Though it seems to have fallen out of popularity these days, there was a time when squirrel was one of the most anticipated seasons for hunters. Not only is it a good way to provide a lot of edible meat but it’s cheap and simple making it a great introduction for children or those new to hunting.
The simplicity of hunting squirrel means that it’s easy to get out there and get a few but if you want to be the guy that never leaves until he has his limit, you need to nail down your tactics and be on top of your game.
Squirrel hunting has never been and never will be a gear driven hobby. There is little you can buy that will make you more successful. If you want to move from good to great as a squirrel hunter the best things you can have are patience, persistence, and the ability to move quietly. That said, you still need a few things to hunt effectively.
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Have the Gear
Hunters love their gear and can spend thousands getting everything just right. This can be daunting for young or novice hunters. Squirrel is a great place to start because it doesn’t need any of that. You can get into squirrel hunting for pennies of what most people spend hunting deer or duck.
Clothing will be your first choice. Squirrel season starts when temperatures are still warm so clothing can be lighter and less expensive. Opt for camo because squirrel have good eyesight. Check your local regulations to see if you need a blaze orange vest but you are otherwise good. I started with military surplus camo that cost maybe $15.00.
Some people swear by squirrel calls but I don’t use them. No matter what you do, you aren’t going to call squirrel to you. The only purpose they have is to locate squirrel. You call, they answer and you move toward them. Get one if you want and learn to use it but you can do more just by being quiet and attentive and listening for the squirrel.
Shotguns are really the preferred choice and you can easily get away with a .410 or 20ga with no problem. The .20ga will be cheaper overall and do a good job. You don’t need a fancy pump gun or automatic, just a simple breakdown shotgun will do you fine. Check your local pawn shops for the old Handi-Rifles which can be had for cheap and do a good job.
You may opt for a rifle for some parts of squirrel season. If so a .22 LR can do wonders and you can get some brands for under a hundred bucks. If you go this route, you may end up investing more as you get a scope and mounts but the rifle can be very effective mid-season when squirrel are on the ground.
To assuage curiosity, my squirrel guns are a Savage Mk II FV SR with a scope and a Winchester model 370 in 28ga that belonged to my grandfather and was his favorite squirrel gun.
Pro Tip: Bark colored camouflage will blend into the natural colors of fall woodlands better than the greens and browns of other seasons.
Know Your Squirrels
As most park goers know, squirrels are only timid when you chase them and will readily move around even with people around as long as food is available. But those are city squirrels that deal with people day in and day out. They are still very cautious in their movements and will run at the slightest threat.
A squirrel in the woods will be even more cautious. The whole of the eastern woodlands is full of squirrel but most people will never see one. As soon as you move into an area, any noise you have made will send them scampering to their den where they will wait out the threat for up to an hour.
Throughout the season, squirrels will be most active at dawn and dusk. This is especially true in mid to late season but early season squirrels may take advantage of the large food supply and be active throughout the day.
The one thing to keep in mind is that squirrels have a very strong predator instinct and will hide as soon as a threat enters the area. They are very good at evading notice and getting away. If you want to get a squirrel, you have to be the most silent hunter you can be.
Pro Tip: If you are having trouble spotting squirrels, try to find a hillside adjacent to your target area and get on a level plain with the treetops. Squirrels are much more likely to be looking down from trees and may pay less attention to your location.
If you want to hunt squirrel, you have to find squirrel and scouting is a good way to do that but isn’t always necessary. If I am out and about I may scout the woods days before but if I am hunting I may scout as I go, meaning if I find a good spot I will remember it but pass it by. I may do this several times and give the squirrels time to calm down before returning to that first spot.
No matter how quiet you are, you are still likely to never see a squirrel. They are attentive, quick, and great at camouflage. The best way to locate a squirrel is either by sound or sign. You can often hear squirrels barking a long way away and as you get closer you may hear them gnawing on nuts. Use this as a guide to narrow in your search.
As you find the likely spot where the sound was coming from, keep your eyes down and not up. Look for half-eaten nuts or small pieces of chewed nut hull. If you look up, you may not see a squirrel but you will see a place where a squirrel has been.
If you can find a few such places close together, you have your spot!
