Still-Hunting for Early-Season Bushytails
September 28, 2010
Sitting and waiting is OK for deer hunters, but if you want more squirrels, get up and move! Our expert explains how to fool treetop squirrels if you are hunting alone or with a partner.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Mike Bleech
Only a squirrel hunter can tell you how good it feels to be back in the woods with shotgun in hand for some early-season bushytail hunting. Sitting quietly with your back against a tree trunk, one that is shaped just right, is the best (and easiest) way to put bushytails in the game pouch. Hunters who are more anxious for a squirrel potpie tend to use more aggressive tactics.
Sometimes sitting still and waiting for squirrels to come to you is the best way to hunt, especially in years when the mast crop is good. But for those days when it isn't, here are a few tactics to try.
Squirrels tend to congregate around a mast-producing tree when mast is scarce, but when mast is abundant, they are usually scattered. When this happens, still-hunting can be an excellent tactic.
Still-hunting for squirrels is a real challenge, as challenging as still-hunting for deer. Sure, you will see and hear plenty of squirrels as they work the treetops for nuts, and you can probably get close to feeding squirrels, but unless you are a good still-hunter, you probably will not get within shooting range of many.
Relatively few hunters really understand the concept of still-hunting. It is called "still" hunting because you should be still more than walking. You will not alert many squirrels while standing still - it is movement that catches their eyes and puts them on the defensive. But the idea of still-hunting is covering ground, so you must also move through the woods.
It is the way you move that is critical.
Every action should be slow and cautious. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to see animals that move steadily, while those that move just a few steps at a time often get very close before you see them? The situation works the same in reverse.
Stopping for long periods also provides your best opportunity to look for squirrels. Every step you take opens new viewing lanes through the limbs and leaves. If you do not stop, those lanes pass too quickly for you to see anything. Stop at least after every three or four steps. Whenever possible, slip close to a tree that will break up your human silhouette.
Spotting a motionless squirrel that blends into the background is very difficult unless you know what to look for. The shape of the animal's head and shoulders is a good first clue, as is the curve of the rodent's namesake tail. Many times a squirrel will flatten itself against a tree or limb, or sit quietly in the crotch of a branch, and watch you go by. Look for them, see them and be prepared to shoot the instant you recognize a clean target.
Some hunters complain that new safety rules requiring hunters to wear orange clothing makes hunting more difficult. Squirrels can see colors, but in most cases, it is not the orange color that alerts game, but the material. Do not wear a hat or vest made with shiny orange nylon. Instead, choose orange garments made with softer material that does not reflect as much light. Also, avoid hunter orange on your legs and arms. These are the parts of your body that move the most. Small details like this can make huge improvements in hunting success.
Many times while still-hunting you will see squirrels run up trees and disappear before you get a chance to shoot. Sometimes they go into holes in tree trunks leaving you only two options: Wait them out or move on.
Squirrels typically stay hidden for as long as 30 minutes. Most of the time they just hide in the limbs and wait for you to pass by. It is at this point where many hunters make the mistake of giving up. Don't!
Be prepared to wait a long time. There is no better place to be than under a tree where a squirrel is hiding. All you have to do is wait him out. The odds that you can find that squirrel are much better than the odds of finding another squirrel somewhere else.
The first thing you should do when you see a squirrel scamper up a tree is scan the limbs very carefully. Squirrels tend to hide on the opposite sides of tree trunks, larger limbs, in the crotches of branches, or in the highest limbs. Do not expect to see an entire squirrel, just pieces of a squirrel. Watch for the ears, the tail, or tail hairs moving in the wind. Use binoculars to scan each limb, and take your time. Eventually, the squirrel will move, but he'll move fast, so be ready to shoot.
Getting a clean shot at a squirrel that is hiding on the opposite side of a limb is nearly impossible without using trickery. If you try walking around the tree, the squirrel will just slide around the opposite side of the limb. If you are hunting with a partner, the normal tactic is for one hunter to walk around the tree while the other watches. If you are alone, throw a stick or a rock to the other side of the tree and then watch for the squirrel to make a move.
If that does not get the squirrel moving, scratch on the tree trunk with a stick. Do not scratch hard, just lightly. You can even do this with your fingernails on trees with smooth bark. This probably gives the squirrel the impression that a predator is climbing up the tree, and that will often get the squirrel moving.
Team hunting can eliminate most such problems, at least in many cases. One excellent method is for two hunters to walk along the same line of travel and about 50 yards apart. This must be done slowly. The theory is that the first hunter will alert squirrels in the trees, and those squirrels will hide behind the trunk or limbs and then slide around as the first hunter passes, putting them in full view of the second hunter.
If the trailing hunter fails to see them, the squirrels will slide back around the tree as that hunter gets close, giving the lead hunter a good view.
Making this work requires that both hunters stop often. The lead hunter stops to look behind. The trailing hunter stops to give the lead hunter time to increase the gap that was closed while that hunter stopped. This is best accomplished by experienced squirrel hunters who can make good estimations of the trees that are most likely to hold hiding squirrels. Squirrels tend to hide in the larger trees with bark that matches their fur color.
Less experienced squirrel hunters will probably have better results with the "loop and loop" method, especially in forests or large wood lots.
With this approach, hunters ta
ke turns standing and walking. While one hunter stands, the other loops around in a half circle. The objective is for the looping hunter to push squirrels past the standing hunter, so the loops must be large enough to get around squirrels that were not already alerted by the standing hunter. This will vary with the type of cover: Larger loops in open timber, smaller loops where there is more ground cover. Generally, the walking hunter should be at the outer limits of the standing hunter's view.
Loops should be elongated. When hunters switch roles, the hunter who is starting a loop should walk far to the left or right before moving forward past the standing hunter. This is actually more of an angular movement than a gentle loop. The walking hunter should be farther from the standing hunter at the apex of the loop than when he returns to the line ahead of the standing hunter. The idea is to get as many squirrels inside the loop as possible.
Some coordination is required. A whistle, or better, a birdcall, might be helpful in coordinating movements. But if the loops are wide enough, it is fine to return within view of the standing hunter before switching roles. If both hunters are familiar with the area, the simplest way to coordinate is to predetermine where each hunter will stand. The moving hunter can even return each time to the standing hunter's position if this is necessary to coordinate movements.
Loop and loop hunting is not quite driving. The walking hunter should move carefully. You do not want to chase squirrels from long distances. Get as close to the squirrels as possible or they will simply move ahead of both hunters. The walking hunter should be still-hunting, also trying to get within shooting range, not sacrificing his chances of seeing squirrels. Roughly half of the squirrels will move away from the standing hunter, so the walking hunter should pay the most attention in that direction.
It is not easy to master squirrel hunting, as you will soon discover, and you will not get them all. But the skills you develop now will hold you in good stead come deer season. You might even be surprised at how "easy" deer hunting will seem in comparison!
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