Among the most prevalent—yet unappreciated—game, squirrels make for an enjoyable marksmanship challenge and fine eating.
I still remember the smell of the gravy. The tantalizing aroma would draw me out of my bunk and into the kitchen of our old family cabin, before my grandfather or uncles had a chance to gently shake me awake. We’d sit at a small card table, making idle conversation and eating the biscuits and gravy Grandpa had made on the small wood stove. When breakfast was over, we’d be up, snapping together our shotguns and heading out the front door in time to see the sun peek over the horizon. This was opening day of squirrel season in my family, and ever since, squirrels have held a special place in my hunting life.
For most hunters, squirrels exist only as a thing to rustle the leaves and get the heart racing with false alarm during deer season. Yet, as a hunting quarry, they offer some of the most rewarding days for a hunter in the woods. Squirrels are small and wary targets that tend to dart and flit among the treetops, providing a hell of a challenge. They are also easy to clean and are probably one of the best-eating small game animals out there. Best of all, in most states, squirrel seasons start earlier in the fall than most other game animals, so squirrels present one of our first opportunities to get out in the woods and start hunting.
Finding squirrels in the wild is fairly easy. Although they aren’t town squirrels, busily raiding bird feeders and harassing the elderly in parks, they still act like squirrels and are predictable. They eat mostly nuts, which puts them in almost any sizable stand of nut-bearing hardwoods such as beech, walnut, hickory, and oaks. Squirrels can also be found in thick stands of conifer trees where they feed on pine nuts and young pinecones. One of the best things about squirrels is that they are almost always found in the same areas as deer. This gives the hunter added opportunity to scout out a good spot for deer season while hunting. Explore ridgelines with a lot of hardwoods that are adjacent to a prominent water source. Scout out river and creek bottoms as well. The edges of corn and bean fields that have a lot of surrounding brush are also a great place to find squirrels.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to squirrel hunting methods: sitting and moving. Sitting is probably more successful, provided the hunter is patient and can hold still for an extended period of time. Simply find a stump or a comfortable rock in good squirrel country and have a seat. It’s a fun way to hunt. Stay patient and watch for squirrels slinking through the treetops and bouncing along the ground. A .22 rifle is the preferred weapon here, as shots can be a bit longer range. Try for headshots as it damages less meat. It’s a great hunting method for those looking to hone their marksmanship.
Moving to pursue squirrels is faster-paced and the preferred method for squirrel hunters looking to explore new territory. Essentially, one pokes slowly along looking for a quick-moving target. No matter how slowly or carefully you move in this type of hunt, the squirrels generally see you first. Squirrels are the Snickers bars of the forest: Everything from hawks and owls to foxes and weasels prey on them, so they’re incredibly wary. Most of the time, all a hunter sees of a squirrel is a gray streak headed into the treetops. These quick moments of opportunity usually make hunting with a shotgun necessary for this technique.
Squirrel hunting is a great way to get back to basics. Perhaps it’s because many of us started out hunting squirrels, but there’s a simplicity to it that revitalizes a hunter’s spirit. There are no tree stands to put up, no dogs, no calls, no camouflage. Squirrel hunting gives us a chance to remember and experience the tradition and simple essence of hunting, before all the complications and modernization of the sport came about.