Seeking Out September Squirrels
September 28, 2010
These expert tips should help improve your score on early fall bushytails this year.
The author with his afternoon take of bushytails from a particular stand of hardwoods he likes to hunt early in the season. Photo by Stephen D. Carpenteri.
There are many ways to hunt squirrels in the fall, but one of the most productive tactics is the "sneak and peek" technique. Last fall, I managed to take 68 squirrels with my .410 pump shotgun before deer season put an end to my bushytail bashing. For fast action and lots of shooting, mobility is the key.
Here are some things I've learned over the years that help me put more squirrels in the bag at this time of year -- and more meat in the stew!
KNOW YOUR QUARRY
The most important thing to learn about "woods" squirrels is that they are shy, reclusive, yet alert, and will respond to any hint of danger by disappearing from sight, often for 30 minutes or more. If you are not seeing any squirrels in your favorite hunting area, it's likely because you are moving too fast!
In addition, woods squirrels notify each other of the presence of danger by uttering a variety of squalls, squawks, barks and chatters that tell other squirrels to stay out of sight. If a squirrel begins barking at you, it may keep up the harangue for an hour or more, and every other squirrel in the area will take evasive action until you move out of their feeding territory.
Fall squirrels do have one Achilles' heel, and that is their innate trust of high places. Most September and October squirrels will be found in the tops of the highest conifers, oaks, hickories, etc., where they spend long hours harvesting the abundant mast. When feeding high in the treetops, they tend to ignore activity on the ground. And that's good news for us squirrel hunters.
SNEAKING AND PEEKING
In early fall, most squirrels will be found in the treetops. Knowing this, the hunter should be prepared to walk slowly and quietly while listening for the sounds of squirrels jumping from branch to branch, chewing nuts or moving up and down the main trunk of the tree.
Scan the treetops from side to side and pay attention to every noise or movement. A sudden rustling of leaves usually indicates that a squirrel is changing branches, and the patter of nut shells raining down from above is a sure sign of feeding activity.
When you spot a feeding squirrel, move in slowly and quietly. The squirrel may continue feeding for an hour or more, so there is no need to rush. Be quiet, keep looking up and move into position directly under the squirrel (the closest you can get to it). If the leaves are thick and the tree is tall, use binoculars to spot your quarry. Be patient, watch and listen.
Have your rifle or shotgun up and be ready to shoot because there will be a very small window of opportunity. Some trees are heavily laden with nuts, which means the squirrel need only reach out one paw to find its next meal and so he won't be exposed for very long. Eventually the squirrel will eat -- or drop -- the nut he's working on and will move out on the branch to find another acorn or hickory nut, presenting a quick, easy shot. But you must be ready!
The trick is to spot the opportunity, swing and shoot before the squirrel can move back into a safe, concealed spot close to the trunk or into the main branches of the tree.
It shouldn't take more than 10 or 15 minutes to spot, sneak up on and shoot a feeding squirrel. If things don't work out relatively quickly, simply move along and find another squirrel. In early fall the squirrel population is at its peak, so don't waste too much time on empty woods or dead areas where squirrels are inactive or absent.
The most challenging fall squirrels are the ones that feed on conifer seeds, or "pinecones," which include pine, hemlock, spruce, fir and other cones as may be found locally.
A pinecone may have hundreds of scales or "petals" that contain two tiny seeds each. The squirrel will literally "peel" the cone and eat only the two small seeds, a job that can take 30 minutes or more!
A squirrel eating pine scales usually huddles close to the trunk in the upper branches of the tree, which makes it tough to see and shoot them. A patient hunter can win at this game most of the time, but when other squirrels are active in the hardwoods in early fall it's probably best to come back for the cone eaters later in the season!
GEAR FOR THE GAME
After 50 years of eager squirrel hunting, I've whittled the list of necessities for a great hunt down to a minimum. The less you have to carry around in the woods the lighter your load will be, but there are some items that will make your hunt more enjoyable and successful. Here are my essentials.
I always bring a knife (a Leatherman Super Tool is perfect), a few plastic sandwich bags (for squirrel meat), insect repellent, bottled water, binoculars, extra ammunition (at least one box of shotgun shells or 50 rounds of .22 long rifle hollow-point bullets), a couple of bandannas (to wipe the sweat out of my eyes) and some pre-packaged wipes to clean my hands after field dressing my squirrels.
GUNS FOR THE GAME
In early fall a shotgun is the ticket for treetop squirrels. I have great success using a .410 pump shotgun with a full choke and 3-inch, No. 6 shells. I try to get within 30 yards of my quarry and in most cases I don't need a second shot. I've also had good success using larger gauges with so-called turkey loads, magnum shells containing No. 4, 5 or 6 shot. These heavier loads cut through twigs, limbs and leaves with ease, but they are tough on the shoulder and the pocketbook. Where legal, magnum loads of No. 4 or 6 lead shot will bring any treetop squirrel down in a hurry!
If you have the patience, and the eyesight, a .22 rifle is a good option. Often, it is difficult to see a squirrel's head and shoulders way up there among the thick leaves, but a sharp-eyed hunter won't have any trouble threading a bullet through the maze of early-fall greenery.
One point to remember is that squirrels are tough animals and will make every attempt to escape, even when mortally wounded. If the squirrel keeps moving, shoot again! There always will be the occasional squirrel that may require two or more shots to bag, but it's the hunter's responsibility to end the game as quickly and cleanly as possible. Keep shooting until your quarry is i
n your hand!