Observe any squirrel in action at any time of the year and the odds are good that he will be looking for food. In fall, the bulk of the forage is in the tops of the trees. It is rare to see a squirrel on the ground in early fall because they prefer to take advantage of the abundant hickory and pine mast that is available at that time of the year.
Last season, for example, I killed 68 squirrels in the first six weeks of the season. Not one of them was on the ground! In fact, I did not see a single squirrel (gray or fox) below the first branch of any pine, oak or hickory. They had food, shelter and plenty of den sites up there within the foliage. It wasn’t until the last hickory nut and acorn had been devoured that they began to forage anywhere closer to the ground. By then the leaves were nearly down and the squirrels had turned their focus to other foods.
BE A FORAGE EXPERT
Forget about gun choices, loads or camouflage patterns — the key to successful fall hunting is in knowing where the food sources are located and when they are most attractive to squirrels. In early fall, for example, hickory nuts, pinecones and acorns (the fruit of the various oaks) will be tops on the squirrel’s list. Find these foods and you will find more squirrels than you can shoot in a season!
One of the most ignored staples of hunting success is scouting. We all say it but few do it. To get more squirrels, get into the woods at least by late summer to monitor the animals’ activity. Plan a fishing or camping trip, or just take a morning hike along some secluded ridgetop. Look on the ground for green hickory nuts or cut oak tips carrying green acorns. Learn to identify hickory or oak trees and find the places where those species are abundant. It’s not unusual to find a dozen or more mature trees in a clump or row in the woods. The trick is to find them before the fall squirrel-hunting season starts.
In my state, the squirrel season opens Aug. 15, which is incredibly early — not to mention hot and humid! But at that time the squirrels are already heavily into the hickory nuts. There has never been an opening day when I did not bring home at least half a limit of squirrels, and last year I had my full limit in a little over two hours of hunting with a .410 shotgun. Such is the allure of fresh mast to hungry fall squirrels!
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
The occasional squirrel hunter must be aware of the fluctuation in squirrel food sources throughout the season or his odds for success drop dramatically. I have seen opening day hunters sit patiently (but vainly) under oak trees that will produce great hunting a month or two later. But because the acorns are not quite ripe yet, there won’t be a squirrel to be seen. A sharp-eyed hunter might notice squirrel activity in a nearby hickory and make the necessary switch, but the adamant oaks-or-nothing guy isn’t going to have much luck.
Now it’s time to switch to other foods. Some acorns ripen in October and the squirrels will then be found in oak groves. Dogwood seeds are bright red and easy to see as the leaves begin to drop. Those often attract squirrels in mid-fall.
The same goes for pinecones, a staple food source for squirrels year-round. I have seen squirrels feeding in a stand of pines when I begin hunting and continue to find them there right through winter, spring and summer. If there are no mast-producing trees where you hunt, focus on pine trees. To determine which pines are being used, study the ground around the tree and look for stripped pinecones, gnawed cone petals or piles of cone petals at the base of the tree. You’ll also find them on nearby stumps or in random piles on the forest floor. The most productive trees will have ankle-deep evidence that squirrels have been busy there. Take note, get there early (or late) in the day, and bring plenty of shells — those pine-top squirrels are difficult to spot!
Late in the fall, most mast-producing trees have dropped their nuts. The leaves have fallen and colder temperatures prevail. That’s when squirrels start to feed on the ground more often. That also is when most deer hunters curse the squirrel population. That’s because the leaves are down and dry, the squirrels are busy all over the woods, and every one of them sounds like a deer coming straight to your stand.
In late fall, there’s no better place to hunt squirrels than a patch of oak woods near a picked cornfield. The squirrels will be just as apt to feast on ears of corn as they are the abundance of fallen mast. That gives the hunter any number of options, but the best choice is to pick a spot between the two food sources. Watch for squirrels working the field edge or foraging among the oaks. If they show a preference — and they often do — make the necessary adjustments and get in on the action!
After some 50 years of squirrel hunting in nearly every state east of the Mississippi, I have learned one valuable lesson about my bushy-tailed quarry: Not every rule applies! Like any hunter, I look for squirrels in their usual haunts where I’m used to hunting them, but I keep an eye out for unusual behavior that could increase my odds for success.
For example, for decades I found plenty of squirrels in the hickories in the early season and never bothered to hunt anywhere else. A few years ago, however, I was surprised to find no squirrels in the mast-laden hickories. It took me a few days of hard hunting to discover that they had taken a liking to pinecones. The reason it took so long is that squirrels working the pines generally sit in the highest limbs close to the trunk and eat their pine seeds with little or no noise or movement. It can take a squirrel 30 minutes or more to finish a cone, and in most cases the animal can literally reach out and pick another without being seen!
GUNS FOR THE GAME
Once I caught on to the change I was in business, although I discovered that my favorite .410 was no match for squirrels in the tops of most pine trees. I switched to a 20-gauge with No. 6 turkey loads and a modified choke and st
arted to even the odds a bit. In some cases I had better luck with my 12-gauge turkey gun. When a 12-ounce squirrel is buried in limbs and needles 40 yards up a steep slope, more firepower is the best approach.
When the squirrels are in the hardwoods I have no trouble bringing them down with my full-choked .410 using 3-inch No. 6 shot. Sharp-eyed hunters can kill squirrels with any scope-sighted .22- or .17-caliber rifle. If you go with any of the .17s, sight in carefully and take only head shots. These fierce little rounds are vicious at typical squirrel-hunting distances (under 40 yards in most cases). Suffice it to say that a body-shot squirrel will not be suitable for photographs!