As we prepare to roll into the fall months, I find myself spending a lot more time afield scouting the areas I’ll hunt when deer season opens. Patterning deer activity and deciding where to set up my stand helps my success rate of course, but I also use the time hunting America’s favorite small game, the tree squirrel. To be perfectly honest, I think I get as much enjoyment from squirrel hunting as I do from the bigger stuff. A day spent stalking inside of sixty yards on gray and fox squirrels is the perfect tune-up for whitetail hunting. Most hunters that pursue squirrel use either a rimfire or shotgun, but I think they miss out on the fun and challenge that come with using an air rifle. Let’s take a look at the guns, how they work, how they perform, and the shooting characteristics then look at the field experience I’ve gained over the last several years hunting bushytails in the Midwest.
There are many airguns ideally suited to hunting bushytails, a few of my current favorites include both springers and PCP models. A quick rundown of the springers I’ve been shopoting lately include the Diana 340 N-TEC in .177, the Walther LGV in .22, the RWS ProCompact .22, and I never get tired of my little Beeman C1 .177. Spring piston Airgun are the one I most frequently use a .177, though my all around favorite is still the .22. The PCP’s that I plan to use a lot include the FX Wildcat .25, the Daystate Huntsman Cl;assic .22 (prettiest Airgun ever made IMO), and the Brocock Compatto .22 which is my small game gun of the year. I will also use the .30 more this year as itsd been very effective for prairie dogs and rabbits, and my Daystate Wolverine Type B is a favorite in this caliber.
It doesn’t take a great deal of power to kill a squirrel, though they can be surprisingly tenacious. Most mid power guns are more than adequate so long as the proper shot placement is achieved. Accuracy is the key, as I prefer to use head shots when possible and the brain area of the little rodents is about the size of a quarter. However, once this level of accuracy is achieved, more power is always welcome and gives a bit for margin when taking chest shots or reaching out a bit further.
All of theses guns are scoped to achieve the best performance possible, and I like a 3-9x with a 40 or 50mm objective as these scopes do a good job of picking out hiding squirrels in the lower light conditions encountered early in the morning and late afternoon. I’ve used the Hawke scopes more than any other this year, and have been well impressed by the optical quality achieved in low light conditions; swapping them from gun to gun. But I’ve also had very good results from the Leapers scopes as well, which are two of my airgunning go to scope manufacturers.
There has been significant development with respect to projectiles available for squirrel hunting over the last few years; polymer tipped hollow points, boat tail pellets, new non-lead materials, and refinement of existing designs. Airguns can be a bit finicky about which projectiles they shoot best. Even guns that are the same model will often have different preferences for pellets. I generally prefer roundnose pellets for squirrel hunting as they offer a good balance of accuracy and terminal performance.
In most guns, one roundnose pellet or another will yield good results, and while I mostly use JSB roundnose pellets, the H&N Baracuda Hunter Extreme work well in several of my guns and provide effective terminal performance. Squirrels are tenacious little critters, but they are not that hard to kill if hit in the right place. Besides the roundnose pellets accuracy, the domed head and heavier weight are just the right medicine for both fox squirrels and their smaller cousins the gray squirrel, which are abundant in our forest.
I find that there is ancillary gear which consistently improves my success rate. Most important is camo; in the spring I like a light weight mesh camo overall and in winter a camo jump suit and always include a face cover and gloves. I also like a compact set of binoculars for scanning the branches and shadows in the trees, I often finding a bushytail staring down on me that was missed by the naked eye. If you intend to stretch out the shooting distance a bit, a range finder can be an asset, as can a mouth blown call to coax a hesitant squirrel into view. I also throw a sharp pocket knife and some latex gloves in my pack for when cleaning time rolls around.
I have a couple of strategies for hunting squirrels; my favorite is to slowly stalk the woods and listen for chattering or scolding calls. Once I’ve pinned down the general vicinity I’ll start to slowly move towards the sound while scanning the canopy for the tell of a twitching tail. This is one of those times I find a good set of lower powered binoculars very useful in picking up a set of eyes peering down from a fork in the branches or the flicker of fur in the breeze. Another technique that has proven effective is to go out in full camo or a ghillie suit and find a mast producing tree such as walnut or hickory, and settle in for a wait. The flip side of this approach is to find a den tree or a drey and set up an ambush as the squirrels move between home and their food source. Wearing camo for a squirrel hunt may sound like overkill, but I can tell you that based on a lot of experience your success rate will take a quantum leap when you cover up. A face mask and gloves are important as these are the parts of your body that move the most. Over the last few seasons I’ve kept a 3D leafy camo poncho in my bag, which can be worn as effective camo or used to fashion a multitude of blinds…. This is a great bit of gear!
A day in the squirrel woods with an air rifle will get you tuned up for big game season and is also a great way to introduce new hunters to the sport because it combines challenge with pretty high odds for success. To carry an air rifle makes sense because it gives you more than enough accuracy and power to anchor your quarry, but because of the shooting characteristics of these guns (reduce range and noise) allows them to be used just about anywhere one might legally hunt. I enjoy this sport so much that when I score my deer, I am ready to get back on the squirrels!