August 22, 2023
"He’s right there, just along that limb," my squirrel-hunting companion Ryan McCafferty said. He was pointing to a branch running off a pignut hickory almost straight up from where we had positioned ourselves on the forest floor below.
Oh, I thought as I finally caught sight of the gray squirrel cutting away on a hickory nut, he’s way, way up there.
I adjusted my Primos trigger sticks to give myself a better shot at the squirrel. My rifle, a wood-stocked Savage Arms B Series in .22 Magnum, craned upward at a seemingly impossible angle. It was not the type of shot you’d ever consider taking unless squirrel hunting.
Nevertheless, I flicked off the safety, took a deep breath, exhaled a bit and steadied my scope’s crosshairs on the squirrel’s head, now right against the branch. Feeling confident, I gently pressed the trigger.
The hit was perfect, and McCafferty and I watched the squirrel fall from the canopy some 50 yards above and thud on the ground. It was my best shot of the morning, and a satisfying moment during a surprisingly challenging early-season hunt in western Kentucky.
EARLY SEASON ANTICS
Many states with fall squirrel seasons have early start dates. August and early September openers are common, with many even preceding or coinciding with the start of dove seasons. Some states—like Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas—even have squirrel seasons that open in May or June and run through summer, fall and into winter.
Apart from a few states in the extreme South, the upper Midwest and the Northeast, most fall seasons begin before the middle of September. Opportunities are ample, and bag limits are often healthy, if not outright generous. The average is around six squirrels, but a handful of states have bag limits of 10 or 12, and Oklahoma’s is an insane 25 squirrels. Whether a hunter is skilled enough to harvest that many is another matter entirely. Always check your state’s regulations to determine bag limits.
The late summer/early fall period is a unique time to hunt bushytails. Temperatures can be quite hot and full summer foliage is usually still in effect. This offers both challenges and advantages. Spotting squirrels can be more difficult when trees have all their leaves; however, they can make it harder for squirrels to see hunters approaching on the ground below, too.
For squirrels, the early season is also a time of abundance when it comes to food. In late summer and early fall, bushytails feast on and hide away a variety of nuts in anticipation of leaner times ahead. Because of this, squirrels are often concentrated and can be easier to find now than they are later in the fall and moving into winter.
As with just about any type of hunting, most successful early season squirrel efforts involve knowing the preferred food sources and finding them ahead of your hunt. On my late-August hunt in western Kentucky, bushytails were keyed in on hickories. We could hear them cutting on these big nuts up in the treetops, and we could also hear partially eaten nuts and shells hitting the ground from these same heights.
If prevalent in an area, shagbark, shellbark and pignut hickories—and the delectable nuts they contain—are often early season favorites. Shagbark and shellbark hickories are relatively easy to identify due to their unique shaggy-looking bark that appears to be peeling off the tree, which is even more prominent on the shagbarks. Pignuts are a little less distinctive, but all three drop large nuts that are bright green in color now. Other types of hickory nuts are also desirable.
Where hickories aren’t present, oak acorns may be a primary food source, with white oaks initially preferred over reds. Red oak acorns are appealing if white oaks are scarce, and they’re hot commodities later in the season after more palatable nuts have already been consumed.
In late summer and early fall, pinecones, and more specifically the tasty seeds (pine nuts) inside them, can be popular with squirrels. In the eastern U.S., beechnuts are highly prized when available. Walnuts are another option, especially moving farther into September and October. Squirrels will also eat commercial crops, like corn and soybeans, among others, especially when adjacent to or bordering hardwoods with nuts.
With any of these, check the ground for evidence of recent feeding activity. Squirrels are messy eaters. If they’re feeding on hickories, oaks, beeches or walnuts, you’ll see cuttings and half-eaten nuts everywhere. Around productive pines, partially or fully stripped pinecones are common, too.
When evaluating mast sources also pay attention to surrounding trees. Are there any squirrel nests in nearby trees? How about larger, older trees or even dead trees with holes that could serve as good dens?
Like most critters, squirrels tend not to move any more than they must to conserve energy. Leafy nest structures or solid den trees near mast suggest a high-potential area for hunters. Proximity to water sources is also nice, but food is the prime draw in the early season.
Once you’ve found a hot food source—especially one near suitable den trees or existing nests—note its position. I like hunting apps such as onX Hunt or HuntStand for this purpose. Both are solid options that let you create custom waypoints, and they can show public-land boundaries and property ownership, among a host of other features.
Ideally, you’ll find several productive trees on a given property to give yourself options if a previously hot food source shuts down or if you thoroughly spook all the squirrels in one spot after harvesting a couple. Once you’ve identified solid hunting spots, you have some decisions to make.
