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Late-Season Squirrel Hunting in the Open

When the leaves are gone and the mast has dropped, adjust your tactics to bag more wary, late-season bushytails.

Late-Season Squirrel Hunting in the Open

Keep your eyes to the ground when hunting squirrels in winter. Most, if not all, mast has fallen, and the critters will seek it out. (Linda Freshwaters Arndt)

I’ve loved squirrel hunting ever since I bagged my first one at the age of eight. That was 52 years ago, and honestly, I enjoy squirrel hunting now just as much as I did then.

Hunting opening day in September is great, though I’ve come to appreciate, and even prefer, squirrel hunting in the winter months. Once winter tugs the leaves from all but the evergreens and throws a skiff of the white stuff on the ground, things become very exciting and a bit more challenging.

For starters, winter squirrels aren’t the same as early-fall squirrels. They’re survivors. Their protective leaf cover is all but gone, and they must endure a host of predators both above and below, including humans. Still, while squirrels are challenging to hunt now, they’re far from impossible.

Meet The Players

Although behavior is somewhat universal among squirrels, there are some key differences between the two main species that Midwestern hunters are likely to encounter. Once recognized and understood, these differences can be exploited.

The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), often erroneously referred to as the “red squirrel” due to its color, is the largest of the squirrels found throughout the east-central portion of the U.S. (There is, indeed, a red squirrel common to the Midwest; however, the “true” red is quite a bit smaller and a different subspecies altogether). Weighing from 1 to 2 1/2 pounds, the fox squirrel sports a rusty red coat that’s sprinkled with salt-and-pepper highlights on its back and is orange or yellowish orange underneath. While not exactly lazy, fox squirrels tend to sleep in a bit longer than their gray cousins, especially during bouts of extremely cold weather. Knowing this, hunters targeting fox squirrels will often wait until mid-morning before venturing out.

Smaller (average weight is 1 pound) and seemingly always skittish and on edge, the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) once made its home primarily from central Ohio south. However, the more aggressive gray has displaced many populations of native fox squirrels to become the predominant species in the Midwest. Grays are, as their name implies, an attractive mix of gray, white and black, with a white or slightly grayish-white belly, rusty red facial patches and here-and-there blotches of brownish red. In my experience, grays are early risers, starting their daily hunt for calories with the coming of the sun.

Find The Food

During winter, especially with snow and cold temperatures, a squirrel has two priorities: find food and avoid predators. Their long list of predators includes both those on the ground (coyotes, foxes, humans, etc.) and in the sky (red-tailed hawks, great horned owls and others).

In terms of food, whatever mast remains, whether it’s shagbark hickory nuts, beech nuts, black walnuts or acorns, is already on the ground. This is exactly where you’ll find most squirrels, at least when they’re not sleeping or evading predators. If the mast is buried under snow or leaf litter, squirrels will dig it up. Their sense of smell and their memory helps lead them to these day-to-day nutritional sources. Tennis ball-sized holes in the snow, often sprinkled with bits of leaves, denote areas where bushytails have been digging up nuts and can be great places to sit a spell and watch.

M.D. Johnson Late-Season squirrel digging in snow
Tennis ball-sized holes in the snow indicate where squirrels have dug through snow and leaf litter to find mast. (Shutterstock)

Trees that held mast earlier in the season—hickories and beeches, especially—are great places to start your hunt. However, I also really like areas where a timber edge adjoins a harvested cornfield. Squirrels—and most wild critters, for that matter—can’t get enough of those yellow kernels, and often travel long distances to take advantage of any spilled grain.




If I’m hunting along this meeting of grain and grove, and there’s snow on the ground, I’ll concentrate my search in the field corners—essentially, anywhere the harvester may have spun 180 degrees and changed direction. Here, it’s common for even today’s efficient agricultural machinery to drop grain, and it doesn’t take long for local wildlife, including squirrels, to home in on these high-volume sources of calories.

Hunt 'Em Up

Once you’ve pinpointed food sources that squirrels are frequenting, determine when and how you’ll hunt them. Some of my best winter squirrel hunting—especially when there’s snow on the ground—has occurred ahead of cold fronts that might bring more snow, as well as on cold, clear afternoons with little wind.

The day before—or even just hours ahead of—falling temperatures and a round of snow can be very productive. Mother Nature lets her minions know through various signals—barometric pressure changes, intuition, etc.—of approaching foul weather. Squirrels, picking up on these signals, often go on a feeding binge before hunkering down to ride out the storm. This increased activity should translate into lots of action for you and your scoped .22 rimfire.

