In past I’ve shared several of my hunts for squirrels, which have taken place across North America. Fox and grays squirrels in the deep woods of the Midwest, and the tufted eared Abert’s squirrel in the rugged Rocky Mountain regions of the Western states. And even though these species are similar, the ways in which they are hunted can be as varied as the terrain they inhabit. As a traveling hunter, I’ve built up a repertoire of techniques that have proven useful wherever my hunts have taken me. In this blog post I’m going to share some of these tricks of the trade and discuss when and how I apply them in specific situations.
The type of squirrel suggests where you’ll find them, in much of our Midwestern woods the gray and fox squirrel overlap. In fact, a small stand of 10 acres may find an equal proportion of these two species. Both Grays and fox squirrels may be found on the ground or high in the canopy, and regardless of the species both vary the mix of ground/tree time based on season. As a rule of thumb, fox squirrels spend more time on the ground, and grays spend more time aloft. During the late spring through early fall, both spend more time in the canopy where they are feeding or cutting. There is simply little reason for them to drop to the ground, the food is up high and many (but not all) of their predators are down below.
But later in the fall through the winter and into early spring, both come down to either bury or retrieve acorns, beech, and other nuts from their food caches. I’ve noticed that in these conditions, grays tend to stay on the ground long enough to grab a nut and get back to a higher vantage point to dine in relative safety. Fox squirrels are more likely to stay on the forest floor longer, collecting multiple nuts on the ground or perching on a fallen log to eat before returning to the treetops.
As a result, the season influences my approach in the field, certain techniques work better in certain situations. In the late fall and winter when squirrels are spending more time on the ground collecting food, they are using the trees as a highway to get from their dens to their feeding areas. Because there is less foliage in the trees, it is much easier to see how and where the animals are moving. But it is a double-edged sword, as it is also easier for the squirrel to see you approaching.
In the spring through early fall, these arboreal rodents are spending more time up in the canopy and looking for cuttings raining down from above or the shaking of a clump of leafy branches is a dead giveaway to their location. And because there is so much leafy material between you and your quarry, it allows the hunter to move in closer without being detected. But again, the double-edged sword, because once you get in closer it is difficult to see the squirrel through all the vegetation, let alone get a good shot.
Still hunting is at its core, a slow walk through the woods. Done right, it is a very slow walk through the woods, punctuated by long pauses to look and listen. I’ll pick trees that are perhaps 10 yards apart and stand in a fixed spot searching the trees and ground from where I stand to perhaps 40-70 yards ahead. Slowly moving forward with frequent stops in-between, I’ll pause at the next tree and scan ahead before moving to the next landmark. I find binoculars useful for sweeping the woods, because seeing a moving squirrel or one perched out in the open is not difficult inside of 75 yards, locating one that is nestled into the fork of a tree trunk or peeking out from a pile of twigs is.
In this type of hunting, you are trying to find your quarry and get a shot while on the move. You are looking from where you stand to slightly outside of your shooting range, to ensure you don’t blunder into a squirrel as you move.
In my view, the difference between still hunting and spot and stalk, is subtle but important. In spot and stalk the hunter is scanning the woods much further out than their immediate shooting range. The intention is to locate a squirrel at some distance, then move quickly and quietly into range to take the shot. Moving through the woods in this manner requires that the hunter uses natural cover to shield their approach.
I find that when the leaves are on the trees, still hunting works better. It is more difficult to locate a squirrel high in the canopy at longer distances, and the hunter is more likely to walk up to game at close quarters. Conversely when the leaves are off the trees, and you and the squirrel can see each other from afar, sighting the squirrel before he sees you allows a considered approach using natural cover, to get into shooting position.
The tactics of setting a blind and ambush hunting are similar, but again with important differences. When setting a blind, the objective is to identify a route between a den tree or nest, and a food source. When scouting new areas, keep a look out for den trees or dreys, and for stands of mast producing trees with nut shards lying about. The hunter should keep a lookout for other animals such as deer, turkey, and woodpeckers in the area, as they utilize the same food sources. With these landmarks pinned down, the next step is to look for a place in-between where you’re likely to intercept a mobile bushytail.
When setting up a blind, locate it where there is a likelihood of intercepting multiple travel routes to ensure the effort is warranted. Even pop up blinds, or quickly constructed natural blinds, take time to set up and limit mobility. However, if you are in a high traffic area, this can be a very effective approach. I find a blind a productive technique for hunting smaller areas with less dispersed populations.
However, applying the same basic principles to ambush hunting is generally more practical in the areas I hunt. You still want to locate the traffic routes, but rather than setting up a blind the hunter relies in camouflage. To do this well, you need to be well covered with an appropriate camo pattern, you need to keep your hands and face covered, and you need to be very still. This sounds simple, but sitting on hard, cold, and sometimes wet ground for 30-40 minutes without moving can be a challenge. Once finding a likely spot, try to stay put for 20-30 minutes before moving on. The main advantage of this technique is that the hunter can be mobile and cover large areas of terrain. Any of these techniques requires that the hunter has their shooting dialed in for both ground shots and those elevated shots up into the trees. I started hunting squirrels with many years of big game, predator, and small game experience behind me, but was unskilled at shooting quarry that lived high up in the trees! This is a skill that an effective squirrel hunter must practice and become proficient at. Though I didn’t cover the use of calls in this article, my experience has been that calling works at specific times and in specific situations. We don’t have time to cover this topic in the detail it requires, but that might be an interesting topic in future, what do you think?