Alternative Loads For Early-Season Squirrels

Old waterfowl shot and even turkey loads can be effective choices when seeking bushytails during the early parts of the new season. Here's why.

The first day of squirrel season is almost upon us. Most bushytail addicts are getting revved up just thinking about it. For my hunting group, the opening of squirrel season is a big event and viewed as the inauguration of all the fall seasons to follow. But squirrel season isn't just a precursory surrogate to hold our interest until bigger and better hunting seasons come along. Quite the contrary, it provides a great experience all its own and is a favorite time of year for countless small-game hunters.

The early part of squirrel season is filled with a lot of fun and excitement. There are usually plenty of squirrels and the weather is normally very pleasant. Hitting a favorite spot before daylight on opening day with a full thermos of coffee is nearly perfect. To brandish an oft-used phrase, it just doesn't get any better.

Unfortunately, most every good thing comes with a downside. Early- season squirrel hunting has several. Obviously, heat and a plethora of biting and nagging insects are what first come to mind. Another is merely squirrel location. Often in the early part of the season, the bushytails are tucked high in the tops of tall trees, barely visible among the thick tangle of leaves. This leaves one to ponder the choice of firearm.

While many die-hards will opt for scoped .22 rifles or even air guns (where legal), the majority of the rest of us will turn to our trusty shotguns. Nevertheless, the bushytails can be so far away and in such thick foliage they can be hard to bring down even with a scattergun. To turn the tide, some resourceful hunters are deviating from the norm and seeking out alternative loads to harvest these early-season sky-dwellers.

Most everyone has old unused boxes of shotgun shells sitting around collecting dust. A few of these might come in very handy this season. Some squirrel hunters are turning to heavier turkey loads and old waterfowl loads to bring down the bushytails from greater distances and in thicker cover. This may sound hokey at first, but it definitely has some merit.

The first thought that comes to mind is probably that the heavier shells will ruin the meat. Well, that would probably be true at close range, but we're mainly talking about targeting squirrels in hard-to-reach foliage a long way off. This means fewer pellets will actually hit the squirrel and, with the larger shot size, it may only take one pellet to bring it down. The heavier shells actually have much more knockdown power than say a box of No. 6 field loads.

Of course, not every shooting opportunity is guaranteed to be at an extreme range, so there is always a need for a backup plan. With a pump shotgun, some folks will stack two different shot sizes back to back -- one for close range and one of heavier shot for long distances.

They merely shoot the first one or eject it and choose the second. This task is much easier in shotguns with double barrels or even in single-barrel shotguns where the hunter merely waits to drop in the appropriate shell just before taking aim.

Now that the strategy is clear, one must decide which types of shells to consider. Turkey loads are one of the most commonly used. It seems turkey hunters are always upgrading their equipment and experimenting with different shot types and sizes. This often leaves an abundance of unused shells around. Most of these would be great to use as an alternative squirrel load, since they generally are sizes 4, 5 or 6. These loads often have higher velocities and knockdown power than standard squirrel loads, yet they are not so large they couldn't be used for mid-range or even certain closer shots.

Waterfowl loads are also a possibility for the dedicated long shots. Since the ban on lead shot for hunting waterfowl, many people have old boxes of lead shot on hand that were originally purchased for duck hunting. The shot sizes for these loads are generally much heavier than turkey loads, so they don't make a good choice for close range. However, a No. 4 duck load may be just the ticket to bring down a bushytail from the top of an 80-foot hickory tree.

Although this method makes a great alternative to conventional loads and can provide plenty of fun with experimentation, hunters should always check regulations at the location being hunted. Some areas may have restrictions on shot size or, in the case of public lands, the use of lead shot. This is especially true of areas with heavy migratory bird and waterfowl use.

Squirrels are usually quite plentiful in the early season, but of course, that is usually dependent upon the mast crop from the year before. Squirrel populations are somewhat cyclical and directly related to the amount of mast available. In years with poor mast, subsequent breeding seasons and litter sizes are down. Conversely, a year with a bumper crop of nuts and other food sources will immediately bounce the squirrel numbers the following year.

Most everyone has old unused boxes of shotgun shells sitting around collecting dust. A few of these might come in very handy this season.

Taking account of the mast production and understanding squirrel population fluctuations is key to knowing how to approach an upcoming season. In years of plenty of squirrels, simply going out to the same old stand of woods may be adequate to bring home a mess of bushytails. However, if their numbers are down and there is a shortage of available forage, a hunter may watch the sun rise on a favorite hunting location only to find it devoid of any furry game.

Scouting is often not necessary with squirrel hunting, but in certain years it can definitely pay dividends. If the area being hunted is large and with many diverse habitats, a hunter may simply be able to walk and move to different locations until the squirrels are found. However, if a hunter is hunting primarily smaller wood lots and broken tracts of forest, it may be time well spent to go out a day or so before the opening of the season and have a look around.

Identifying and locating the food source is the only trick to locating the squirrels. Their entire life cycle rotates around the availability of food. Find it, and the squirrels are certain to be near.

In normal years, squirrels will be feeding heavily at the start of the season on hard mast, primarily hickory nuts. However, they will also feed on many other nuts and acorns. They will also eat a wide variety of other foods, including tree buds, seeds, berries and grain crops. The savvy hunter will learn these secondary food sources as they can really make the diffe

rence in hunting success during the lean years.

Another thing to keep in mind is the feeding times and preferred food sources of different types of squirrels, as they are not all the same. Of course, the two main types of squirrels we chase are the eastern gray squirrel and the fox squirrel. However, both have very different feeding patterns and prefer different types of habitat.

The gray squirrel is an early riser, usually right at the first hint of light. It will feed voraciously for the first two to three hours and then will normally return to its nest and lounge about during the midday hours. Then again in late afternoon, the grays will usually be actively feeding again for the last couple hours or so of the day, though not as vigorously as in the morning.

Gray squirrels are very adaptable as far as habitat is concerned, but they mostly prefer thicker continuous forest. They rely mostly on mast in the fall and can typically find plenty of food sources while tucked safely away in the deeper expanses of forest. Resourceful, though, they will frequent fencerows, ditch or creek banks and small wood lots.

Fox squirrels, on the other hand, are not usually big-forest dwellers. Instead, they prefer edge habitat, small wood lots and narrow strips of woods, often bordering row crops and other farmland. The fox squirrels will eat many of the same foods as the grays, but they are also much more prone to feeding on hard cultivated grains such as corn. While the gray squirrels typically stay fairly close to their nest areas, the fox squirrels will often travel much longer distances to reach a desired food source.

Fox squirrels often tend to sleep in, so to speak, and are not usually seen at first light. Instead, the peak of their feeding activity is from the middle of the morning until early afternoon. On days with good weather, they may be very active, but on days with inclement or windy weather, they will opt to stay very close to their dens.

With the season at hand, it's time to do a little scouting, grab the shotgun, and head for the woods to try out some alternative loads this year. After all, squirrel stew and hot biscuits sounds mighty good!

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