September 28, 2022
This article on small-game hunting was featured in the East edition of September's Game & Fish Magazine. Click to learn how to subscribe
September marks the 50th anniversary of my first wild-game harvest, a fox squirrel taken when I was 8 years old and fresh out of Bruce Knodel's hunter education course.
It was my father who located our quarry, the critter busily cutting in the top of a short shagbark hickory. We sat underneath, side by side, hulls raining down until finally—an eternity to an 8-year-old—the bushytail slipped out onto a branch with a hickory clutched tight in his mouth.
I don't recall the exact exchange between my father and me, only that I'm certain it included advice to take my time and make the shot count. I don't recall the shot nor the recoil. I do remember, though, the heavy thump of the squirrel's rust-red body hitting the leaves.
In the time since, I've introduced a long list of young people to the consumptive sports via the squirrel woods. True, whitetails, wild turkeys and waterfowl are excellent species for getting young hunters started down the path, per se, but squirrels and squirrel hunting offer the perfect outdoor educational setting for several reasons.
There's No Rush
Squirrel hunting is about taking the time to expand a young person’s knowledge about the Great Outdoors in general. It offers a fantastic classroom in which to study subjects like bird, tree and mushroom identification. A small creek winding through the timber provides an opportunity to study aquatic life. ("Look, there's a salamander!") I have learned more about the world around me with the men I've hunted squirrels with than while in pursuit of all the other types of game combined. Why? Time. When you hunt squirrels, you’re not pressed by the clock. Therefore, anything and everything is fair game in terms of study, observation and experience.
The Weather is Warm
Let's face it—it's easier to get a 10-year-old into the field if it's 70 degrees and sunny as opposed to 33 degrees and raining. With squirrels, it's possible to pick and choose your days; that is, wait until it's nice out, the sun's shining and there's but a gentle breeze to help keep the mosquitoes at bay. Chances are good the squirrels will be thinking the same thing and will be out and about, too.
It's a Controlled Environment
Squirrel hunting provides a controlled environment for the new hunter—as controlled a scenario as can be provided in the hunter’s world, anyway. You, the teacher, sit alongside your young charge. You discuss the goings-on step by step. The stalk, if there is to be one, is done in tandem. The shot is taken slowly and deliberately, almost with a play-by-play commentary from the mentor. If a situation needs to be discussed, the hunt is paused and the scene is discussed.
You Can Sleep In
It's been my experience that gray squirrel rises a little earlier than its larger cousin the fox squirrel. However, neither requires the oh-dark-thirty wake-up and departure often associated with turkey hunting or waterfowling. In fact, afternoon hunts can be just as productive as mornings, as bushytails look for a last-minute bite before denning up for the evening.
"Wildly abundant" may be a bit over-the-top in describing public access and squirrel hunting, but most states in the East offer ample public land, and many of those acres provide good squirrel hunting. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, for example, oversees more than 1.5 million acres of public land throughout the Keystone State.
That doesn't include several state forests and the more than 500,000 acres of the Alleghany National Forest, but all of it harbors populations of both gray and fox squirrels. In short, finding a place to squirrel hunt shouldn’t be a problem.
Long Seasons, Liberal Bags
New York's squirrel season runs Sept. 1 through Feb. 28, with a daily bag limit of six. Pennsylvania's is roughly the same, and its Youth Mentored Hunting Permit is just $2.97 for kids ages 7 to 11, and $6.97 for mentored hunters ages 12 to 16. Vermont's squirrel season runs from Sept. 1 through the end of the year; shorter than the aforementioned pair, but plenty of time when compared to whitetail, turkey or even duck seasons.
BEFORE THE HUNT
Let's assume that our protégé is completely new to the sport and to firearms. Where do we begin?
- Hunter Education: Hunter education is mandatory in all states for new hunters born on or after Jan. 1, 19-something (it varies by state). The only exceptions are instances like Pennsylvania's Youth Mentored Program, where kids can hunt as long as they're accompanied by a licensed adult. However, hunter education remains an eventual requirement even in such programs. So, first things first, you and your young hunter are going to take and successfully pass a certified hunter education course.
- Firearm Instruction: A portion of all hunter education courses involves safe firearm handling and shooting proficiency, but firearm instruction shouldn't end there. Shooting, as the youth will learn, is both fun and instrumental to hunting success. That said, it's important to spend time at a range, formally or informally, and drill on subjects such as safe gun handling, marksmanship, ammunition selection and firearm maintenance.
