“Show me a good squirrel hunter, and I’ll show you a good woodsman,” my dad, who was a very good squirrel hunter himself, used to say.
Dad was right. If you can master squirrels, those same hunting skills—observation, stealth, alertness, patience, marksmanship—will serve you well on all game animals. With the dramatic population increase of turkeys, deer and other big game animals in recent decades, though, not many people bother with squirrels anymore. And that’s too bad, because not only does squirrel hunting sharpen your hunting and shooting skills for other game, it can also lengthen your hunting season.
If you’ve been looking for a way to stretch your hunting season without stretching your budget, squirrel hunting might be the answer. Here are 15 tips for getting started.
1. PROPER SCOUTING. Just like any other animal, gray squirrels and fox squirrels follow their food supply. A walk through your hunting area a week before the season opens will help you identify the best food sources so you can be in the right place when opening day arrives.
Don’t spend a lot of time looking for squirrels on your scouting forays. Instead, look for squirrel sign: nests or cuttings from acorns, hickory nuts, pine cones and other forms of mast. Find these things and you’ll find squirrels.
2. PROPER EQUIPMENT. Some hunters use shotguns for squirrels, especially early in the season when trees are still in heavy leaf. A shotgun is also a good choice for a young hunter because it makes squirrels a little easier to hit.
The .22 rimfire, however, is by far the most popular squirrel caliber, but a growing number of hunters are now switching to the new .17 HMR because of its tack-driving accuracy. Either will do a good job on squirrels.
3. ZERO AT 25 YARDS. No more, no less. With few exceptions, 25 yards is the proper distance for sighting in a squirrel rifle, whether it’s a .17 or a .22.
With a 25-yard zero, the trajectory of most .22 loads will put you approximately 1-2 inches high at 50 yards and back on target again at 65-75 yards. Beyond that, trajectory is appalling, but if you’re not within 75 yards of a squirrel you shouldn’t be shooting anyway. With the .17, a dead-on hold with a 25-yard zero will let you hit a squirrel’s head out to 100 yards.
A good scope will help you pick out squirrels in dense cover—squirrels you’d never see with your naked eye. It’ll also help you thread a bullet through a small hole in thick foliage to hit your target.
Squirrel hunting is all about precision shooting, as a squirrel’s head is no bigger than a walnut. The last thing you need is a cheap, dim, narrow-field scope with crosshairs as thick as pencil lead. Use the same quality scope for squirrel hunting as you’d use for deer hunting.
4. PROPER CONCEALMENT. Wear camouflage clothing when squirrel hunting, including a long-sleeved shirt. Green-based camo will work well early in the season, but brown or gray-based camo is better later in the fall when brown leaves cover the forest floor.
5. HUNT SOLO. Despite the articles we’ve all read about teaming up on squirrels, if you want to be really successful you need to hunt alone. Squirrel hunting is a one-on-one adventure, with a hunter’s patience and stealth pitted against a squirrel’s agility and senses.
6. HUNT EARLY AND LATE. Except on the coldest of winter mornings, squirrels are most active during the first and last 2 hours of daylight. Early morning is also when dew or frost from the previous night moistens the leaves on the forest floor, allowing you to move quietly through the woods.
7. STILL-HUNTING VS. SITTING STILL. While some hunters prefer to sit quietly in a good feeding area, if you want to get the most out of your squirrel hunts, still-hunting is probably a better choice. You’ll likely see more squirrels if you do it properly.
The best still-hunting technique involves a move-and-stop pattern—take a few careful steps, being as quiet as conditions allow, then stop to carefully scan the surrounding area. Don’t look for squirrels while you’re in motion, because it’s difficult to see movement in the trees when your view is constantly changing. It’s better to watch where you’re putting your feet while you slip along for a few steps, then pause for a minute or two to eyeball the trees before moving another few yards and stopping to watch and listen again.
8. TAKE THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE. If possible, walk on game trails or hiking trails, or even little-used ATV trails as you hunt for squirrels; the leaf cover on these trails will be less noisy. Likewise, a lake or stream bank will usually offer quieter footing. Staying near the bottom of a dry ravine or draw, where leaves aren’t usually as plentiful, is another good squirrel hunting technique. It offers the added advantage of lowering your profile and making it more difficult for squirrels to see you.
Pay attention to what’s ahead of you as you work your way along a trail, and plot your route to avoid problematic areas such as brush piles, brier patches and trees with dry, noisy leaves.
9. USE YOUR EARS. Most successful squirrel hunters will tell you they locate as many squirrels by sound as they do by sight. There are many auditory clues—the swish of a branch, the dropping of a nut, a squirrel barking, the sound of its nails on the bark of a tree, or the sound of its teeth munching as it chews on a hickory nut or acorn. Once you’ve located a squirrel by sound, you can concentrate on its vicinity until you actually spot it.
10. LOOK CLOSE EARLY IN THE SEASON. When the leaves are still thick on the trees early in the hunting season, focus on trees that are within 50 yards of you. You can often hear squirrels farther away early in the season, but you’re not as likely to see them. As the hunting season progresses and the leaves begin to fall, start looking farther out.
11. LOOK FOR MOVEMENT. Many rookie squirrel hunters fail to see squirrels because they focus too much on actually seeing them. Instead, look for the sudden, ponderous shake of a branch, or the quicksilver trembling of a clump of leaves as a 12-ounce gray squirrel reaches for an acorn in its midst. If you’ve seen or heard a squirrel in a tree and it’s stopped moving, stand quietly and watch for movement while at the same time scrutinizing every knot, fork and irregularity in the bark of every limb of the tree. A squirrel will often ease one eyeball around the side of a limb to keep tabs on you, but it can’t do this without showing you its ear.
12. HUNT INTO THE SUN. This probably sounds like bad advice, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. It’s much easier to spot a squirrel’s movement in a tree if it’s silhouetted against the glare of the sun. The trick is to stop in the shade instead of the full sun, so your eyes are shielded from the sun by a tree trunk or cluster of leaves while you look for movement against the glare.
If you can avoid it, never hunt with the sun off either shoulder, because this causes you to throw a long shadow and makes it easier for squirrels to spot you.
13. HUNT IN THE RAIN. A driving rain puts squirrels under cover, but a drizzle or gentle rain seems to bring them out and make them more active than usual. They’ll often feed all day during gray, drizzly days, and your movements will be harder for them to detect.
14. PRETEND IT’S AN ELK. A squirrel is every bit as hard to stalk as any big-game animal, which is why my dad was moved to make the statement that began this article. If you can use tree trunks or leaf clumps to provide cover as you move in on a squirrel, do it. If that’s not possible, keep all your movements in waltz time, and make your moves only when the squirrel itself is moving.
15. DON’T PICK UP YOUR KILLS TOO QUICKLY. When you do shoot a squirrel, don’t rush to pick it up unless it’s crippled and capable of escaping. Instead, pause for a minute to search nearby trees. Quite often, there will be another squirrel within range that you haven’t seen. Doubles, triples and more on squirrels are quite common.
There are a multitude of other little tips and tricks that you can use to improve your squirrel stalking abilities, but space is limited here. However, part of the fun of doing something well is figuring it out for yourself. I know that for a fact, as after nearly 50 years in the squirrel woods, I’m still learning myself.