SIT OR STILL-HUNT
The first choice is your preferred hunting method. You can either stake out a productive spot near food and nesting, then sit and wait patiently, or you can take a more mobile approach and still-hunt.
The former method involves sneaking into a known hot spot and getting comfortable. If hunting in the morning, arrive before sunup and get into a good position. As much as possible, ensure you’ll have good shot opportunities based on the location of food sources and nests/den trees and that the sun won’t be shining in your eyes when it rises. If hunting in the afternoon/evening, ensure the same with the setting sun.
Any time you arrive at a new hunting location, do so cautiously and with minimal noise. Much like with deer hunting, it’s not a bad idea to identify potential entry routes during the scouting process. These should offer quiet and perhaps even obscured approaches.
Plan to give the woods at least 10 or 15 minutes to settle after your arrival. If you spooked any squirrels on your approach, they’ll often resume their normal activity after a period of silence.
The same is usually true after a shot. If you knock down a squirrel, mark its position on the ground instead of immediately retrieving it. Many times, bushytails will start moving again and you might get several from a single tree. After a few squirrels, though, it’s often best to move toward your next spot to avoid shooting out a single area.
Alternatively, still-hunting can allow you to cover more ground. The caveat is that you must move very slowly, and very quietly, which can be challenging, even for veteran hunters.
Walk heel to toe at an exceedingly cautious pace, especially in areas you’ve identified as productive through scouting, and avoid crunching down on fallen leaves or twigs. Periodically—perhaps every 30 to 40 yards or so—stop for 5 or 10 minutes.
When stopped, look for squirrel movement in surrounding trees and listen for the sounds of them cutting on nuts, barking or rustling leaves as they move. Using your ears is as important as using your eyes, if not more.
When searching with your eyes scan for shaking leaves, or try to spot parts of a squirrel, as it’s rare to see the entire thing due to the full foliage. A squirrel’s bushy tail is particularly eye-catching, but sometimes the head with its ears and dark eyes stands out, too.
It’s difficult to walk quietly while scanning the trees, which is partly why pauses are necessary. However, if you’re hunting with a partner, you can also alternate so that one person walks while the other stands still and watches the trees. After 30 or 40 yards, the first person then watches while the second walks to their position. This way someone always has eyes on the trees.
Once you spot a squirrel or hear one chattering away up in a tree, put a stalk on it. Approach it stealthily and in a way that limits the squirrel’s ability to see you but that will still afford you a quality, ethical shot. Put some type of cover or partial obstruction between you and the squirrel, or, if it’s looking one way, try to approach it from its blind side.
If you’re busted during your stalk and the squirrel hides, sit down and let things settle for 20 to 30 minutes. As with sitting and waiting, squirrels will often resume activity if things stay calm following a disturbance, and you may get a second chance.
If the squirrel moves much farther away, you may have to begin the stalk all over again. It can be a tedious process. A stalk last fall on that Kentucky hunt took about 40 minutes because the squirrel kept moving. But, if you stick with it, as I did, you might still seal the deal.
WEAPONS AND LOADS
Hunters have argued for years over whether a shotgun or a rimfire rifle is best for squirrel hunting. I won’t solve that question here, but you should answer it for yourself before venturing into the squirrel woods.
Sometimes a shotgun makes it easier to hunt hyperactive bushytails that leap from limb to limb or move often. This is especially true when leaves are still on trees and squirrels can disappear behind a wall of foliage in seconds. A shotgun may also be preferable in more populated areas or areas with nearby neighbors, where an errant rimfire bullet might be dangerous.
However, when squirrels hang out way up in the trees munching on their preferred early season delicacy, a rimfire rifle may be the only way to reach them. The squirrel that I shot high up in that pignut hickory is a perfect example. Sometimes a rimfire’s extra reach—especially a .22 WMR or .17 HMR—makes a big difference when squirrels are up high.
A 20-gauge autoloader or pump gun offers all the performance you need for squirrels and ample loads are available on store shelves. A 12-gauge is fine, too, especially when shots are consistently long. Just be wary of closer shots to avoid damaging meat. Aim at the squirrel’s head or just in front of it to keep most pellets in the head or perhaps the front shoulders at worst. Smaller bores, like a 28-gauge or .410 bore, are great for closer shots, and modern denser-than-lead nontoxic loads extend your range a bit, within reason.
A full choke is generally the most versatile choice. If closer shots are more common, a modified choke is also fine. Many hunters like No. 6 lead shot, though some prefer larger No. 4 or 5 shot or smaller No. 7 1/2 size shot. With No. 4 shot, meat damage may be a concern up close, while you may lack killing power as distances stretch with No. 7 1/2 shot.
