The Littlest Big Game

The beady eye of the author's nemesis, the red squirrel. Photo by Brent T. Wheat

It’s time for Midwestern hunters to head out for what is often called “the littlest big game.” A fat squirrel seldom weighs more than a couple pounds so it’s not really “big.” It gets its “big game” reputation because successful squirrel hunters characteristically use hunting tactics more like big game hunting than the methods employed for upland species such as pheasants or rabbits.

Sure there are hunting strategies involved when small game hunting, but often just plain hard work can be the key to success. My key strategy as a rookie hunter was legwork. I followed the supposition the more distance I walked, the more animals I’d likely encounter. I learned that’s not the case when hunting squirrels.

The first opening day for squirrels after I was old enough to hunt on my own I decided to hunt the wooded areas along the Iroquois River. I knew there were squirrels there since I saw them while fishing, all summer long. I started at one area and then hiked several miles along the waterway, until I stumbled out of the river-edge woodlands hours and miles later, having seen only one squirrel and not getting a shot at it. By the time I was in range, the bushytail was somewhere else – probably laughing at me.

Being laughed at by a squirrel is one thing, but at the end destination, I met up with an older, obviously more experienced squirrel hunter, who really got the last laugh. He was skinning and cleaning a trio of squirrels.

“How far did you go?” I asked, thinking the hunter had probably really covered some territory and then my mind raced ahead to the next questions I wanted to ask. “Were the squirrels near the river, out by the edge of the woods, towards the top of the trees, on the ground?” All these were questions that had jolted through my head as I trudged ever forward, relying on leg power, not brain power to put myself in range of the quarry.

His answer stopped my questioning. “I was hardly out of sight of my truck.”

It was as though the secret to the universe was revealed to me. Perhaps it was really just the secret to squirrel hunting, but that short conversation changed the course of my success in the “squirrel woods” ever since.

In other hunting, if you aren’t seeing any game, perhaps there isn’t any where you are looking. So look somewhere else, then repeat again and again until your legs give out or your game pouch is filled.

Squirrel hunting takes a leap of faith. A hunter has to go into the woods with the idea in his head, “There is a squirrel nearby.” There probably is. The key is to hunt smart until you find it. When that one is in the bag think, “There’s probably another squirrel nearby.”

There probably is. Here’s where squirrel hunting becomes similar to big game hunting. First, it’s just waiting. The animal is nearby, maybe active, maybe not, but it’s up to the game animal, not the hunter to make the first move. Especially in the early part of squirrel season when all the trees are leafed out, looking up in a tree and spotting a stationary squirrel is nearly impossible.

When the squirrel moves, it’s easy to see, even if it’s just with peripheral vision. Even if looking in the wrong direction a squirrel moving through the trees on a quiet day makes enough noise to catch your attention. Hear a noise, scan in that direction until the noisemaker is spotted.

Then other, big game type hunting skills come into play to get the squirrel in the gun’s sights.
As with most hunting, the shorter the shot, the better. Sure, a great rifleman can snipe squirrels 50 yards away or more with a steady aim and accurate gun. A shotgunner can bang down a squirrel with the proper load of shot almost as far. But both hunters will be much more proficient at 20 yards than 50.

So stalk closer. Wear inconspicuous clothes. Camo is great but not necessary.
Be as quiet as possible. Move when the squirrel is moving and preoccupied.
Plan a route through the woods taking advantage of trees or underbrush to help hide from the squirrel as the stalk is made. Once close enough, take the shot.

Then, remember. “There’s another squirrel nearby.” All you have to do is find it.

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