Team Tactics For Bushytails

When it comes to bagging fall squirrels, sometimes two hunters are better than one!

Did you ever notice how it is that when you're sitting motionless in your tree stand while deer hunting, the woods sometimes seem to be alive with squirrels?

When there's nothing moving in their vicinity, the little creatures scamper across the forest floor, run up and down tree trunks and branches, and leap from tree to tree.

But if a hunter tiptoes past, or even if a cow or two comes wandering through the woods, the squirrels suddenly disappear, only to slowly emerge again when the woods seem empty once more.

Squirrels tend to take cover, or remain motionless and watching, when someone invades their territory.

Oh, urban squirrels don't mind our intrusions. They're used to people and may even be accustomed to getting handouts from human visitors.

But wild squirrels in a rural setting are more cautious about showing themselves.

That's why it can be helpful to hunt in pairs, or even to use a dog, to help you spot those bushytails.

Squirrel hunting in pairs can be kind of like an old infantry patrol maneuver in which one soldier says, "You move and I'll cover." One soldier advances a few yards while the first searches for any sign of movement that might be an enemy raising his rifle or trying to seek cover. Then the second soldier stops while the soldier behind him moves ahead for a few more yards.

Using the same tactic for hunting squirrels can put squirrels in your game bag. One hunter moves to the edge of the woods and stands still or sits while the other eases forward for several yards. As the hunter in front moves, squirrels may creep around tree trunks to keep the trunk between themselves and the moving hunter.

That gives the hunter who is sitting motionless and watching the tree canopy a chance to spot those little movements as the squirrels adjust their positions.

And then the hunter in front sits still while the one behind moves slowly up to and past him to repeat the maneuver.

Even with this tactic, it usually helps to move slowly, and to give the woods a few minutes to settle down between moves.

But it can be a more efficient and productive method than hunting solo and just sitting and waiting for squirrels to appear or come within range.

And it's especially helpful if you are like me and prefer hunting squirrels with a tack-driving little .22 instead of a shotgun. If you're desperate for a mess of squirrels, a shotgun may be the most efficient tool for bagging them. You can bag moving squirrels more easily with a scattergun.

But there's something appealing, at least to me, in drawing a careful bead with a .22 and squeezing off an accurate shot that drops a squirrel from a treetop.

Too much of the regular .22 long-rifle ammo won't give you the pinpoint accuracy and consistency that can improve your success ratio. But several of the match-grade or target-grade loads, which typically travel at lower velocities, can deliver dime-sized groups out to 50 or 60 yards if the wind is not too strong or gusty.

With match ammo, you may not want to take shots past 25 or 30 yards too often, because at lower velocities they don't have the impact energy of the faster-flying, high-velocity shells. But at reasonable ranges they have plenty of power to kill a squirrel and knock it out of the tree.

And if you're my age, you may want to add a nice scope to your favorite squirrel rifle. Many older hunters have trouble focusing on both the rifle sights and the target at the same time, but a scope that is sighted-in for the ammo you're shooting eliminates that problem.

Once in a while I also enjoy hunting with a .410 shotgun. I own only one .410 and I don't use it often, chiefly because I'm a tightwad and the .410 shells usually cost more than 20- or 12-gauge loads. But a box of No. 7 1/2s or No. 6s is more than enough to bag a limit or two of squirrels, and a .410, with its minimal recoil and noise, is a fun gun to shoot.

And the cost of a box of shells is a small price to pay for a big pot of squirrel dumplings boiling on the stove on a chilly autumn day.

A dog can certainly make a good squirrel-hunting teammate. And dogs of many breeds, including many mixed-breed mongrels, can be good squirrel dogs.

For a few years when I worked for my state's wildlife agency, I helped stage an annual youth squirrel hunt at a large wildlife management unit. We would host 30 or 40 youngsters, offer a hunter-education course and other activities, and give the young hunters the run of the refuge for a couple of days of squirrel hunting.

Usually we would bring in a few squirrel dogs and handlers who volunteered their services as hunting guides. The parties that went out with dogs usually were the most successful.

But teaching the youngsters and their adult chaperones the team tactic also resulted in some successful hunts for many of the participants who did not have dogs to sniff out and tree their prey.

A dog can certainly make a good squirrel-hunting teammate. And dogs of many breeds, including many mixed-breed mongrels, can be good squirrel dogs. Some dogs have an instinctive drive to spot and tree animals and others don't.

I had a Brittany spaniel bird dog that was a good squirrel dog. She hunted close -- an important trait in a squirrel dog. There's not much sense in treeing a squirrel if it is nowhere near the guy with the gun. And she would spot a squirrel and keep her eyes on it, circling the tree if need be, until the squirrel either found a hole to hide in or moved around the tree to give me a shot.

If I knocked a squirrel out of the tree, she would pounce on it and grab it and give it a killing shake if it showed any sign of trying to get away. If the squirrel fell dead, she'd only sniff it for a moment and then start looking around again. She'd fetch quail for me, but she never brought me the squirrels.

I've seen little ankle-biter, terrier-sized dogs that were good squirrel dogs. One of the best dogs I've hunted with was a redbone coonhound mixed with German shepherd that was a really good squirrel finder. But he

had an infuriating habit of hoisting his leg and anointing your pants leg or hunting boot if you didn't keep your eye on him every second. It was great fun to invite a new hunter along just to watch the reaction when the dog did his trick. I saw several hunters try to deliver a kick, but the dog was always just out of range. He knew what came next. Sometimes I swear he had a grin on his face as he dodged the revenge attack.

If you're hunting in the fall or early winter, a diaphragm "barking" call can sometimes trick squirrels into showing themselves. During a springtime or early-summer season, a squirrel whistle that mimics the squeal of a young squirrel in distress can sometimes work wonders.

The first time I used a "Mr. Squirrel" squirrel whistle, I took it to a large park with a couple of hundred acres of trees where there was a dense population of gray squirrels. I blew the whistle five or six times and squirrels answered from several directions. I blew it some more and I could see at least five squirrels heading in my direction, hopping from tree to tree to come see what the commotion was all about.

I haven't had as much luck with the whistle in the fall, probably because most of the young squirrels are nearly adults by then, but it can be a valuable tool at the right time of year.

Good camouflage clothing can be an asset when squirrel hunting also. Just about any drab-colored clothing will due. I think it's more important to sit as still as possible, no matter what you're wearing. Blending in to the environment, though, can help you get your limit more quickly.

Most of us, no matter what we're hunting, usually try to harvest the biggest and oldest animals we can find. But when it comes to squirrels, I'll take the smaller, younger specimens first if I have a choice. Squirrels are tough, wiry little things with stringy muscles. But the younger ones seem just a little more tender and don't have to be cooked quite as long.

Just writing this article makes my taste buds yearn for a fresh pot of Brunswick stew or squirrel dumplings. It might be time to call a buddy and head for the woods.

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