I like Federal Premium’s 20-gauge 2 3/4-inch 1-ounce Game Load Upland Heavy Field with No. 6 shot for most squirrel hunting scenarios. However, many game loads with No. 4, 5 or 6 lead shot are suitable.
For rifles, .22 LRs are most common. Hotter rounds like the .22 WMR and .17 HMR offer added reach and power and, in the case of the latter, exceptional accuracy, even as distances stretch.
Hunters should always strive for headshots when hunting squirrels with rimfires to preserve as much meat as possible. However, it’s essential with high-speed magnum rimfires, which can extensively damage meat on body shots. Their flatter trajectories, however (especially the .17 HMR’s), can help you become a squirrel sniper.
If you use a magnum rimfire, pick a load featuring a non-expanding or minimally expanding bullet and try limiting yourself to headshots only. Hollow-point bullets are perfectly suitable with a .22 LR, but avoid options designed to disintegrate on impact.
I’ve had good success with various CCI rimfire hunting loads. On that Kentucky hunt, I harvested several squirrels with the 40-grain Maxi-Mag 22 WMR. With its hollow-point bullet, headshots are still preferred, but it damages meat far less than other fragmenting-style bullets on accidental body shots. The Maxi-Mag’s little brother, the 36-grain Mini-Mag HP 22 LR, is another good choice. Meanwhile, CCI’s 20-grain FMJ and jacketed soft point (JSP) options are suitable for .17 HMR users.
Speedy semi-autos, bolt actions, lever actions and single shot rifles all work, depending on user preferences. I’ve used Winchester’s Wildcat 22LR this past year and really like it. It’s an affordable, lightweight semi-auto with a rugged synthetic stock and utilizes a reliable 10-round rotary magazine. For a more classic look, Winchester now also offers a wood-stocked Sporter version, too.
If you’re a good shooter, factory iron sights can work just fine, as can non-magnified red dots. However, a low- to medium-power riflescope often proves helpful. The standard 3-9x power scope is serviceable, though many also like the added field of view of lower power optics like a fixed 4x scope or a 1-4x or 1-6x.
With any rimfire rifle and load, always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it. Bullets can travel a long way if you miss. It’s best to wait for a shot in which the squirrel has a natural backstop behind it, like a large branch or the tree trunk itself.
Air rifles are another possibility. They’re quieter and likely won’t disrupt squirrels as much when fired. For this same reason, they’re great for hunting around more populated areas where neighbors might otherwise be annoyed with the crack of a rimfire or the boom of a shotgun.
The downside with air rifles is that they’re generally not as potent. For example, a 15.4-grain .22-caliber pellet produces less than half the energy of a 36-grain .22LR at 25 yards.
Try to limit shots to within 50 yards—inside 35 yards is even better—and take only headshots to maximize lethality. Most knowledgeable sources also suggest using .22-caliber pellets over .17-caliber options because they’re heavier and hit a bit harder.
I’ve taken a number of squirrels with GAMO’s Swarm Magnum 10X Gen2 air rifle in .22 caliber and the company’s new version, the Swarm Magnum Pro 10X Gen3i, seems as capable or more. It has an updated stock design and improved horizontal inertia-fed 10-round magazine system. Like its predecessor, it comes with a GAMO 3-9x40 air rifle scope already installed.
While I like the GAMO gun, any sufficiently powerful air rifle with pellets designed for hunting should work. If you decide to use a scope, ensure it is purpose-built for air guns, as normal riflescopes aren’t built to handle the double recoil (rearward and forward) produced by air rifles.
Of course, before hunting anywhere with an air gun, always check local regulations to ensure it is permissible.
OTHER GEAR AND CONSIDERATIONS
Squirrel hunting during the early season—or anytime really—doesn’t have to be a gear-intensive pursuit. If you must, you can make do with a dependable rimfire rifle or shotgun, ammo, a good pair of boots, pants and a shirt.
However, going a bit beyond those bare necessities can make you more comfortable and more successful. In the early season especially, two of the biggest factors affecting your comfort are the heat and insects, like ticks and mosquitos.
Hydrating well is one way to combat heat and having adequate amounts of water is essential. Lightweight, breathable pants and shirts that wick away moisture are another. Most of mine have a camouflage pattern, but that isn’t strictly necessary.
On the insect front, bug spray can work just fine. However, a Thermacell unit that hooks to a belt or backpack is even better. It repels ticks, mosquitos and other nasty bugs without bug spray’s nasty smell or potential skin irritation.
