Shotgun Or Rifle For Bushytails?

If you spend much time squirrel hunting, eventually you find yourself in the woods with the wrong firearm. Here's how to avoid that pitfall.

Photo by Tim Black

Hands in his pockets, the kid rocked back on his heels and lowered his head to stare into the glass case containing all manner of ammo. It was a small-town hardware store -- dark, dusty, reeking of agricultural chemicals.

Recognizing the longing in the young man's eyes and the potential for a sale, the proprietor cut short his dissertation on the fine art of distilling ribbon cane syrup and skipped across the pine plank floor with a smile that would have shamed P.T. Barnum.

The would-be customer was no more than 15 years old, and he could not decide between a box of 12-gauge shotgun shells and some .22 rimfire cartridges.

"Either one will do the job, son," the storeowner spoke confidently. "But you'd probably do better with that No. 6 shot. Those high-brass shells will knock a squirrel out of the tallest tree in this county!"

A few minutes later, his cash register a few dollars richer, the proprietor winked at me.

"I had more of the shotgun shells," he allowed.

I am not so sure about the "tallest tree" line, but the man was right about one thing -- both a shotgun and small-caliber rifle are equally useful when you are trying to collect meat for squirrel and dumplings.

Which to carry into the woods is simply a matter of taste for hunters who own both, though I would wager that most have longed for the other while carrying either one. That may even explain why some gun makers came up with over-and-unders to accommodate both -- a .22-caliber barrel on top and a shotgun beneath.

As practical as these might be, however, such doubles are not top sellers. In many cases, it is cheaper to buy two separate guns.

At first glance, the .22 rifle might well seem the perfect squirrel gun. There is no question that .22s are much quieter and easier on the shoulder. They are lighter to carry, destroy far less meat, and they shoot farther. In addition, the diminutive rimfire offers more of a challenge -- especially if you do not top it with a telescopic sight.

But there are times when a scattergun would be a far better choice.

Early in the season, for example, there are far more leaves on the trees. Not only can this limit one's chances of acquiring a clear shot at a squirrel, but the leafy canopy also allows you to get much closer to the critters. Fewer long shots are required.

Another consideration is if you are introducing a youngster to the sport. As with fishing, success is the key to hooking a kid on hunting. Challenge means nothing to them. If you want to create a hunter for life, give a kid a shotgun and the ability to throw out a lot of lead at the bushy-tailed target.

Plinking at targets with a rifle is fun. It teaches valuable lessons and hones marksmanship. But it does not necessarily produce the face-splitting grin attained from holding up a squirrel by the tail. Tin cans and targets do not move but squirrels do.

I cut my hunting teeth on what I still consider to be the sweetest of all shotguns -- a lightweight, double-barreled 16-gauge. A couple of years later, I unwrapped a scoped .22 on Christmas Day. I terrorized squirrels.

From a lifetime of hunting these cunning little rascals, I offer the following tips, as well as suggestions for which firearm is best for the occasion.


The first time I witnessed this situation, I thought I was in heaven. While knocking around the hunting camp one fall afternoon, I decided to cram my pockets with shotgun shells and strike out for the backside of a field. All the adults were in deer stands.

When I made it to the wood lot and sat down, I could not believe there were no squirrels to be seen. I was huddled within the prettiest stand of oak and hickory trees imaginable, but I did not see the first squirrel.

Thoroughly disgusted, I started trudging back to camp well before sundown. Halfway across the field, I saw limbs dancing along the fencerow. Actually, the limbs were on a single line of trees flanking the fence. A squirrel was making its way back toward the sea of hardwoods I had just left. Of course, I made a beeline for it, but it had disappeared long before I arrived.

Barely five minutes later, however, a second squirrel was careening through the branches -- coming straight toward me from the same direction the first had come. Sitting in the same spot, I shot half a dozen in no more than 30 minutes.

The local squirrel population used the fencerow to travel from wood lot to wood lot, both morning and evening. Shotgun blasts did not deter them. The shots were all in the 10- to 15-yard range. Also, all the squirrels were on the move.

A rifle would have been woefully inadequate in that scenario.

If you want to create a hunter for life, give a kid a shotgun, and the ability to throw out a lot of lead at the bushytailed target.


Another scenario that lends itself to the scattergun involves less-than-picturesque terrain.

I was an adult before I realized -- thanks to the help of some squirrel dog fanciers -- that bushytails are not always found in areas that look squirrelly. Inevitably, when one of the guys wanted to put his feist on the fresh scent of bushytails, he would bypass gorgeous, open bottomland in favor of the scraggly pine thickets that bordered it.

These 12- to 20-year-old stands of pine served much the same purpose as a fencerow. They are the travel corridors of choice for hawk-savvy squirrels.

Back when I was a kid, there were not very many hawks. Nowadays, however, these winged predators are plentiful. In fact, the last time I went afield for bushytails, a red-tailed hawk swooped in and grabbed a squirrel that I had shot. I literally had to charge out, waving my hands in the air to get the bird to drop it.

The tangle of little branches in an overcrowded pine thicket add a safety net for squirrels. They also can interfere with the flight of a .22 bull

et. However, the maze of sticks is no match for an angry swarm of shotgun pellets.


God only knows how many squirrels have soaked up lead shot from shotgunners prowling hollows. But for my taste, this is where a .22 can shine.

The easiest way to cover a lot of ground, quietly, is to follow a creek coursing through a hollow. It sure beats crunching along the hillside, where you can come face-to-face with a squirrel 30 feet up a tree.

Since you are hunting in the bushytails' back yard, noise is indeed a factor. When you are in their house and not merely covering the road to it, the quiet pop of a .22 is much preferable over the boom of a shotgun.

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