November 03, 2020
By Brad Fitzpatrick
Many hunters cut their teeth chasing small game, and for some of us autumn just isn’t complete until we’ve spent some time in the squirrel woods. Yet, for many of us these days, our free time is limited. We might not have all day to sit under the hickories and wait for a squirrel to break cover. However, we can maximize our time in the woods by applying the following tips to our hunts this fall.
SCOUT THEM OUT
When searching for squirrels, first identify which species is most common where you live. Midwestern hunters generally target two species: eastern gray squirrels and fox squirrels. However, these species have different habits. Gray squirrels are usually found in wooded areas or the fringes of forests, and their diet consists primarily of nuts, berries, seeds, acorns and mushrooms. Fox squirrels inhabit forested areas, too, but they’re also comfortable in more open areas, especially mature woods bordered by open agricultural fields or pastures. Therefore, they have a varied diet that ranges from insects and bird eggs to mast nuts and seeds and commercial crops.
The key feature for either species, though, is mature trees. Squirrels prefer mature forests because they offer plenty of nesting and escape habitat, a ready food source of mast crops and some protection from aerial predators. If you locate any section of mature forest with reliable mast, you’re going to find squirrels.
Many hunters feel they must hunt deep in the forest to limit on bushytails. Not so. In truth, your odds of bagging a limit of gray and fox squirrels are better at the edge of a mature forest bordered by open ground because this type of habitat is suitable for both species. Broken parcels of timber are ideal hunting areas, especially if they hold mast-producing trees like acorns, hickories or walnuts.
Here’s more good news: There’s excellent squirrel hunting on thousands of acres of public ground across the Midwest. Even if these areas are overrun during firearms deer season, hunting pressure is often lighter during squirrel season.
GONE TO THE DOGS
Hunting squirrels with dogs is great fun and also can be quite effective. Whereas most bird dogs and hounds rely almost exclusively on their sense of smell to locate game, squirrel dogs utilize sight almost as much as they do scent. The very best squirrel dogs are savvy enough to use both their eyes and noses at once, and when you hunt behind a good one it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
I saw this while hunting with Allen Franklin of Franklin’s Curs in Sarahsville, Ohio. His dogs have won more than two dozen world championships, and he’s considered the dean of squirrel dog training and breeding. One October morning in the hills of eastern Ohio, Franklin’s Thundersport, Cain and King Bud dogs managed to tree several squirrels in the span of two hours.
I’ve hunted small and large game on several continents, and I still rank that day as one of the most exciting of my hunting career. Hunting with dogs is also great fun for the whole family. Children don’t have to sit still and stay silent, and new hunters can get involved very quickly.
Mountain curs like Franklin’s dogs are the most popular squirrel dog breed among casual and competition hunters alike; however, many other breeds make excellent squirrel dogs, too. I’ve known a few coonhound varieties that did well with squirrels. Feists and blackmouth curs are also popular, and I’ve even heard of Jack Russell terriers and border collies that helped their owners bag bushytails.
Prey drive seems to be the primary factor that determines whether or not a dog succeeds at hunting squirrels. Time in the woods is the best trainer, and as dogs begin encountering and then pursuing squirrels, you can encourage that behavior. Once your dog figures out the game, you’ll have loads of fun in the woods together.
MAKE THE CALL
Squirrels are very vocal creatures, and you can use that to your advantage. Surprisingly, squirrels respond quite aggressively to the sound of a young squirrel in distress, and you can mimic this sound by pursing your lips like you’re puckering up for a kiss and inhaling rapidly. Better yet, purchase a Haydel’s Mr. Squirrel Whistle Call ($12.95; haydels.com). My first experience with that call was one I’ll never forget, and it clearly indicated just how effective calling for bushytails can be.
After rushing home from school, I found that my Mr. Squirrel Whistle had arrived in the mail, and I goaded my father into taking me hunting right away. Dad clearly believed squirrel calls were a gimmick, but he sat beneath a hickory tree to my right with a .410 propped across his knees while I put on a convincing performance of a young squirrel being eaten alive by a predator. I gave a series of high-pitched whistles with the call and thrashed a branch in the leaf litter to sell the assault. All of a sudden, one of the largest fox squirrels I’d ever seen came barreling into our setup at full speed. I shouted at my father, who must have been dozing at the time, and he fired once at the charging squirrel and missed it completely.
That afternoon made believers of us both, and I still carry a Mr. Squirrel Whistle with me in the woods all these years later. As a side note, these calls attract both squirrels and predators, so be alert for foxes and coyotes to respond as well.
You don’t need a call to mimic squirrel sounds effectively, though. Typically, by the time you get set up for a squirrel hunt, most nearby bushytails will have been alerted to your presence. They’ll remain motionless in a tree or hole up until the danger passes. You can send them a message that it’s safe to emerge by simply flopping your hand in the leaves nearby. That steady thumping in the leaves will indicate to squirrels that others of their kind are out foraging and that it’s safe to break cover. They’ll usually show themselves in short order, so be ready.
Top Squirrel Spots
- 1. Illinois: The 16,000-acre Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County offers plenty of squirrel hunting opportunities. Roughly 6,500 acres of the property are wooded, and hunters should focus on the deep timber or areas where the forests join open fields. A permit is available from the state and must be displayed at all times.
- 2. Indiana: Morgan-Monroe State Forest near Bloomington covers 24,000 acres, and most of that land is covered by hardwood forests. Not surprisingly, Morgan-Monroe is home to some of the best squirrel hunting in the region. With so much space, it’s easy to escape the crowds if you’re willing to hike. Expect to encounter steep terrain in certain areas, though.
- 3. Kentucky: Bluegrass bushytail hunters should focus their efforts on the scenic Big Rivers WMA and State Forest in Crittenden and Union counties. Timber primarily covers this 7,500-acre tract of public hunting land, and a savvy hunter should be able to bag a limit of squirrels in short order. The Big Rivers WMA lies adjacent to the Ohio River and is very scenic, but expect some steep terrain here, too. If you’re not up for a difficult hike, concentrate your efforts on the wooded edges of flat, open fields.
While .22s and .410s are go-to squirrel guns, hunters shouldn’t be quick to dismiss the possibility of adding a little air power to their arsenal. Air guns have come a long way in recent years, and a good example is Gamo’s new Swarm Magnum 10X Gen 2 ($299.99; gamousa.com). In February, I had the chance to shoot one extensively at Gamo’s Squirrel Master Classic at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge outside of Montgomery, Ala. The Classic is an annual squirrel hunting and target shooting event that involves outdoor TV celebrities, media members, 4-H youth shooters and a bunch of squirrel dogs and their handlers.
The gun performed quite well in the woods thanks to some innovative features. For instance, the IGT Mach 1 gas piston system pushes .22-caliber alloy pellets at 1,300 feet per second—hence the “magnum” moniker. Another key characteristic of the new Swarm Magnum’s capabilities is the upgraded 10X Gen 2 inertia-fed magazine. Its horizontal configuration allows for open sights, and the technology prevents double loading a pellet. Other features, like the Whisper Fusion noise dampening technology and two-stage adjustable trigger, are nice as well.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about the Gamo Swarm Magnum 10X Gen 2, as evidenced by all the squirrels it brought to ground over our two-day hunt. — Drew Warden