Is your favorite shotgun a suitable weapon for hunting early season squirrels?
In years past, hunters would begin their sporting careers in pursuit of small game. The tricks and tactics they learned were then put to use on bigger game such as deer and turkeys.
These days, however, the trend has been reversed. Most new hunters head straight for the deer stand or turkey blind and never learn the basic skills and strategies gained by long hours spent cruising the hardwoods in search of sharp-eyed bushytails.
When these hunters finally do take to the woods for a serious squirrel hunt, they discover they are woefully ill equipped for the challenge.
Most leave the woods without firing a shot, let alone seeing a squirrel, often blaming the lake of game for their poor performance. Veteran squirrel hunters know better.
Know Your Quarry
Woods squirrels are nowhere near as "tame" as those found in back yards, city parks, and urban woodlots. "Town" squirrels are used to human activity and adapt to it, but woodland bushy tails want no part of human intruders -- one predator is as bad as an other, and the common reaction is avoidance.
Squirrels are masters of evasion, employing a variety of tactics to avoid detection. Squirrels are common and abundant wherever mast-producing hardwoods are found, but you won't see them if you don't take them seriously.
Basic Squirrel Strategies
Squirrels are active throughout the day but especially at dawn and dusk. Early in the season they'll leave their dens well before dawn to begin harvesting the season's new bounty of hickory nuts, acorns and pine nuts. Knowing that, the hunter should enter the woods slowly and quietly, listening for the sounds of squirrels jumping from limb to limb, gnawing nutshells, or barking and wheezing to announce their territories.
Squirrels will continue to feed throughout the day, unless they are disturbed, so there is no rush to get into the woods. Take your time; look and listen, using the same skills a still-hunter employs while hunting deer.
Mast-eating squirrels are often focused on the job at hand and will ignore small sounds, but snapping twigs and shuffling leaves will get their attention, shutting them down for an hour or more. For that reason, it's important for the hunter to move slowly and deliberately, eyes scanning the treetops, to avoid spooking suspicious bushytails.
If the woods suddenly go silent and still, it's likely that the squirrels know that something or someone is nearby. In that case, pick a scheduled spot high on a ridge, sit quietly and wait for the activity to resume. It may be 20 minutes or more before the first squirrel appears, but they will return when they decide that the coast is clear.
Patience, then, is the squirrel hunter's greatest ally. Wait as long as you can, and then wait another 15 minutes before moving on. Fidgety, impatient hunters will see few squirrels!
During the early season it's possible to move slowly and quietly until the hunter is directly below a foraging squirrel. The animal may be in a crown of the tree, barley visible through the leaves, given away by a steady rain of particles as the rodent gnaws through the nut's casing.
Even then it can be difficult to spot the animal through the dense foliage, but with patience the determined hunter will zero in on his target. It's often said that squirrel hunting is "a pain in the neck," and early season hunters quickly find out why!
When hunting the early season, expect to see multiple squirrels in one mast tree, especially hickories and oaks. When a shot is fired, reload quickly and wait several minutes before retrieving the downed squirrel. Remain still, and many times two, three or more squirrels will resume feeding a short time after the shot. That gives the savvy hunter more opportunities to score.
Because squirrels are most often found in the highest treetops during the early season, a fully-choked shotgun and magnum load of No. 5 or No.6 shot might be needed to bring them down.
Once the leaves are down, squirrels shift their focus to foraging on the ground for nuts that have fallen from the trees and are buried beneath the leaves. Again, focus on areas where mast-producing trees are abundant, but now it's time to switch to a .22 or .17-caliber rifle.
Squirrels are extremely observant and can spot danger from long distances in the open woods. A track-driving rimfire rifle is the ideal tool for picking them off of logs and limbs.
As the season wears on, squirrels are most active at dawn and dusk (as any deer hunter will attest!), although they will do some midday foraging. Plan to get into the woods early and sit in an area where there is plenty of squirrel sign, primarily gnawed nut hulls and piles of shavings where squirrels like to sit and eat while they watch for predators.
Most logs and stumps in a hardwood stand will exhibit plenty of squirrel sign. It then becomes a matter of how long a hunter is able to sit still, using a fallen tree, stump or rockpile for cover. Sit low on the ground using the obstacles as protective cover. Do not sit on top of blowdowns or stumps because even the slightest movement will alert squirrels.
Mid-season squirrels will leave their dens and come to the ground via the limbs and trunks of trees. It's best to allow the squirrel to reach the ground and begin foraging because they move quickly an erratically en route, providing poor targets for a rifle-toting hunter.
Give the animal time to dig through the leaves and find the acorn or hickory nut of its choice and let the squirrel begin gnawing on it. At that point the squirrel is stationary and focused on its meal, offering an easy shot.
If you miss a shot, quickly reload and continue to aim. Squirrels hear loud noises throughout the day but are most concerned with movement. Give the animal time to settle down and resume feeding, and then try another shot.
If early season squirrels can be called "busy," then late-season bushytails can be considered extremely lazy. More likely it's a lack of food that keeps end-of-season squirrels tucked inside their dens for long periods during the waning days of the hunting season, but they often come out only for short periods at dawn and dusk, sometimes not appearing for two or three days at a time.
The best way to gather a limit of squirrels at that time of the season is to find a den tree and be on hand for the short sunrise or sunset foraging period. Den trees usually are easy to recognize; they are the large, twisted, often dead specimens that are full of holes, offering plenty of hiding places for lethargic winter squirrels.
The animals may come out for a few minutes early or late in the day, often just to sit on a convenient limb and soak up some sun, occasionally venturing out in search of nuts or to travel to another nearby den tree. The action can be fast and furious, lasting only a few minutes, but on a good day a hunter with sharp reflexes can down a limit or near limit of squirrels out of the same tree.
One year I shot at and missed a squirrel five times with my .22 as it poked its head out of a hole in the side of a huge, dead oak about 30 yards away. At least I thought I'd missed. When I went over to figure out what happened I found five dead squirrels lying in the leaves below the hole. It pays to sit tight and wait!
The recipe for successful squirrel hunting is simple: patience, persistence and optimism. It's not easy, but once you master the art of squirrel hunting, your big-game forays will seem like child's play.