for Bushytails

The beginning of hunting season is often the easiest time for finding the critters. On the other hand, the conditions you face can call for arming yourself differently for squirrels.

It's not easy being an early season squirrel hunter. Not only do you tend to receive some incredulous looks from deer hunters, but conditions, despite being generally favorable, can often work against your success.

It's no secret that early season squirrels can be very active. And it's not hard to figure out why. Once the first acorns begin to drop, squirrels tend to get busy.

Anyone who has ever watched a bushytail scamper across a hardwood forest floor, gathering an acorn here and burying one there, has an instant and thorough understanding of where the popular term "squirreling it away" originated. That's the good news. Squirrels can often be on the move through the late morning and again in the period from early afternoon until dusk while they create a hoard for the bleaker winter months ahead. Later in the season, those movement periods are significantly shorter.

The bad news is that the animals have a lot of hiding places to slip into when disturbed.

In sharp contrast to what squirrel hunters normally find after Christmas Day, the early season sees most trees still wearing full leaf. As well, the majority of the forest floor flora is also relatively lush. A squirrel that detects the presence of a hunter doesn't have far to run to find a leafy tree, and he's going to be scooting through a lot of understory growth while he dashes to it.

So, finding squirrels during the early season may be relatively easy, but getting a clear shot at them can sometimes be tough. It does add a bit of complexity to what is otherwise considered a simple yet highly enjoyable endeavor. This situation also interjects a bit of controversy regarding the most efficient tool a hunter can tote for harvesting the squirrels.

You can spark a lively debate among veteran squirrel hunters as to whether a shotgun is a better tool than a .22 rifle. Yet even the most impassioned debaters may well change their stance with the seasons.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the smoothbore is the preferred tool during the early fall, when vegetation is still relatively thick and squirrels are on the move. Once the full weight of winter settles in, bringing bare-branch vistas and noisy walking conditions, the rifle is often the choice.

At least, that's what conventional wisdom says. But as history often shows, "conventional wisdom" may just be an oxymoron.

As a general rule, the early season shotgun and the late season rifle philosophy has some merit. Still, it is not carved in stone, because it fails to take into account the individual style of the squirrel hunter who is toting the gun. Even in a leafy environment, an accurate .22 rifle can still be an effective tool. It just depends upon the hunting philosophy of the individual carrying it.

There is no such thing as a "standard" squirrel-hunting tactic. The basic concept is pretty simple - find 'em and bag 'em. But just how that is accomplished can vary.

For some, the most effective, and enjoyable, technique is to cover ground at a moderate pace and take whatever crosses one's path. This is prevalent among those with itchy feet, who can't wait to see what lies in the next patch of hardwoods. It's also made to order for the shotgunner, especially during the early season.

Given the lush vegetation and relatively quiet footing with a lot of squirrels active on the ground, walking up on bushytails is a lot easier in October than it is in January. Shots here can be relatively short. When a startled squirrel scampers through the greenery towards its favorite tree, it can be a difficult target. The smoothbore is the ideal tool for this action, since you do not to be very precise with your shots.

Virtually any shotgun, from the diminutive .410 to the 12 gauge, can be a perfect choice. In the larger gauges, no more than an ounce of shot is needed, and a modified choke can work as well as a full in any gauge but the .410. When it comes to shot size, most agree that No. 4 is a bit much and No. 8 a bit light. That leaves size No. 6 as ideal.

If a quick pace is your idea of the perfect squirrel tactic, the smoothbore should be your tool of choice during the early season.

If, however, you prefer to do more sitting than walking, there is no reason an accurate .22 rimfire rifle can't be every bit as effective - and just as much fun - as it is during the latter season. Taking a quiet position, watching, listening and then stalking to the target is the epitome of squirrel hunting for many. Normally more effective in the open woods of late winter, it can be productive during the early season.

Of course, you need to make certain that the rimfire you are carrying not only sports quality optics needed to locate a squirrel that has found sanctuary in a leafy tree, but also possesses the accuracy needed to slip the bullet through the maze of greenery to the target.

Fortunately, that's not hard to do, nor does it have to be expensive. When it comes to obtaining a .22 rifle, shooters have never had it so good. Virtually any bolt-action model made by one of the established companies can be made to produce 50-yard "head shot" accuracy. Also, price is not always an indicator of accuracy. I have seen very modestly priced bolt guns from the major makers routinely produce 1/2-inch groups at 50 yards, once they were properly set up.

The same is not always true of semi-automatics. The self-operating action does not always provide the same consistent degree of chambering and cartridge positioning (especially if the gun is not cleaned regularly), and the sometimes lengthy and rough triggers on many leave much to be desired for precision shot placement.

Sights are critical, and unless one has eyes like Superman that means a scope. In recent years it has become fashionable to attach a 1-inch or 30mm-diameter big game scope to rimfire rifles on the theory that the more expensive optics will be brighter and crisper and the mechanical construction will be more precise than on the lower-priced scopes designed for rimfires. Though they do exhibit these qualities, they also introduce a problem with parallax.

This is a condition that exists in all telescopic sights when the reticle crosshairs do not lie exactly on the image plane. All scopes have it, and much like the focus adjustment on a camera lens or binoculars, there is only one distance where it is "focused" precisely. Rimfire scopes are generally set for 50 yards, and big game scopes for 150. Scopes used for precision long range shooting normally feature an adjustable parallax to allow the shooter to set it to the appropriate range.

Excessive parallax makes the shooter's eye position very critical if repeatable accuracy is to be achieved. With a 150-yard parallax setting, big game scopes have excessive parallax at the under-50-yard ranges normally encountered by rimfire shooters. Because of that, the group size from those scopes may not be as good, or as consistent, as that produced by a lesser-priced rimfire scope.

The solution is to choose a quality rimfire scope, or send your big game scope back to the factory and request that the parallax be reset for 50 yards. It's not a complicated deal, but it can be the difference between sub-1/2-inch groups and 3/4-inch groups.

The loads you feed the gun can be even more important. Again, price is not an automatic indicator of accuracy. There is no "best" .22 Long Rifle load, but every gun has some it likes and some it hates. Finding the one your gun works best with can be the difference between taking some squirrels home for stew and simply enjoying the day in the woods!

Pick a shotgun. Pick a rifle. Pick your tactic. Match them well, and you can boost your odds on early season bushytails.

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