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The Ultimate Guide to Hunting Squirrels
Squirrels can be surprisingly challenging to hunt. It's time to get serious about bagging more bushytails. (Johnny Carrol Sain/)
The sounds of frenetic scratching on pine bark pulled my eyes skyward. Scanning the uppermost branches for any tell-tale movement, I expected to see the subtle shimmy of pine needles or a twitching bushy tail. But the canopy was still.
As I reached for binoculars, a flurry of lacy white flakes fluttered down from directly overhead — the inner duff of a pine cone shredded by famously industrious rodent incisors. The flakes came from a dense weave of pine needles but one with open branches on either side. All I had to do was wait.
Finally, a little gray body bounded toward the tree’s trunk and paused in the open. I had just enough time to click the safety off and level the shotgun’s bead on the squirrel’s head. The 20 gauge boomed and the squirrel thumped to the ground nearly at my feet. Agitated chatters erupted not 30 yards up the hill.
No hide and seek this time. Another gray squirrel perched on an oak limb, its tail flicking with every bark. I pivoted just a bit and squeezed the trigger. That made three for the morning to accompany four already in the freezer. Alongside the last of summer’s okra and homemade biscuits, I looked forward to a plateful of peasant fare fit for a king.
Squirrels are the everyman game animal. They are delectable on the plate, ubiquitous and relatively easy to hunt, yet challenging enough to keep it interesting. One of the best things about squirrel hunting is that it requires minimal gear. Even if you’re not a squirrel hunter, chances are you already own almost everything you need. Here’s what you need to know to become a dedicated squirrel hunter.
I rarely pack a shotgun for squirrels. Stalking with a .22 is my preferred method, but I was jonesing for squirrel meat in a bad way and the thick September forest canopy had stymied my efforts with the rifle. It wasn’t for lack of game, gray and fox squirrels were plentiful on the public lands I hunted. But settling the crosshairs on a stationary squirrel’s noggin' just wasn’t happening. My elitist preferences aside, the shotgun is always the top option for early-season precisely for the reasons already mentioned — fast-moving squirrels in dense foliage.
I’ve killed squirrels with 12, 16, and 20 gauge shotguns. And the perfect squirrel shotgun, in my opinion, is an automatic or pump 20 gauge. It’s light enough to tote comfortably for miles, throws plenty of pellets, is easy on the shoulder, and you can find loads everywhere.
Choke options should be limited to modified or full. Modified is best for situations when you know you can get close to the squirrels, say, if the woods are damp after a shower or slightly breezy. For most outings, go with the full choke. Treetop squirrels in the woods are often farther than 30 yards away making pattern density, or the lack thereof, an issue. Tighter patterns are a requirement because squirrels are surprisingly tough. A few pellets won’t necessarily kill or even stop them. Yes, the full-choke can ruin meat on closer shots. But for 20 yards and under, you can edge a pattern toward the front end of a stationary target. Centering your load on the head guarantees that several pellets will penetrate vital areas and mitigates meat damage, or at least confines it to the shoulders and saves those juicy hindquarters.
Shot size is always a topic of debate. Some hunters prefer to saturate a squirrel with 7 1/2s while others prefer to blow holes completely through them with #4s. While 7 1/2s will undoubtedly kill squirrels, the smaller shot loses a lot of thump at longer ranges. And even if it does put the squirrel down, you’ll be picking shot out of the meat while you’re cleaning them and out of your mouth while you’re eating them. I’d pass on the 7 1/2s.
Number 4s carry more than enough energy to completely pass through a squirrel and anchor it. There’s some argument against 4s — fewer pellets and possibly more extensive meat damage — but those arguments are relatively flimsy. Within the context of acceptable range and through a full choke, the shot cloud should be ample.
Even with my praise of #4s, though, I shoot #6s. In four decades of squirrel hunting, #6 shot has rarely let me down. It’s plenty heavy to roll a squirrel (broken squirrel bones are a regularity), the shot cloud density makes me feel a little better about saturation, and, most of the time, the pellets pass completely through. But let’s keep it simple, grab a box of either #4s, #5s, or #6s and slip into the leafy squirrel woods with confidence.
Nontoxic shot for squirrels is something I haven’t experimented with yet, but it’s on my list for the off-season. Steel and bismuth are the options I’m looking at for both environmental reasons and the real possibility of requirements from game agencies.
You likely noticed that there was no mention of the .410 in this shotgun discussion. Yes, some folks hunt squirrels with a .410 and do just fine by limiting the range and scenarios for pulling the trigger. But shotgunning squirrels is about maximum efficiency. If you want to up the challenge, grab a rifle.