Pro Tip: North facing slopes will often have more nut-bearing trees with a richer nut crop. These areas have more moist soils that provide a better environment for hardwood trees.
Hunt the Seasons
1. Early Season
Think of the early season as the time when the leaves are still green and most of the nuts are still on the trees. For this time of year, you are going to be best served by a small-bore shotgun, I prefer No.6 shot but No.5 will work. I often use a high-power load in a shotgun with a full choke to get those long shots up into the tops of trees.
The overall strategy I use begins with scouting. I try to find a place where there are a number of nut-bearing trees in a close proximity. I want to hunt 8 to 10 trees at a time if I can manage it but will settle for 6 or so. Most of the eastern woodlands you can find large growths of Oak and Hickory that will be perfect for a hunting spot.
After I know my spot, I will return the next day or even that evening. Give the squirrels a little time to get back to their normal behavior. Approach the area slowly and with as little noise as possible and find a place you can sit that allows you to watch the largest number of trees you can.
Listen for the telltale signs of squirrels chewing or barking. If all goes quiet, you made too much noise but all is not lost. Be patient and stay still. Give the squirrels time to adjust, they will be back.
After you have made your first shot, don’t rush to get your downed quarry. Reload quickly and wait. Often times you can get several squirrels in short order by this method. They seem to recover quickly from the sound of a gunshot. A few hours just after sun up can often bag your limit.
The transition to mid-season, marked by fallen leaves and nuts, means a transition to ground hunting. I generally prefer a very accurate .22 LR or .22 Mag at this time of year. Feel free to stick to the shotgun if that is what you are most comfortable with but transition to a lighter load and shot.
Just like the early season, stealth is key to your success. I still like to scout and beforehand and know where I am going and how to get there so I can make a quieter approach. When you are in your spot, find some cover and sit as low to the ground as possible. Squirrel have amazing eyesight and will spot any movement.
Never rush a shot at a midseason squirrel. They are quick little bastards and if you opted for a rifle, your chances of a hit are very low. Wait till he finds his food and you will have plenty of time to line up a clean shot. Even with a shotgun, hitting a moving squirrel is a feat!
After you shot, hit or miss, don’t rush off. The sound of the gunshot will be less obtrusive than your movement. Keep still and quiet and squirrels will resume their normal activity quickly. You may get a second shot at a missed squirrel in just a few minutes if you are patient.
3. Late Season
I won’t lie, I often sit out late season squirrels which can be lethargic and only come out for a few minutes at dawn or dusk to warm up or scavenge for any remaining food that may be easy to get. If patience was important in earlier months, it is absolutely vital in the late season.
I transition back to a shotgun with a heavier load in the late season to reach out to higher nesting sites. That’s your ticket, find a tree with a den and get there before sun up. Take advantage of those first warming rays of sun to try to bag your limit.
There are two times I will shoot a squirrel at this time of year. The first is just as he emerges from his nest and pauses to scan for any danger. Everything in the woods is hungry during those later months and the squirrel will be tuned in to spotting any would be predators. When he pauses, take your shot.
The second time I will shoot is when a squirrel stops on a limb to sun himself. Usually, they will stretch their bodies up into a sitting position which makes for a very convenient shot. Either time you shoot, do the same as always and keep still. He has some buddies around and they will resume their normal behavior soon.
North facing slopes will often have more nut-bearing trees with a richer nut crop. These areas have more moist soils that do better at growing hardwood trees.
Pro Tip: Squirrels, especially in the late season, are reluctant to leave a good food source. Never rush away just because you aren’t getting any action. Wait them out and the squirrels will return. It may take as much as an hour but it’s more likely that 20 minutes will be enough to let them relax.
Hopefully, this article was helpful in improving your squirrel hunting or provided enough information to get you started if you are new to this fun and addictive hobby. For most people, squirrel is their first game animal, it was for me, and the addiction runs deep. Become a great squirrel hunter and you will never hurt for good meat! People can talk deer all they want but I will take a mess of squirrel any day!
Of all the topics above, I saved the first step for the last: Get out in the woods. Even if you aren’t hunting, move slow and pay attention. Look for squirrel sign and scan the trees for movement. Train yourself to see squirrel before they see you. Then get out and hunt. You won’t get better sitting in front of the TV.