The first official hunting season of the year begins on August 15 when squirrels once again become legal quarry.
It used to be that every hunter cut his or her proverbial teeth on the ubiquitous “tree rat,” but times have changed.
Now, more glamorous species such as deer, turkey and geese are commonplace and even coyotes, formerly considered vermin, are the focus of television shows and magazines. In 2015 everything is “extreme” and even the name of some waterfowl calls give the impression that duck hunting is more akin to combat in Afghanistan rather than pass-shooting down at the local mud hole.
Today it seems that everything related to hunting is over-the-top and hyperventilated; that is, everything except squirrel hunting but therein lays its charm.
You don’t need much in the way of gear: a reasonably accurate .22 rifle, drab clothing and a comfortable pair of boots. If you don’t happen to have a .22, the old shotgun will work though you’ll have to watch out for tooth-cracking pellets in your fried squirrel.
Hunting squirrels is one of those things that is simple in theory but often challenging in execution, which is why I keep going back to the squirrel woods multiple times every year. During the early portion of the season when leaves are on the trees, they are difficult to find among the concealing greenery while later in the season when the trees are bare, they can be as skittish as a public-land boss turkey.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of the aerial rodents so if you blow a stalk or shot, there will be another one nearby to offer a second, third or fifteen chance.
Most hunters choose to stalk, or still-hunt, though simply sitting at the base of a good tree can be very productive (though ultimately boring). My own technique is to walk quietly to the area of a large walnut, hickory or oak tree where squirrels are known to frolic and then sit down for 15-30 minutes. During that time, if you remain quiet, any nearby squirrels will resume their daily routine and you can devise a plan of attack.
Once squirrels are located, make a slow, deliberate stalk using cover as much as possible to creep within rifle range. If the squirrel isn’t spooked and you are close enough for a clean shot, it’s Game Over for the animal. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually go so smoothly.
If you manage to spook a squirrel, they will do one of several things: begin scampering through the tree tops, flatten out on a limb, run to the other side of the trunk or hide in a hollow knot, limb or trunk.
If the squirrel begins moving, stand still and keep an eye on it. They are exceptionally curious and if they don’t feel immediately pursued, they will often stop in a nearby tree to “eyeball” the noise or movement that caused their alarm in the first place. If you don’t spook them any more, they might resume feeding and you can begin a stalk.
If the animal flattens out of a limb, your only answer is to out-wait it. A rubber-bellows “squirrel bark” call can sometimes prompt the animal to lift its head to find out why another squirrel is raising such a ruckus but typically it will take at least 15 minutes or more for the squirrel to begin moving again. I usually just give up and move along.
Squirrels will often scamper to the other side of the tree trunk upon approach. Here a solitary hunter is at a disadvantage. Hunters working in pairs can approach opposite sides of the tree and usually one will find a shot.
Squirrels also love to duck into knotholes, hollow limbs and the like. A squirrel bark might cause the animal to peer out but typically it is simply a waiting game. If badly frightened, they will also frequently scamper into their treetop nests. No ethical hunter shoots into a nest.
The squirrel bark call is often considered a “locator” call and I’ve had squirrels respond to the dramatic chittering but typically it causes the animals to freeze or flee until they understand why their “neighbor” is raising such a stink. Instead, I use a “baby squirrel” cry.
This is mouth call that sounds much like a kitten crying. I’ve found that about 50% of the time it will cause a frightened squirrel to raise its head off a limb or peek out of a knothole.
When hunting squirrels, part of the sport is making a clean head shot that is instantly fatal. This is the ethical thing to do because a wounded squirrel is often lost to a nest or tree cavity to die a lingering, painful death. If your squirrels aren’t dropping dead to the forest floor, spend more time on the shooting range before the woods.
Safety is also important. When shooting upward, keep in mind that a .22 bullet can travel over a mile if you miss so try to place the animal against a tree trunk or at minimum heavy foliage cover before pulling the trigger. Likewise, shooting animals on the ground can be dangerous due to ricochet. If you think a stray .22 bullet isn’t a big deal, imagine your own family in its flight path and you’ll reconsider.
Adding a few other things to your kit can make the day more successful or comfortable. Full camouflage is helpful, including a hat and gloves, along with insect repellent, a squirrel call or two, lightweight pocket binoculars to help scan trees at a distance and plenty of spare ammunition. I carry all my gear in a turkey hunting vest that also has a comfortable drop-down foam seat for those long waits against a tree.
Cleaning your kill may seem a daunting task but it is actually a simple matter. A cut is made at the base of the tail and along the haunches; you then step on the tail while pulling upward on the front legs. If done correctly, most of the skin comes off the squirrel like an inside-out coat. You can then remove the entrails, feet and head and your squirrel is ready for cooking. Check the internet for a plethora of videos demonstrating this technique.
Squirrel with gravy is a traditional dinner but we’ve had good luck using the fine-textured meat in a variety of dishes. One of the most unusual was our New Years Day Buffalo Squirrel Dip made using squirrel meat that had been slow cooked until it fell off the bone, combined with buffalo wing sauce. Served over crackers, it was a hit even if a few people turned their nose up without trying it!
Squirrel hunting may be old-fashioned and anti-glamour but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. If you only give it a try, you’ll find the experience relaxing while ultimately making you a better hunter for other species. It’s time to go chase tree rats!