Even though I’ve lived in the midwest for several years now, I am at heart a warm weather sort at the core. As a matter of fact I’d go so far as to say I’m something of a desert rat, give me 110 in the shade and as long as its a dry heat, I’ll stay out all day long. But let it drop below freezing and my demeanor changes from desert rat to couch potato, except when it comes to hunting! That is one habit I’ve picked up on my middle country sojourn, having come to really enjoy being out in the woods when things turn white and you can see the act of breathing as the exhaled breath turns white as it departs your inner warmth. Sure it takes multiple clothing layers with down fleece and wool becoming the order of the day, while keeping my face and hands covered as much as possible….. and maybe some battery operated socks and a few strategically placed chemical warmers…… my fellow Minnesotans are probably calling wimp, but it is what it is! One of the hunts that has become a winter mainstay for me is squirrel hunting, probably my single favorite game hunting activity these days, even taking the big stuff into consideration. Squirrels are plentiful, challenging, and keep me in the field many dozens of days every year.
I find the camo is far more effective in the snow, which is good because with few leaves on the trees these bushytailed rodents can see you from a long ways off otherwise. As with spring hunts, keep the hands and face covered, these are the body parts that will get you busted. To further break my outline I like to mix whites with darker camo patterns to further break my outline, especially when there are hay bales or dead plants coming through the snow. Sometimes white on top and brown below and sometimes the other way around, but after a heavy snow when everything’s covered in white, a white based camo pattern works best. I have several lightweight coverups in my pack, and can adjust on the fly. I started doing this for predator hunting but found it upped my success in the squirrel woods as well.
You won’t always find squirrels in the most wild regions, the densest concentrations are often around farms, orchards, and small stands of woods. I am always scouting and usually have a dozen or more areas on reserve that are less than an hours drive and often only a few minutes away from my doorstep. I practice a method I call the 2/2 strategy; these are short hunts close to home, very often in smaller blocks of land such as a 5-10 acre stand of hardwoods scattered around local farms, state and national forest, wildlife areas and other public lands that I’ve found which don’t get much pressure from squirrel hunters. It is not infrequent that I find an area over pressured for turkey or deer, but never see another soul out after the tree climbing rodents. At these places I limit myself to two hours or two squirrels, whichever comes first. Why? First I want to make sure I keep enough squirrels around that I always have something to hunt. This is not pest control, but small game hunting at it’s finest, and I don’t need a big bag every trip. I’d rather hit a wooded area 5-6 times per season and get some field time an bag a couple for the freezer rather than a couple trips where I decimate the population. The other thing is that my family will only eat so much game, so I don’t need to harvest a lot. This frees me up to observe, learn, and enjoy other elements of the hunt, not just trying to take game. I guess its a more balanced experience in some respects, when I remove the need to stack them up …… plus their are pest control shoots throughout the year for prairie dogs, ground squirrels and Eurasian doves where my objective is to rack up big numbers.
There definitely are some winter specific challenges, keep the face, fingers and toes warm with the right clothing. I layer and use cloths with vents so I can keep from over heating if it warms up or more frequently, I am sweating from the exertion of climbing up and down hills. I typically don’t mind hunting with single shot guns, but in the winter while wearing gloves or when fingers are cold, not having to load after each shot has some attraction. But when I do use a single shot in the conditions a pair of lighter gloves with the fore finger and thumb cut off at knuckle level, and worn under mittens does a fine job of keeping your hands warm but allowing you to load.
Layering with breathable and water resistant (not waterproof) clothing will let you sit, kneel, or even lay in the snow for a shot without becoming a Popsicle. Carrying a backpack with a sitting pad attached provides extra comfort when sitting out in frigid temperatures for long periods. With many of these rigs you don’t even realize you have the pad until you need it….. and you really appreciate your foresight in humping it along at that time!
Another nice thing about winter hunting is that your essentially shooting in natures refrigerator, so when you drop a squirrel it will stay fresh until you skin it at the end of the day. I pack a game carrier that was made for carrying up to a dozen ducks when waterfowling. Make a noose and slip it over the animals head…. and you have a handle that makes packing the squirrel much easier. I’ve also taken two 3ft lengths of parachute cord, folded it in half and knotted off a loop in the middle, then tied slip nooses onto the four strands. This set up can hold up to four squirrels and/or rabbits, and I’ve made a few of these, which allows me to hang my kills in a tree and pick them up on my return trip.
Grab an airgun and get out there, if you like to hunt you will probably find you get a great deal of enjoyment. Even if you are a big game hunter and think that this little stuff is beneath you, grab an air rifle and get out there, you might just find you’ve been missing some of the best and most accessible sport to be had! I’ve got hunts coming up for whitetail, blackbuck, hogs and javalina, but what I’ve got on my mind is tomorrow morning with a new rifle and a 2/2 hunt!