Hunting squirrels is one of my favorite small game species, and while some states have a spring or summer season, in most it ended last January and starts up mid September. I was thinking about my airgunning adventures for the upcoming year, and decided I’m going for the tree squirrel grandslam; fox squirrel in Indiana, Gray squirrel in Virginia, Black color phase (fox, grey, hybrid) in Michigan, and Abert’s in Northern Arizona. I’ve taken all of these, but this year I want to take them in the same season. I’ll carry along my airguns as I head out on various big game and predator trips, heck I might even have them mounted for my man cave!
The gray squirrel, Abert’s, red and fox squirrels are very cautious and elusive animals. To go out in the open woods with the intention of bagging squirrels requires the ability to stalk quietly, shoot at elevated targets, and have knowledge of the squirrel’s behavior. I use my airgun hunting time in the woods pre-deer season to scout and get back into a hunting mindset. As we go through the summer, many guys shift to target shooting, fishing, or other activities. And unless you are in a place that has prairie dogs, ground squirrels, or ground hogs, your first hunting opportunity of the season may well be these tree dwelling rodents.
Squirrels are designed for life in the trees, sometimes appearing to defy gravity and moving with a fluidity and speed that is impressive. Gray, Aberts and red squirrels spend more time in the trees and less time on the ground, and fox squirrels spend more time on the ground scavenging than the others. But any of these species can be found high in the branches or on the ground. Squirrels have the ability to disappear into the brush, so when I get a shot, I take it. They are very adept at putting a tree between themselves and a hunter and making it difficult to line up a shot, though you can use this trait to advantage when stalking in to set up a shot. This is the basis for the old tree squirrel hunting trick; when you see a bushytail dash around a tree trunk, rather than trying to work your way around for a shot hold your position, toss a stick behind the tree and the squirrel may run over to your side and present a shot.
Both gray and fox squirrel’s habitat is woodland with oak and hickory trees, yards, stands of trees bordering crop fields, actually just about anywhere there are trees and food, find the food and you’ll find the squirrels. As a general rule of thumb, grays like the denser wood area and foxes prefer some open ground area with the trees more spaced out. Squirrels nest in holes in trees or build leaf nests in tree branches. In inhabited areas, squirrels have the bad habit of building their homes in attics and gnawing wiring, instantly transforming from a game animal to a pest species. They are found in almost every wooded area in the United States. Grey squirrels are active year-round and arboreal; they do not hibernate even in the very cold regions of their range. You can see squirrels throughout the day and it’s worth being in the field anytime of the day, but the magic hours are at the couple hours around duck and dawn. Squirrels populations fluctuate and peak every five years or so. Squirrel tracks look a lot like a rabbit’s except the tracks of a squirrel are more bunched, and tend to end at the base of a tree. When there’s snow down you can often see the tracks running along fallen tree trunks.
Squirrels eat a variety of foods; almost any nut, vegetable, bud or crop suits them well. Squirrels can be voracious carnivores and devour quantities of bird eggs and the chicks of many birds. Every year I shoot a few as the raid the nest of songbirds, and in fact it’s the screaming parents dive bombing the intruder, that gives away the squirrels location. I have to keep vigilance on my property as the large squirrel population will play havoc with the nesting songbirds. In fall as leaves are coming off the trees, I shoot a number of them as they scurry around the ground burying acorns and other nuts. Squirrels must have a source of water and are seldom found far from it, I often hunt along the edges of streams and creeks. In some states, and Kentucky and Indiana come to mind, it is legal to hunt from boats if certain guidelines on the type of water craft used are adhered to.
As mentioned, squirrels can be found in almost any wooded area within their range and have adjusted well to man. Often squirrels thrive within the city, making their homes wherever a suitable den can be found. We sometimes shoot squirrels within the city limits when they are pest, and for legal reasons this is one of the times I hunt with an airgun because I must rather than because I choose to. In the rural and wilderness areas one can usually find squirrels by finding a food source.
Once you have located the food source and know where the squirrel feeds eat, figure out where they are denning. The favorite home of a squirrel is a hollowed out tree with a small opening of a couple of inches. The tree must be large enough to house a pair and their offspring, about 6 young, and they tend to like larger trees. Squirrels also make temporary housing by bunch leaves and twigs in the upper parts of trees, and these often are seen as the leave start to fall, looking like large bird nest. Do not be tempted to shoot into these nests to scare out squirrels as this is illegal in most if not all states. Squirrels will often make a temporary nest in the same trees they have their permanent dens in, perhaps to get better airflow in the hot and humid summer nights, or perhaps where the male is chased off to when there are very young in the nest. These shelters are made near a food source so that food doesn’t have to be carried over a long distance
When looking for a place to hunt, I search out large mature trees like oak or walnut. I keep a notebook which lists the areas where I’ve seen squirrels, as they continue to be productive if not over harvested. Once two or three areas that show squirrel sign or have a good food source have been located, I’ll focus on them rotating between them. I can keep busy all morning in 10 acres of woods. I like to move into position before first light and set up, that way I am able to sit back undetected, as the squirrels start moving about. You can set up a blind, wear camo, or as a compromise between the two, I’ve been using a 3D camo poncho with great success. My normal outfit consists of pants, jacket, mesh gloves and face cover, and hat. The advantage of this over the blind is that I can move around and still hunt. But if nothing else camo your face and hands!
I primarily use stalking and still hunting techniques after daybreak, the squirrels are out but not moving as much so more area covered provides more shot opportunities. Take a few slow steps and stop for at least a minute. The squirrels may think you are a deer moving through the woods, and go back to eating. When you see a squirrel in the distance, move slowly and only when he has his attention dedicated to something else. A good set of 8X or 10x binoculars will help you spot a squirrel from a long ways off, even if he’s sitting partially hidden. Often you can get close enough for a shot, which is the objective when hunting with an airgun. Depending on the gun I am using, I will either take a head shot or a chest shot. These kill zones are about the same size, so it’s really a matter of what target the squirrel presents me with. Squirrels are fairly tenacious little animals, so I prefer to use a heavy round nose pellet.
In Next week’s blog entry I’ll focus on the guns and pellets I’ve used over the last 13 years since I started seriously hunting tree squirrels. I have taken squirrels using just about every model of airgun to hit the market over the last couple decades, with every powerplant, energy level, and in every condition.