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My personal favorite time to hunt, though, is a bitterly cold afternoon with high, blue skies and little to no wind. Squirrels, especially larger and lazier fox squirrels, take advantage of such conditions to refuel. They’ll usually increase on-the-ground movement to find food, though when they’re not searching for food they’ll often flatten themselves on heavy, horizontal limbs to soak up the sun. Both scenarios can offer shot opportunities.

On such frigid, sunny days, I either set up in an area pockmarked with snow holes (diggings), or I select a spot near a stand of potential den trees (older oaks or beech) just inside the timber edge but adjoining a harvested cornfield. Then I wait. Employing a lightweight cushion can make these sits drier and more comfortable on the cold ground (I especially like the Hunters Specialties Bunsaver). Once situated, it’s time to observe the surroundings.

M.D. Johnson group of late-season squirrels
The late season can provide fast action, especially on cold, sunny days with little wind, when squirrels are most active. (Tom Martineau / Wildfront Images)

In time, you’ll become familiar with every bump and lump, knot and ball of old leaves that isn’t a squirrel, and almost immediately recognize something out of place. My go-to tool for this style of hunting is my Maven B1.2 binocular.

When it comes to firearms, I like a Ruger 10/22 topped with a Bushnell 3–9x40mm Sharpshooter scope. If I decide to use a shotgun, Mossberg’s M500 20-gauge gets the nod. For the rimfire, I’ll use 40-grain Winchester Wildcat solids. I’ll run 2 3/4-inch No. 5s through the shotgun, or HEVI-Shot HEVI-Bismuth No. 5s if I’m hunting an area where non-toxic loads are required.

On overcast mornings, or on days when I just feel like walking, I’ll transition to a spot-and-stalk approach. I’ll quietly pick my way through the hardwoods using old two tracks, logging roads or creek edges. With this approach, being patient and stealthy is essential. Stop frequently to take in the world around you, looking up, down and all around. Quite often, bushytails will be on the ground and preoccupied with feeding, and you’ll typically be able to get within 20 yards of them. However, I prefer a .22 for this style of hunting, as shots are often a bit farther and the oaks a little bit taller, which pushes the limits of the scattergun.

Accept The Challenge

February is often a cold month across the Midwest and snow can pile up high, especially up north. However, the bushytails are always out there, and there are still plenty of them to go around. Stalking skittish winter squirrels in a monochromatic, leafless landscape is a challenging yet incredibly satisfying pursuit. In my opinion, it’s also a lot more fun than sitting on the ice, holding a tiny fishing rod and staring into an 8-inch hole.

Bushytail Basics

While squirrel hunting can involve a lot of gear, it’s certainly not necessary. In fact, all you need is time, stealth (or patience), warm clothes, a chosen firearm and ammo, and some other odds and ends that might be called “comfort items.” Still, I do carry a small pack afield that contains a few essentials.

Rig' Em Right Lowdown Floating Backpack
Rig' Em Right Lowdown Floating Backpack

Pack: This should be small and not cumbersome, but large enough to carry important gear. My waterfowl blind bag/pack, Rig ’Em Right’s Lowdown Floating Backpack ($139.99), is just about perfect. It has ample interior space and a pair of side-mounted exterior zippered pouches for easy access to ammunition or muzzleloading accessories.

Maven B1.2 8x42
Maven B1.2 8x42

Binocular: A binocular is essential for differentiating between clumps of leaves, knots on branches and squirrels. My go-to is Maven’s B1.2 8x42 model ($950). It’s not in the pack, but rather on my chest in a harness from Alaska Guide Creations.

Nutrition/Hydration: Winter hunting makes me hungry and thirsty, so I pack plenty of easy-to-eat food and water. I like Menu 23 MREs (pepperoni pizza), chocolate bars and trail mix. Bring at least 32 ounces of water. Dehydration is as dangerous in winter as it is in summer.

Odds and ends: To keep warm, I like so-called sniper’s mittens—military-issue wool mittens with a slit for the trigger finger. Drop a chemical handwarmer inside and your digits will stay toasty all day. I often carry two pairs of brown jersey gloves, found at most gas stations, as they’re light, cheap and take up little space.

Stanley Classic Legendary Bottle
Stanley Classic Legendary Bottle

I’ll also bring coffee in a 20-ounce Stanley Classic Legendary Bottle ($33.50), a tough little thermos that weighs just over a pound (empty), keeps liquids hot all day and is built to take a beating. Lastly, I assemble and pack a simple first-aid/field kit in a small military surplus pouch. It includes bandages, tape, gauze, Q-tips, tweezers, super glue, common over-the-counter pain meds, antacids, safety pins, a folding compact mirror, eye drops, lens wipes, cough drops, dental floss, a military sewing kit and lip balm.

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