Most squirrel hunters enter the woods each fall full of enthusiasm, with high hopes and big plans for a pot of stew and fun stories to tell at work the next day. Unfortunately, too many of them come home empty-handed, discouraged and surprised to find that something as “simple” as squirrel hunting can be so difficult.
Chances are those hapless hunters made at least one (if not more) of the following common mistakes. If you are one of them, and you know what you did wrong and take steps to correct the error, you can double or triple your squirrel harvest.
Based on my 50 years of squirrel-hunting experience, here’s a look at the most common errors that unsuccessful squirrel hunters make.
1. DON’T HUNT OFTEN ENOUGH
Probably the most critical mistake squirrel hunters make is not going often enough. If you limit yourself to one or two short Saturday morning outings, you are testing the odds. Squirrels are not active every minute of every day. Weather, temperature, wind and predators can put them down for hours, if not days. To be more successful, plan on going out as often as you can. Put as much time in the squirrel woods as possible and the good days will balance out the bad.
2. MAKE TOO MUCH NOISE
Slamming vehicle doors, loud talking and continuous loud chatter as you enter the woods put game on the alert. Squirrels react to human intrusion by diving into a hollow tree, running through the treetops to a safer location, or simply by ducking around to the opposite side of a limb and waiting (for up to an hour) for the intruder to leave. Noisy hunters don’t see a lot of game, lose interest and quit early, but it is their own fault.
There are many millions of squirrels in the woods and if you are not seeing them you are doing something wrong.
No matter what species of game you are hunting, learn to be quiet! Gently close your vehicle doors and gather your gear without a lot of talking. Slowly enter the woods and stop there for at least 15 minutes. Watch and listen without talking or moving. Get a sense of what is going on in the woods and then do your best to become a part of it, not an intrusion.
Move slowly and quietly, pausing every 10 or 15 steps to look and listen in 15-minute increments. You will see and hear squirrels if you hunt that way. Impatient hunters who can’t slow down or stop for long periods of time will bring home few squirrels.
3. LOSE PATIENCE
Most game birds and animals owe their lives to a common human condition: Impatience. Some hunters can sit or stand still for hours, but the majority will become bored or distracted and begin fidgeting or get up and go somewhere else. This plays right into the squirrels’ hand!
Generally, a squirrel that’s been disturbed by an approaching hunter will stop what it is doing or slip to the opposite side of a limb or branch and wait for the intruder to leave. I have timed squirrels in this mode and have found that most of them can sit tight for at least 20 minutes. Some squirrels remain immobile for 30 minutes or more before they return to feeding.
Can you do that? If not, you have a handicap that will keep you from taking your limit of squirrels.
There is no shame in being impatient, but if you want to kill more squirrels, you need to learn how to sit still for as long as possible — and then for five minutes more. After half a century of hunting, I find it easy to wait them out. I know they are there, I know they will move eventually, and I know that if I am patient I will get a shot.
Hunters can teach themselves to be patient at least long enough to kill a squirrel. To practice, simply sit in a chair on your porch or deck, even in the back yard, and actually will yourself to sit still. Give yourself five minutes at first and then work your way up in five-minute increments until you can sit quietly, without moving, for 30 minutes.
Patience is an important aspect of any hunt, and if you can outwait an autumn squirrel you should have no problem fooling other, more challenging game animals.
4. UNDERESTIMATE THE QUARRY
On most hunters’ lists, squirrel hunting ranks right down there with chasing butterflies or gigging frogs: too easy, right? Hunters who enter the woods with that kind of attitude quickly find that squirrels are as difficult to fool as any wild game. Like most rodents, they are fast, alert and quick to disappear. When you do everything right, bagging a squirrel seems almost too easy. But until you do it right you won’t have much luck.
Enter the woods as if there were a squirrel behind every tree, because some days there will be! And hunt as if you were after the world-record whitetail. Think of it as a sniper’s game, except the squirrel is the sniper. If they see or hear you first, the game is up. Their first reaction is to flee, but some will scurry from limb to limb and scold you for your transgressions.
Never underestimate any game that you hunt, especially squirrels. They survive only by staying one step ahead of their enemies, and they are very good at it. Appreciate their survival skills as you hone your own hunting techniques.
5. FAIL TO FOLLOW UP
No matter whether you use a .22, a shotgun, a bow and arrow, or something else, squirrels are tough animals to kill. Make a poor or marginal hit and the squirrel is likely to crawl into a hole or hollow and disappear. I have shot squirrels with everything up to turkey guns, and believe me, sometimes that first shot just is not enough. Even a hard-hit squirrel can go a long way in the trees or on the ground after a long, hard fall. Do not wait for the animal to die! Shoot again immediately and anchor the squirrel for good. Aim for the head or neck on follow-up shots to avoid additional damage to the meat on the legs and back, but finish the squirrel as quickly as possible.
If you shoot a squirrel high in the treetops and he falls but does not hit the ground, begin a slow, thorough search of every branch, limb, crotch and hollow on that tree. If necessary, throw a rock or stick out on the opposite side of the tree. That often makes the squirrel swing around to your side, offering an easy shot.
* * *
Cross these five mistakes off your list and you will put more squirrels in the freezer this season.