Rimfire rifles and squirrels are the perfect pairing in my mind. You can build or subtract from the challenge with choice of caliber and optics. The .17 HMR and .17 M2 offer whisker-splitting accuracy out to 100 yards if long-range rodents are your thing. But the HMR (a necked down .22 magnum casing with a .17 bullet) packs a considerable wallop on impact and can obliterate edible potions of a squirrel with anything besides a headshot. The M2 (a necked down .22 long rifle casing housing a .17) is a slower round and proclaimed by some fans as the perfect squirrel rifle, though, ammo can be pricy and difficult to find.
In the .22 calibers, the .22 WMR is the answer for 100-yard-plus squirrel sniping, but like the .17 HMR, it could easily be considered overkill.
That leaves us with the plink master, the first rifle many of us called our own, the humble .22. But even here there are options among loads with the .22 short, .22 long., .22 long rifle, and .22 long rifle subsonic. Most .22 rifles must be specifically chambered for the corresponding round, though, some like my Henry rifle can handle all of them. The differences between rounds hinge on velocity and bullet weight. Shorts are the lightest weight, lowest speeds, and are a sub-30-yard squirrel round while .22 Ls are flatter shooting with the same weight bullet and longer casing holding more powder. Long rifle cartridges offer heavier bullets — up to 40 grains — with that extra powder of the .22 long and have mostly supplanted .22 Ls. Subsonic .22 loads combine the quiet “pop” of a .22 short with the skull-penetrating weight of a 40- or even 45-grain bullet.
You can opt for hollow-point .22 rounds, but they’re not needed for head shots. And, like the .17HMR, can destroy a lot meat if your aim is off a bit.
Keep it simple. At .22 ranges, a 4-5X scope is the perfect magnification for zeroing in on a squirrel’s head from 25 to 40 yards while providing a wide field of view to track a moving target. Scopes designed for better low-light visibility are a plus since many shot opportunities will happen in the gloom before sunrise and right after sunset. Zero your scope at 25 yards and you’ll be good out to 50.
Occasionally, if I’m feeling particularly stealthy (or need a dose of humility) I’ll tote a scoped .22 air rifle into the woods. The air rifle is a close-range weapon (25 yards or less), and head shots are a requirement. There’s just not enough energy to reliably penetrate a squirrel’s hide and reach the vitals at normal shooting distances. And while squirrels will die with a .17 pellet to the brain, the extra heft of the .22 adds a measure of assurance. Be sure to check local regulations concerning hunting with an air rifle.
You don’t need camouflage clothing for squirrels. Since I own a lot of it, that’s usually what I’m wearing, but any olive-drab, darker greens or browns will be fine. Earth-tone plaid flannel shirts are great for cooler weather.
Footwear should be habitat appropriate. While you’ll be sitting and standing still for periods of time, you’ll also be moving. If you’re hunting lowlands, go for something waterproof. The uplands call for boots with more support. Here in the Ozarks, I wear snake boots from late summer through November because copperheads and timber rattlers prowl the ridges even after a few frosts. Besides serpent protection, the boots are waterproof, tough, and generally do everything I want them to do.
Other gear includes binoculars, to identify that suspicious-looking bump on a limb, and a squirrel call. Squirrel calls don’t bring squirrels to you. Instead, they reveal a hidden squirrel. I use mine sparingly, and only when I know a squirrel is nearby and hiding. Even in ultra-stealth mode, squirrels seem to have an involuntary reaction to the soft chatter of another squirrel. It’s usually subtle — a slight tail twitch or small repositioning to get a better view — but sometimes they boldly bounce out on an open limb and bark back.
I don’t carry much into the squirrel woods — a gun, ammo, bug dope, squirrel call, binoculars, maybe a jacket, and a bottle of water. The best way I’ve found to pack it is in my turkey hunting vest. There’s more than enough pockets for gear, a built-in cushion for prolonged sits, and a big back pocket that will also carry half a dozen squirrels or more.
Habitat and Behavior
Eastern, Midwestern, and Southern woods are home to both fox and gray squirrels. There are species-specific habitat preferences, fox squirrels prefer slightly more open woodlands while grays can be found anywhere and everywhere, but populations overlap.
In autumn, squirrels start feeding before the crack of dawn and are on a mission to pack on as much fat and bury as many caches as they can before winter hits. Food preferences are the same for both species — hickory nuts, white oak acorns, red oak acorns, walnuts, pecans, some soft mast. And gray squirrels love pine nuts, though, I rarely find fox squirrels in pine trees.
