Key Tactics for Successful Squirrel Hunting

Key Tactics for Successful Squirrel Hunting
Gray Squirrel (Shutterstock image)

While sometimes referred to as beginner game, squirrel hunting provides fun action for all ages.

Slowly moving through the timber, I feel the good fit of Grandpa's gun in my hands, and just then something rustles in the leaves ahead. My ears and eyes strain to determine the source of the noise before I see a small gray body flash its tail and scurry around a tree and out of sight. 

This is a common scenario when squirrel hunting, though just as often a bushytailed menace provides a shot and meat hits the ground. However, some hunters want to connect more than just 50 percent of the time.

October outdoors

FINDING SQUIRRELS

The two main native species — gray and fox squirrels — are polar opposites in just about everything, including the areas they like to inhabit; the two seldom mingle.

Gray squirrels can be found in big timber, typically sticking to thicker cover. Big, mature stands of hardwoods are very attractive hotspots, providing plenty of cover and hard mast. 

Fox squirrels are different creatures entirely, inhabiting more open areas, such as grown-up fencerows, field edges, treelines and other semi-open areas. Fox squirrels can be found in big woods, but more often than not, they prefer open range with more solitary trees.

Cody Sedotal, with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, encourages hunters to focus on bottomlands. 

"Our bottomland areas are primo," Sedotal said. "Those bottomland tracts are going to be better than other areas. Even smaller bottomlands found in upland areas are more attractive than dense timber."

If traditional oak and hickory trees aren't producing much mast, it's better to focus on quality edge cover, where soft mast and other food sources grow. Since food sources vary slightly from year to year, getting out and scouting can prove extremely advantageous. Look for both soft and hard mast. Find the food; find the squirrels.

squirrel hunting

FOOD IS KING

Hard mast is the No. 1 food source for fall and winter squirrels.

Red and white oak acorns are most popular. Red oak trees produce acorns every two years, while white oaks produce annually.

Scouting the areas you plan to hunt and familiarizing yourself with the mast crop cycle is a surefire way of getting ahead of the game.

Some even take it far as to mark individual trees so they know when they'll produce.

The absence of hard mast really impacts bushytails, with major mast crop failures sometimes leading to a "squirrel migration."

During times when hard mast crops are minimal, focus on grasses, grains, food plots, fruits, mushrooms, insects, seeds, berries and other soft mast. These are the most common of foods during hard times. Hunting near locations holding these delicacies will provide the most action.

Now the South experienced prolonged periods of drought in 2016, which put a strain on the squirrel population. 

"Hardwoods, especially the red oaks, were impacted by last year's drought," said David Gregory, Georgia Department of Wildlife biologist. "That left some squirrels in poor condition last winter, which could play a role in how good the hunting is this season. Look to soft mast during bad years. Grapes, black gum, persimmon and other soft masts are great options."

Another fairly early important food source is pine seeds, which squirrels key on until mid to late October. Hunters should focus on loblolly for gray squirrels, remembering that fox squirrels can also handle the longleaf variety. 

While many areas experienced patchy mast crops last year, it shouldn't be a huge factor, as ample food sources last winter and spring should have led to good breeding conditions for squirrels earlier this year.

As such, things are shaping up nicely for the fall season. Expect the season to be as it has been for the last several years. A mild winter in 2016-17 should be cause for increased populations.

There are a lot of mature oaks and hickory trees throughout the eastern half of the country. And small game and small game hunters have a lot going for them.

squirrel hunting

TIMING 

Gray squirrels are most active early in morning and during late afternoon, with hunters rarely catching them out during the middle hours of the day. 

Interestingly enough, fox squirrels are much more relaxed in nature. Fox squirrels are late-risers by nature and do not typically descend from the nest until later in the morning.

This is really good for hunters targeting both species, focusing on gray squirrels early before working toward areas populated with fox squirrels as the morning progresses. 

"It's you vs. them," Gregory said. "They have acute senses. Leaves are crunchy and they can see better on full sunny days. Overcast days lead to softer leaves and lesser conditions for a squirrel's sense of sight."

Additionally, rain is a still-hunter's friend. Not only are leaves softer, but squirrel activity seems to increase directly after a rain. 

HUNTING METHODS

As with all hunting, there are several tactical options available to squirrel chasers. The most popular approach is still-hunting. The time-proven tradition of sitting and waiting is greatly utilized, too. However, hunting with dogs is growing in popularity, as it is much more advantageous than relying on traditional methods.

"Dog hunting has gained in popularity the last 10 years," Hamrick said. "There is still a heavy contingent of those who stalk and still-hunt, though."

Even though dog hunting is gaining popularity, it still takes a back seat to those who choose to stealthily slip through the timber looking for bushytails.

Of course, firearm options are plentiful when it comes to squirrel hunting. Some people prefer rimfire rifles, while others prefer shotguns. Either way, the main thing is to be proficient with the choice of sporting arm.

Among the realm of shotguns, the .410 has killed many squirrels, but the 20-gauge is a traditional favorite. Both of these guns are suitable for hunting squirrels. In regard to rimfires, the .22 is the first that comes to mind.

A huge portion of the hunters who head afield each spring are toting this caliber. Also, air guns are also becoming popular in places where they are legal means of harvest.

Squirrel hunting is a great way to introduce a newcomer to hunting, as there is much more action and game is typically easier to find, though hitting them can still be difficult.

Consider taking a kid squirrel hunting, as it is the best way to ensure the future of the sport.

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