The joys of fall squirrel hunting range from quiet morning stalks to the hullabaloo of hunting with dogs.
By Keith Sutton
Squirrel hunting can be a humiliating sport. I should know. I’ve been hunting these animated nutcrackers for more than 50 years, and somehow they still manage to humble me on many of my hunting trips.
Sure, I bag my limit now and then. But doing so tests the limits of my skills as a shooter and as a woodsman. Even on the best days, for each squirrel I harvest, two or three make good their escape.
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Frustrating? At times, yes. Fun? Always. No matter how bad they shame me, I always go back for another slice of humble pie. I would hunt squirrels even if I never killed one. The enjoyment of the chase and being outdoors are what make it worthwhile.
Squirrels are amazingly adaptable game animals, a fact that makes hunting them a sport of almost infinite variety. Here are three of the fun methods you can use to fill your game bag this season.
1. SIT & WATCH
Perhaps because most hunters are sedentary in nature, sitting may be the most popular form of squirrel hunting. It is one of the most productive, especially when the forest floor is dry and crisp. When the hunter doesn’t move, he doesn’t make any noise. At the same time, it is easier to hear noises made by squirrels.
The key to playing the sitting game successfully is choosing the proper stand. You may be able to fool a city pigeon into thinking you are a statue, but that talent means nothing unless the spot you hunt harbors squirrels. Your best bet is to choose areas with abundant mast trees like oaks, beeches, walnuts, hickories and hazelnuts. Squirrels love nuts. Trees producing nuts are bushytail hotspots.
Fresh cuttings (nut hulls) beneath mast-bearing trees reveal active feeding areas. They also indicate the type of mast currently in demand. If you determine squirrels are eating acorns, for example, take a stand near oak trees. Leave only when you notice a sudden proliferation of different cuttings — hickory hulls, for example.
When you choose to out-sit squirrels, be on your stand before squirrel activity begins. Gray squirrels start moving at the crack of dawn. Fox squirrels rise later, usually after sunlight has flooded the treetops. The two hours prior to sunset are frequently productive as well.
Stillness is a virtue. Avoid unnecessary movement by getting comfortable while sitting. Take along a cushion or canvas stool and rest your back against a tree. Use a veil of natural vegetation for camouflage, and wear camo clothing.
If you’re like me, you’re not the kind of sportsman who relishes hunting by the seat of your pants. I’m always too curious about what exists on the other side of the woods to sit very long in one place. Thus, for me, stalking, or still-hunting, is the most fun method of hunting squirrels.
The best stalkers are patient and can walk through the woods while advertising their presence the very least. They learn to walk slowly and quietly, observing everything in the woods — on the ground and in the trees.
Begin stalking at dawn, moving toward the rising sun so squirrels are silhouetted against the brightest part of the sky and easier to spot. After the sun beams into the treetops, stalk the opposite way. Besides spotlighting squirrels, this tactic puts the sun in their eyes, making you less conspicuous.
As you stalk, survey every tree trunk by trunk and limb by limb, watching for bumps and knots, furry tails and little rounded ears. You should listen for barking or chattering squirrels, and when you hear one, try to stalk near enough for a shot.
3. DOG HUNTING
Late in the season when the leaves are off the trees, squirrels can be difficult to stalk because they can see movement on the ground for long distances. That’s when hunting with a dog can add pleasure and excitement to the sport.
“Almost any canine, from a poodle to a German shepherd, can be taught to tree squirrels,” says Jim Rhea who has been raising and training champion squirrel dogs for decades. “The best dogs, however, are those bred especially for this purpose. The mountain cur, black-mouthed cur, leopard cur, treeing cur, feist, treeing feist and mountain feist — all registered breeds — are some of the ones used by squirrel hunters.”
Rhea starts working with dogs when they’re pups, giving them close daily contact almost from the time they are born. He starts training them before they’re weaned at 8 weeks old, teaching them basic commands such as “No,” “Come” and “Sit.” Then, at age 4 to 5 months, he takes the dogs on their first hunt, getting them interested in the right game using squirrels caught in live traps.
“Let your pup smell the squirrel through the cage,” he notes. “Get him excited about it, then hold the puppy and turn the squirrel loose. Usually, if the pup has any ambition, it’ll run the squirrel up a tree.
“If you don’t have a live trap, drive a puppy around when he’s young, and when you see a squirrel, turn him loose on it,” he continues. “Another good way to start them is to find someone who has a good squirrel dog, and take the pup along on a hunt where you’re killing squirrels. If you shoot a squirrel, pick it up and tease the puppy with it. That gives him a desire to follow a squirrel’s scent.”
Work with your dog regularly, even if only a few minutes each day. Teach it that the proper response brings game and praise, and improper conduct brings a reprimand. With enough practice, the dog should eventually, and nearly always, do the right thing.
“Don’t ever shoot any ‘off’ game while training your dog,” Rhea says. “If you want your dog to be a good squirrel dog, then you surely don’t want to shoot any rabbits; you don’t want to kill a deer or anything like that until he’s been trained to hunt squirrels only. After you get a dog trained, you may be able to shoot a rabbit in front of him without messing him up. But when you’re training one, he’s just like a kid. If you want to keep a kid from drinking, you shouldn’t take him to the (bar) with you.”
As you can see, there are several unique ways for hunting squirrels. Any way you do it — sitting, stalking, dogging or other tactics — ol’ bushytail will provide you with tremendous sport throughout the fall and winter seasons.
Squirrel Hunting | Dog Breeds
To many people, the words “cur” and “feist” equate to the word “mutt.” In the world of squirrel hunting, however, curs and feists are registered dogs of pure breeding. Veteran dog trainer Jim Rhea details five of the most popular breeds.
- Coloration: typically brindle, black or yellow.
- Weight/info: usually 35-40 pounds. Once known as the Ledbetter cur, this old breed originated in the mountains of Tennessee. Ears must be short, cur-like. Normally silent on track, barking only when a squirrel is treed.
- Coloration: typically yellow with black areas around the mouth.
- Weight/info: 35-40 pounds and up. These dogs are more “open-mouthed” on track, similar to hounds, barking while tracking a squirrel. Differ from mountain curs in having longer ears, a trait attributable to their hound ancestry. One of the newer breeds.
- Coloration: a spotted or striped pattern combining gray, black, yellow, other colors.
- Weight/info: typically 40-45 pounds. Can be trained for wild hog hunting, cat hunting, and working with livestock.
- Coloration: black and white, black with tan.
- Weight/info: typically 20 pounds, cannot exceed 27 pounds. Often confused with rat terriers, but the ears of feists break over rather than sticking straight up. Usually bark only when treed, unless running a squirrel seen on the ground.
- Coloration: black and white to brindle and solid colors.
- Weight/info: usually around 30 pounds. This breed is a mountain cur/feist cross. Mountain curs have an excellent trailing nose; feists have better eyesight for seeing squirrels. Mountain feists have an excellent combination of both traits.