Insect-repelling clothing has also come a long way. Some of my favorite pieces of clothing that I’ve hunted with numerous times come from Sitka’s Equinox Guard line. The pant, hoody and gloves all prevent insect bites by limiting skin exposure, utilizing a bite-reduction fabric which mosquitos have difficulty penetrating, and incorporating built-in repellent via its Insect Shield technology. There are, of course, ample options from other brands as well.
A good, comfortable pair of boots is perhaps one of the most important things to have. What type you choose may also be dependent on the environment you hunt. If you’re hunting a general-woods environment, a simple lightweight hunting or hiking boot may suffice. If your hunting area has lots of snakes, consider a pair of snake boots. For low lying, marshy areas, maybe you need a taller rubber boot.
Where required, you might need an orange game vest as well. Check regulations to see if hunter orange is required where you hunt squirrels. Whether it is or isn’t, a game vest can be handy to hold supplies and any harvested bushytails. If it’s not required where you hunt, but you still want a way to carry squirrels and extra shells, a turkey vest could be another option.
If you’re hunting private land and don’t want to wear a vest, there’s another approach. I’ve seen hunters poke small holes in the skin around a squirrel’s legs and then suspend the squirrel on a piece of a coat hanger or a sturdy stick running through their belt loops. A game vest could be a better call on public land, but this might be fine on private land that only you are hunting.
If you’re hunting with a rimfire rifle or an air rifle, consider bringing along a shooting support, too. While resting a rifle against a tree is often fine, a lightweight bipod, tripod or shooting sticks can transform an open area with no natural rest into a rock-steady position.
Personally, I love the adaptability and quick, easy adjustments offered by the Primos Trigger Stick line. Regardless of brand, in my experience the taller supports are often more helpful for achieving the high angles necessary to shoot squirrels way up in the trees. However, if you lay down on your back, shorter options may work as well.
If you don’t have a bipod, tripod or shooting sticks and don’t wish to buy or carry one, an odd shooting position may still help you achieve a steady shot in the field.
For a right-handed shooter, this involves lying down on your back, rolling slightly onto your right side and keeping your right foot flat on the ground. Lift your left leg, crossing it over your right and resting your left ankle atop your right thigh. Shoulder your rifle and press your left elbow into the bend of your left leg, with your left forearm resting against your left shin.
It is a strange position to get into, but it’s surprisingly stable. Left-handed shooters simply follow the same steps, just with the opposite side of the body.
A quality pair of binos can also be helpful for spotting squirrels way up in the trees and hiding amongst the early fall foliage. Similarly, if you’re hunting with someone else (and assuming it’s legal where you hunt), a laser pointer can help you point out a squirrel’s position to a partner in the early season.
Lastly, while they aren’t always necessary, squirrel calls can be effective. These don’t so much draw squirrels your way. Rather, squirrels often reveal their position in the trees, either by moving or making their own commotion, in response to the sounds you’re creating. That said, when squirrels in your area suddenly go quiet and aren’t visible, the right cadence from a squirrel call can get you back in the game.
In late summer and early fall, most squirrel activity is concentrated in the first few hours of daylight and in the last few hours before nightfall. With temperatures often still blistering hot during much of the day, squirrels move most when it is the coolest. Cloudy days or the onset of cooler weather can sometimes extend these shooting windows, but generally, hunting the middle of the day, when it is hottest, is inadvisable.
Wind and rain are two other factors that can affect squirrel movement, and your ability to hunt them. Whereas windy days are the waterfowler’s best friend, they are usually the nemesis of the squirrel hunter.
While a light breeze won’t affect squirrel behavior too much, in stronger winds squirrels may remain safely tucked away in a den or nest. Wind—even a light breeze—also makes it harder for hunters to see and hear squirrels moving as well. When all the leaves are shaking in the wind, it’s difficult to isolate those being moved by a squirrel.
The same is often true with rain. A light rain may not negatively affect squirrels, but the longer and heavier the rain, the less likely bushytails are to move in it. However, hunting after a light rain can be fantastic. The ground is damp and quieter for hunters to walk on, especially if any leaves have already fallen; squirrels are also often resuming their usual activities after the rain.
Generally, though, squirrels like sunny, calm days when they can freely move around. Dry, windless conditions also make it easier for hunters to hear squirrels moving through the trees or dropping pieces of nuts to the ground.
Watch the weather to ensure conditions are good, and then head to a productive mast site before dawn or a few hours before sunset. Bring along a trusted scattergun, rimfire rifle or air gun, let the woods settle, and enjoy the fun!