As fall transitions into winter, food sources dwindle and squirrel populations become more concentrated. The hottest squirrel spots are usually red oaks, which are often passed over early because they pack more tannic acid, amping up the bitterness. Winter squirrels are less picky, but you’ll still find some in their autumn haunts searching for loot they buried when food was everywhere.
While low light periods are best in autumn, winter squirrels are late risers with activity peaking during the warmer hours. On especially cold and nasty days, they don’t leave the den. Neither should you.
Squirrels have two breeding seasons per year: one in summer and one in winter. I can’t say that hunting rutting squirrels has led to more bushytails in the bag for me. Winter activity levels are regulated by weather and food more than lust. But watching two or more boars in hot pursuit of a sow in heat is high entertainment as they swirl around the trunks and branches.
Squirrels are messy eaters and leave ample sign in the areas they frequent. Look for gnawed mast hulls and shredded pine cones on the forest floor or scattered on a favorite feeding stump or rock. Besides feeding sign, you can scan the limbs for warm-weather leaf nests and check out hollowed standing timber as well.
Pack your binoculars while scouting. Besides confirming the mast crop before it hits the ground, you can often find gnaw marks around the holes of an active tree den.
The tried and true method is to be sitting in the middle of woods loaded with mast at daylight or a couple of hours before sundown. Like so many other forest hunts, the first indication that your quarry is near will likely be through sound— swishing branches, claws scampering on tree bark, mast hulls pattering on the forest floor, the excited barks or low whistles of a squirrel that has spotted you or another potential threat. If squirrels are around, you’ll soon hear them.
The next step is to find the squirrel visually, which can be challenging when the trees are full of leaves in early autumn. Don’t look for the entire squirrel, you probably won’t see one. Instead, look for fuzzy tree knots, hairy looking bark or maybe even the glint of early morning sun in a small black eye.
Then you’ve got to close the distance if need be. In early season, all that foliage hides you just as it hides the squirrel. Basic stalking is the name of the game here. If possible, approach with the sun at your back. Plan your path to a tree that’s closer to the squirrel and can also hide you as you use it for a gun rest. Go slow and then even slower. Time your movements with the squirrel’s and be aware of twigs or other obstacles on the ground that could alert the animals to your presence. Hunted squirrels, especially on public lands, are not the same animals encountered in city parks and suburban back yards. They’re not dumb, and a squirrel on high alert is tough to kill.
Later in the year, when the limbs are bare and any mast is already on the ground, squirrels are even noisier as they pilfer through crunchy leaf litter. They’re more visible as well, but you are, too, so you’ll have to move even slower. Or, as my dad always said, “just keep your butt planted at this tree.” Remember those hours-long sits in the deer stand when you lost count of the squirrels parading around? Probably the best way to kill squirrels in mid-autumn is to sit in the same place all morning long.
Squirrels have a relatively short attention span when spooked. If they don’t leave the area entirely, they’ll be back to business after a 15- to 30-minute wait. Likewise, a gunshot doesn’t necessarily send them running. In this regard, the .22 rifle with its softer report offers more multiple shot opportunities. But often, even a shotgun blast just reveals more squirrels as they bark and maneuver to get a better view of what’s going on.
After the shot, mark the location of any downed squirrels, make sure that they’re dead, then sit tight and scan the branches for more movement. If other squirrels are close by, you’ll rarely wait long.
If no squirrels have revealed themselves after a 20-minute sit, ease through the woods listening and watching. When you discover an area with lots of sign, give it another 30-minute sit and so on and so forth until activity dwindles. On cool days, that may not happen until early afternoon. And on cloudy, misty days with a slow drizzle, squirrel action can be fantastic all day long. The very best times to be in the woods is right after a shower or the morning after a day or two of heavy rain. If conditions are calm (windy days are tough), hungry squirrels will be swarming the mast.
Using dogs to find and tree squirrels was a tradition across the South and one that has been revived in recent years. The quiet solitude of daybreak alone is one of the primary charms of squirrel hunting for me. But for those who enjoy conversation, camaraderie, and the earnest work of a good canine in the field, hearing a mountain cur or feist bark “treed” is a little bit of heaven on Earth. My advice: Find a local squirrel dog enthusiast and join them on a hunt. Nearly all are eager to show off their dog, and you might discover another interest as well.
Get in the Game
Back when I was a kid, squirrels were the first game animal pursued by new hunters, but in recent years, small game hunting has largely fallen by the wayside. Lost with that experience is a plethora of hunting skills and the enjoyment of a pursuit that’s a cornerstone of our outdoor heritage. But the simplicity of the squirrel hunting means that it’s an experience still within reach of nearly every hunter.