Squirrel hunting can literally be a “pain in the neck,” but there are ways to fool tree-top bushytails. Our expert explains how it’s done.
Now you see them, now you don’t. Fleeting glimpses are often the most positive results of early-season squirrel hunts. Spotting a tree squirrel is difficult enough in early fall while leaves are still on the trees. Seeing them long enough to make a shot can be downright frustrating.
Catching squirrels unaware is the trick to early-season hunting. Seeing one climb up a tree is not enough. You might wait there a long time and not see it again. Once it gets up among the treetop leaves, it might go anywhere. You might not be able to find it even if it stays in that same tree, and you might not be able to follow it if it runs through the limbs to another tree.
Do you move, or do you wait?
The problem with moving is that it is very difficult to see squirrels before they see you. The problem with waiting is that you must be in just the right place or you will wait in vain.
THE WAITING GAME
Your best chance to catch squirrels unaware is by sitting quietly in a place where you are confident that you will see squirrels. Scouting, of course, is the way to find such places. Of course, if you find squirrel food you will probably find squirrels, but there is more to it than that.
Squirrels eat various mast crops, particularly nuts. They prefer some nuts over others and at different times of the year. This varies from area to area. One of the biggest problems with early-season hunting is that the nuts might not yet have fallen on their own. As early as September, squirrels may be high in the trees cutting nuts loose, sometimes too high to reach with a shotgun. Waiting for the squirrels to come to the ground to retrieve the nuts they cut (which they may not do the same day) calls for a lot of patience and uses up a lot of hunting time.
Squirrels are also very fond of agricultural crops, with corn being the most common food in many areas. Hunting around corn fields offers the clear advantage of seeing more squirrels on the ground.
When food is plentiful, it is unlikely that you will find a concentration of squirrels in one place. There is no reason for them to congregate. Waiting for squirrels is best when food is scarce, especially the season after a year of abundant food and squirrels are plentiful. A remote corn field or a tree that has nuts will attract squirrels from a wide area.
If it is allowed where you hunt, use a .17- or .22-caliber rimfire rifle in a feeding or denning area. The relatively mild crack of these rifles does not scare squirrels nearly as much as the blast of a shotgun.
If you must use a shotgun, use the relatively quiet .410 if you have this option. A .410 might be the optimum firearm for hunting squirrels. Anyone who is serious about this sport should consider owning one. Choked either full or modified, a .410 will reach out as far as a 12 gauge. The only difference is the amount of shot, which is not critical. Squirrels are not difficult targets for a shotgunner unless they are running in trees. Just a couple of No. 4 or No. 6 shot from a high-velocity load will dispatch a squirrel. However, do not use 3-inch magnum loads for squirrels. These contain more shot than standard loads, but the velocity is lower. Squirrels are tough, with tough skin. One shot pellet that completely penetrates does more good than a dozen that barely penetrate the skin.
You can expect to wait as much as 30 minutes after shooting a 12-gauge shotgun before squirrels will come out of hiding. A little simple math will demonstrate clearly that you will not have time to bag many squirrels during a late-afternoon hunt, even if things go right. Shooting more than three squirrels is very unlikely during a two-hour hunt.
TRY A CALL
Squirrels can sometimes be coaxed out of hiding by using a squirrel call. However, calling squirrels is more difficult than calling turkeys. Squirrel “language” is not common knowledge. Plus, squirrels are probably a lot “smarter” than turkeys.
To get more action, stay out of feeding or denning areas. One of the best situations for calling is a travel corridor between a wood lot and a corn field. This will typically be a windrow or brushy drainage ditch, which squirrels will use for travel routes. Their home might be hundreds of yards from the feeding area, as opposed to mast crops, where their dens are usually in the same vicinity. These squirrels might not be alarmed by the noise of shooting if they are far enough away.
The early season is a pleasant time to lean back against a tree and wait for squirrels. Carry a cushion, a cold drink and enjoy the wait.
Waiting for squirrels is not the style of choice for some hunters. Some prefer to hunt on the move. Expert squirrel hunters have two distinctly different approaches to hunting squirrels on the move. One is considered still-hunting; the other is essentially a steady walk. Both can be effective.
Still-hunting requires all of the essential hunting skills. The hunter must be stealthy, alert and able to make difficult shots. It is a very intense hunting method as opposed to sitting and waiting.
A still-hunter should remember that animals could detect the difference between threatening and non-threatening humans. So, the hunter must move quietly and slowly, using natural cover and scanning the woods all around.
One thing the still-hunter should do is spend more time standing still, watching the leafy canopy overhead.
The “steady walk” technique usually results in opportunities to shoot at squirrels that are moving. Nonetheless, it can be effective because squirrels sometimes are not as alarmed by steady walking as they are by stealthy still-hunting or stalking. Maintain a steady, brisk pace, but don’t go so fast that visual details are missed. The idea is to see squirrels, not to cover ground. Look for the silhouette of a squirrel’s head, body or tail against the sky or the shape of a squirrel flattened against a branch high in the crown of a tree.
Walking works best when the ground is damp, which allows a hunter to move quietly through the woods. A steady, light drizzle is perfect. Walking on dry leaves makes too much noise. Squirrels can hear a hunter approaching from a long distance and will often sit tight for hours.
However, it is possible to creep within shooting range of squirrels on noisy ground. Everything else moving on the ground makes noise, including squirrels. After all, if noise alone sent squirrels immediately into hiding, they might surely starve.
If you must hunt on noisy ground, try not to sound like a human. Take shorter, quicker steps. Pause briefly after moving 10 to 20 yards. Squirrels will eventually know where you are, but they might not take flight until it is too late. Stay alert and shoot quickly for best results.
TAKE TO THE WATER
Float hunting can be very effective because canoe or kayak hunters do not move nearly as much as they do while walking, nor does float hunting make as much noise. Another big advantage is that creek bottoms often contain excellent squirrel habitat. Stream bottoms in farm country might contain the only squirrel den trees in a broad area. Some creek bottoms are so wet, or the cover is so dense, that they are lightly hunted. This makes squirrels less wary. Also, squirrels often display more curiosity than fear about hunters in boats. Sometimes they scamper onto limbs that overhang the creek and scold incoming hunters, providing easy shots at close range. (Try to avoid shooting squirrels that might drop into the water – they will sink!)
Carry a shotgun while moving on foot or in a boat. Shooting opportunities will usually be brief and most shots will be at moving squirrels. Shot pellets do not carry as far as rifle bullets, so there’s no need to be as choosey about shooting opportunities as long as you are sure the shot will not carry to buildings, roads or anywhere else people might be.
SHOOT AND MOVE
A shotgun blast will send squirrels into hiding over a radius of about 150 yards or so. Avoid a long wait between shots by moving to a new feeding area after killing a squirrel. But, do not move immediately after shooting. Even though squirrels will be alert for a distance much greater than 150 yards, they might just hide for a few minutes to see what the commotion was all about. Give the animals time to settle down and resume feeding.
There are plenty of options in early-season squirrel hunting. Evaluate the conditions and consider your options. Consider the choices and early-season hunting will not be nearly as frustrating as it used to be.