The opening day of squirrel season has always been an easy date for me to remember. It also happens to be the date of my wedding anniversary. For most outdoorsmen and women, opening day of squirrel season may not be so memorable, nor carry the same importance as heading to the woods the first day of turkey or deer season. But to one hunter I know, it ranks right up there!
Photo by Polly Dean.
Steve Carpenteri has hunted bushytails for nearly 50 years. I’ve hunted small game with Carpenteri on many occasions and have yet to meet another person with as much passion for the sport as he has. In addition to squirrels, Carpenteri hunts rabbit, quail, deer, bear and turkey, and he does so on a regular basis. During the fall and winter months, you may find him hopping in his truck and driving across six states to hunt another spot, even if it’s just for the weekend!
With so many years of chasing game under his belt, Carpenteri knows the ins and outs of bagging his limit. While walking the woods with him, it didn’t take me long to learn that these bushy-tailed rodents that live in the wild are much more cunning and elusive than the critters we see running around our back yards. Spotting bushytails can be a challenge at any time, but especially so in early fall when the squirrels are high up in the treetops hidden among the leaves.
Over the years, Carpenteri has honed his uncountable hours stalking bushytails into a reservoir of knowledge.
Where To Hunt
What should you look for when scouting for a good spot for hunting squirrels? They eat a great variety of mast crops, including hickory nuts. Carpenteri’s first choice of location for locating bushytails is in and around hickory trees. Early in the season, the nuts are still on the trees, and that is where you will find the squirrels. They will zero in on hickory trees and most likely will be way up in the tops hidden in the leaf canopy.
In recent years, Carpenteri has also had success in finding the bushytails in pine forests. He looks for an area that contains only mature pines. He finds the oldest and biggest dominant pine — or “wolf” tree as he calls it — that remains untouched by foresters. Usually, there will be a number of squirrels in the vicinity. They feed on the tiny seeds found in the bracts of the pinecones.
If hunting in a hilly area, position yourself high up on a ridge if possible. Squirrels are generally looking down toward the ground and this gives you a better angle for spotting the bushytails without being spotted by them.
During a season of low mast production, locating squirrels may even be easier, especially if the prior year produced a good crop. The squirrels will be more abundant following a year of plentiful nuts and acorns. If a not-so-good mast production follows a good year, then by simply locating a decent source of food, squirrels will be gathering from greater distances to that site.
Squirrels are especially sensitive to sound and movement. It may be difficult to approach your location without making noise.
“If you barge into the place where you want to go and sit down and wait, usually in about 20 minutes or so, they will come out,” Carpenteri said. “Squirrels are everywhere, millions of them; they will be out eventually.”
Look And Listen
Use your ears to locate bushytails. You can hear the sound of the squirrel’s sharp teeth gnawing on nuts and acorns. Also, listen for the shells falling to the ground. That’s the easiest way to accurately pinpoint the prey’s location directly overhead. The sound of branches and leaves rustling also gives them away.
Look up in the treetops for any leaf or branch movement that stands out from the normal ruffling caused by a light breeze. This can indicate a squirrel moving silently through the canopy.
Even though the bushytails tend to be hidden high in the treetops this time of year, don’t forget to scan the ground for signs of squirrel activity. Looking for piles of chewed-up hickory nuts is a sure method for locating squirrels.
Carpenteri has also noticed that in the fall, squirrels will chew off an oak branch loaded with acorns, likely to return to later when it’s on the ground. He sometimes even finds piles of chewed-off branches on the ground.
What do you do after you shoot a squirrel or two? Do you immediately move to another location? Carpenteri suggested staying put, especially if the place was an active one. There is usually a dead tree where eight or 10 squirrels may be denned up. Bushytails will come in from 100 yards or so to a good spot with lots of hickory nuts. Sit still and wait. After a short time, they usually reappear.
If the activity does seem to dry up, get up and move another 200 yards or so to another spot.
When To Hunt
Like most game, squirrels are most active during early-morning hours or at dusk. But they also scamper around midday, especially if temperatures have begun to cool off a bit.
Really, according to Carpenteri, the time to hunt squirrels is when you get the chance to hunt. He stays in the woods all day. The squirrels haven’t gone anywhere.
He also emphasized that even in weather that is uncomfortable for the hunter, the squirrels still are out and about, even in rain and wind. Inclement weather is more of a problem for the hunter. During a shower or in a brisk breeze, it’s not as easy to hear the squirrels gnawing or jumping through the branches. You just need to listen more carefully.
“I use full camouflage, face-mask and all. Squirrels are sharp-eyed and when they notice something out of place, they will sit there and bark at you all day long,” Carpenteri described.
In the South, chiggers and ticks are a problem. Cover up and use bug repellant. The bushytails don’t seem to be bothered by the scent. It’s more important that you be as motionless as possible, rather than swatting at bugs.
Weapons And Calls
According to Carpenteri, the best thing to use on squirrels is a shotgun with high-velocity turkey loads. A 20-gauge with No. 5 or 6 shot is ideal. The squirrels can be way up in a treetop 40 or 50 yards off the ground. That’s a long shot. One shotgun pellet from a high-velocity load that completely penetrates the
tough skin of a squirrel is better than several small pellets that barely penetrate the hide.
If you are a good shot, a lighter and smaller .410 will do the trick. It’s relatively quieter and may result in a shorter “recovery” time for other bushytails in the area to return.
Very early in the season, Carpenteri finds that squirrel calls or whistles can be helpful. A whistle call that imitates the sound of a young squirrel being threatened by a hawk or other predator may draw the attention of the older squirrels in the area, causing them to move to check out the commotion.
Also, for backup when his usual methods of locating the critters aren’t producing results, Carpenteri may fall back on a squirrel call or whistle.
These bushytails we are stalking aren’t your average “park” squirrels. They are very clever. To increase your chances of bringing home your limit, try these tactics that this expert has learned during his many hours, days and years in the woods.