- Biology: Have your new hunter research his/her quarry. Where does it live? What does it eat? What are its habits? What do I need to know as a hunter in order to find and, hopefully, harvest my first squirrel? Hunting is a never-ending learning process, and it begins right here.
- Ethics and Psychology: Now's the time for a discussion on hunter ethics. What's it mean to be a hunter? How should a responsible hunter conduct him or herself, both in the field and in public? How does a hunter respond to people who don’t like hunting? While you're at it, this is a good time to have a talk about the psychology of hunting. What does it mean to harvest an animal? How should a hunter feel about it? What happens if a hunter wounds an animal? What does it mean to properly respect one’s quarry? This needn't be heavy and deep, but it's best to address these questions prior to the hunt.
DURING THE HUNT
The day of the hunt has finally arrived. What’s the best way to go about it?
- Slow Down: Remember that this isn’t about you, nor is it a race to a limit. Take your time. Instruct. Point out everything and then explain it. Why does a squirrel build a "nest?" How does it make that chattering sound? What kind of tree is that? Remember, it's all old hat to you, but the kid is new to the game. And when the two of you harvest that first bushytail, devote a few minutes to a biology lesson.
- Apply No Pressure: Sure, you're excited to see your student harvest his or her first squirrel, but it’s essential to not add any pressure to the hunt. If the student moves slowly, you move slowly. Don't rush an "iffy" shot. Remember that this is all very new to him or her. Of all the things you take afield, a good dose of patience is perhaps the most important.
- Focus on the Basics: Squirrel hunting, when done right, can teach a person everything he or she needs to know about hunting, regardless if they go on to hunt whitetails, turkeys, waterfowl or other small game. Remember the basics. Teach them how to walk quietly through the woods, how to listen and use their eyes. Talk about what to look for amongst the foliage. Encourage questions and, periodically, stop for a lesson on this or that. It’s the ultimate classroom, and it’s all yours.
- Lead by Example: Stay positive from start to finish. Think before you speak or do. Don't hesitate to repeat your instructions until they're ingrained in your student and become second nature. If you see a mistake about to be made, you might consider letting them make it—but only if it doesn't involve firearm safety or ethics. Harmless mistakes are excellent opportunities for learning.
AFTER THE HUNT
In wildland firefighting, we have what we call an "after-action review," or AAR. It's a recap of what happened during an incident, what we did and what we might do—differently or otherwise—in a similar future situation.
Your young hunter might well benefit from such a post-hunt AAR. What went right? What could we have done better? Were there any safety issues that need to be addressed?
Assuming you were successful in harvesting a bushytail or two, it's time for yet another biology lesson—Game Cleaning 101. This leads to knife handling, food storage and, eventually, meal preparation. Don’t forget proper gun maintenance, too. It’s all part of this thing we call hunting.
FINE FIRST FIREARMS
One shotgun and one rifle tailor-made for youth squirrel hunters
- Mossberg 500 Youth Super Bantam
Despite the fact I killed my first squirrel with an old Harrington-Richardson .410, I wouldn’t recommend the little gun to a new hunter. Why? There’s not much margin for error with the .410’s tiny 11/16-ounce load of No. 5 shot, especially when the leaves are thick in September. Better than the .410 is a good 3-inch 20-gauge like Mossberg’s venerable 500 Youth Super Bantam. It offers smaller shooters the option of using low-recoiling 2 3/4-inch shotshells before moving on to the heavier 3-inch hulls. From the included stock spacer to the adjustable chokes and 22-inch vent-rib barrel, this pump-action fits the bill for ducks, turkeys and even whitetails, too. ($489; mossberg.com)
I gave serious thought to the quintessential .22 LR here—Ruger’s auto-loading 10/22. But for the new hunter, I like something that requires a mindful, physical action in order to bring a new round into battery. Enter Winchester’s Xpert 22, a new bolt-action rifle that does everything a squirrel hunter needs a rimfire to do. At 4 1/2 pounds, the Xpert is light, but not so light as to be whippy. It sports a rugged, kid-proof polymer stock and standard iron sights, though the receiver comes drilled and tapped for mounting a scope. ($320; winchesterguns.com)