Squirrels are one of the most abundant game species in the woods, but that doesn't mean they are easy to find or put in the bag.
Squirrel hunting seems like it should be easy. Abundant squirrel populations live in every part of the country. However, these little tree-dwelling animals have great instincts to keep them safe from a multitude of predators, including hunters.
Fortunately, there are lots of squirrels available in the woods; hunters just need to understand their habits to locate and put a few in the bag.
Gray squirrels are active throughout the day during the early season because they are busily engaged in eating the new crop of hard mast, especially hickory nuts. Hickory trees of one species or another are found in many parts of the nation, so the game is relatively simple: Find hickories and find squirrels, often in surprising numbers, even in the middle of the day.
Expect to see squirrels in the highest branches during the early season, where they are gnawing on the tough exterior of a hickory nut to reach the succulent inside part. This process can take 30 minutes or more, giving hunters plenty of time to slowly work beneath the hard-working squirrel.
This is where the fun begins, because the squirrel may be 40 yards or more away in dense, leafy cover. The only sign of his presence will be the steady, continuous rain of shells and hulls dribbling down to the ground. The squirrel is there, but pinpointing its location through the thick greenery can be a real challenge, even with binoculars.
Squirrels are small targets and famously difficult to kill. The most successful hunters wait till they can see some identifiable part of the squirrel (head, tail or shoulders) and then place the shotgun bead in the middle of what looks to be center mass.
After the squirrel hits the ground, do not run over and pick it up! This alerts other squirrels in the area and causes a lull in activity that could last 30 minutes or more. If necessary, shoot again to finish a wounded squirrel but otherwise sit tight and keep watching and looking for the next available target.
Loud noises are routine in the woods (thunder, falling branches, etc.) but predatory shuffling is not.
On a good day, a stealthy hunter should be able to take a limit of grays without changing position. Watch, wait and take only the best shots. Only when the hunt is over should hunters retrieve their limits of squirrels.
Early season grays will work hickories for as long as the crop lasts; eight weeks or more. From a hunter's viewpoint, the most action takes place near dawn and dusk, so plan on being in the woods early and late. Settle down quickly and the squirrels will begin moving and feeding high overhead.
When squirrels do spot hunters, they bark to alert companions of their presence. When this happens, the best recourse is to move to a new area and begin again. A squirrel on alert won't stop barking till the danger has passed, letting every other squirrel know that danger is nearby.
Once the leaves are down and the hickory harvest is over, squirrels will begin to spend more time feeding on the ground. They'll keep busy finding, hiding and eating fallen acorns, seeds and any other mast that's available. Beginning at leaf drop the squirrels will be most active near dawn and dusk, with long periods of inactivity from about 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Some squirrels will be active throughout the day, but the best odds of a limit hunt are early and late in the day.
Late-season squirrel hunting is not that much different from deer hunting, requiring a lot of sitting and waiting. Because nearly all squirrel activity will be at or near ground level, it is imperative that hunters learn to sit behind (not on) a rock, log or fallen tree, as close to ground level as possible. Wear camo gloves and a facemask and move only as necessary to make the shot.
The best way to take late-season squirrels is with a scoped, small-bore rifle. Shotguns can also be used, but in the open woods many shots will be in the 50- to 75-yard range. If using a shotgun, hunters need to let the squirrel work closer.
Late-season grays are victims of their own industrious ways; it's possible to hear a squirrel foraging 100 yards away, which gives hunters plenty of time to locate, set up and wait for the squirrel to close the distance.
Follow the squirrel as it meanders through the leaves and take the shot when it stops on a rock, log or tree trunk. Head shots are best, but as distances increase it's better to aim behind the shoulder into the vitals.
Let the squirrel lie where it falls until the hunt is over or the action begins to settle down. On a busy morning it's possible to take a limit of grays in just a short time, as is the case when hunting near den trees in late afternoon.
In addition to providing fun and food, the tails of squirrels can also be used to make flies for trout, or sold to Mepps (mepps.com), which uses them to make fishing lures. The price is only a few cents, but it doubles if trading the tails for the Mepps spinning lures that are so popular with anglers. All this is just an added bonus to a great day in the woods in pursuit of the wily little squirrel.