They may be small, but squirrels are one of the most exciting small game animals you can hunt. With their unpredictable movements and gigantic leaps through the tree canopies, squirrel hunting offers a challenge for both beginners and seasoned hunters. Squirrel hunting is both challenging and fun. It’s a great sport to introduce to friends and family. The added plus is you can enjoy a tasty meal at the end of the day.
If you are new to squirrel hunting, there are a few things you need to know before you start. Here is our complete guide to squirrel hunting, along with a few tips to boost your chances of bagging your first squirrel.
How to Hunt Squirrels Legally
The legal right to hunt squirrels is determined on a state level, as with most hunting laws, which means you should consult your State Parks Department about which license you need. Some species of squirrel, such as red squirrels in New York, are not protected, so no license is necessary. However, for other species, you may need to obtain a small game or furbearers license before heading out on your hunting trip.
The criteria for obtaining a permit vary from state to state and may limit you to a specific location, season or date. Many states and provinces allow you to hunt squirrels on state-owned park grounds. However, if you are hunting on private property, you may also need to obtain permission from the owner.
Where to Go Squirrel Hunting
Squirrels are tree-dwellers that populate almost all areas of the continental United States. They occupy areas where food is abundant, such as densely wooded forests composed of hardwood trees such as ash, oak and hickory. You don’t need a food plot or corn feeder for squirrels. Red squirrels, fox squirrels and gray squirrels are all on a quest for the acorns from these trees.
One of the best locations for squirrel hunting is close to water because trees growing alongside a water source are more likely to have the largest fruit and acorns. Squirrel hunters should have knee boots or hip waders if hunting near a water source. Look for unmistakable signs of squirrel activity, such as broken acorns, nuts and bark scattered on the ground underneath the trees.
When to Hunt Squirrels
The best time of year for squirrel hunting is early- to mid-fall as they begin to stockpile food for the winter. Bushytails are most active early in the day as they scavenge for food, with a lull in activity during the warmest part of the day. You may also find them foraging in the early afternoon right up until dusk.
Of course, this can vary depending on the species. For example, gray squirrels begin foraging before the sun comes up. Whereas, if you are hunting fox squirrels, they are most active between the second and fourth hours after dawn.
Red, gray and fox squirrels all have a preference for clear, sunny weather, which is when they will spend most of their time in the treetops. If you want to catch bushytails on the ground, wait until there is a little fog or a slight drizzle, as they use the elements for protection and keep close to the base of the trees.
Choosing a Weapon
The right weapon choice can make the difference between a successful hunt and going home empty-handed. Some of the best options include:
Due to the large spread of a shotgun shell, you have a greater chance of hitting your target without damaging the meat, making them the right choice for beginners. You can further minimize the damage to your target by choosing the right shotgun. Youngsters prefer the light recoil of a .410-gauge shotgun with a short barrel. It is easy to carry and has a light recoil. If you choose to use a 20- or 12-gauge shotgun, use the lightest load you can buy. Even then, be prepared to spend some time picking pellets out of the meat.
Another benefit to using a shotgun is that it is a safer option if you are hunting in a semi-populated area, as the shot is not lethal over a long distance. The main downside to using a shotgun is the noise that follows the shot, which is likely to scare away any other squirrels hiding nearby.
.22 Caliber Rifle
The preferred weapon for most experienced squirrel hunters is the .22 caliber rifle. It is more accurate than a shotgun, allowing for precision kill shots that keep the meat intact. It also offers more of a challenge for hunters looking to keep their skills honed before deer season kicks off. Aim for the head, when possible, to preserve the hide and meat. The ammo for a .22 is about half that of shotgun shells. Good to know if you have a young hunter not afraid to pull the trigger.
Hunters aren’t limited to firearms when it comes to bagging squirrels. An accomplished bow hunter may want to test their skills by using archery equipment to bag bushytails. However, be prepared for a test of your aim and accuracy, as squirrels are less than a foot long and are frequently on the move. Because squirrels are on a never-ending search for acorns, it is difficult to use single-pin sights to hunt squirrels. They are not stationary long enough to dial up the right distance. Instead, use fixed pins and a good range finder. The difficulty factor will still be high, but you have a fighting chance with fixed pins.
Use a broadhead that is specifically designed for small game, as larger broadheads will obliterate the meat. You may also need to modify where you shoot the squirrel, as you are more likely to pin the animal to the tree and spend most of your time retrieving it.
Tracking and Stalking: Squirrel Hunting Tips
There are two techniques to hunt squirrels: passive and active. Passive hunting involves finding a location and waiting for your prey to come to you, while active hunting involves stalking squirrels through the woods. Both methods are equally effective for bagging squirrels, but, to increase your chances of success, there are a few tips to follow.
Hunting squirrels is all about patience. Don’t try to shoot at a moving target. Wait until the squirrel stops before aiming. Even then, be mindful of what’s behind your target before you pull the trigger.
Wear Camouflage Clothing
Neutral or camouflage gear can help make you less noticeable to your prey, giving you the element of surprise. However, be aware that some parks require squirrel hunters to wear high-visibility orange vests for safety. It’s cheaper to check the regulations than to pay the fine.
Carry small rocks in your pocket. If you spot a squirrel behind a tree, toss a rock toward it to send it scurrying. It’s not uncommon to have squirrels you haven’t noticed buzzing around when you throw your rock. Make sure you are ready to take the shot, as these agile creatures can disappear up into the canopy quickly.
Squirrels are skittish by nature, and loud noises send them scurrying back to their nests. Tread carefully so as not to step on sticks and make too much noise. Squirrel hunting is great practice for hunters who like spot-and-stalk deer. Noise discipline is as important to a squirrel hunter as it is to a deer hunter.
Listen and Look
You will need to use your ears more than your eyes when squirrel hunting. As many deer hunters know, squirrels make distinctive sounds. These patterns are easy to hear in a quiet environment, such as chattering, scratching and the sound of debris tumbling to the forest floor.
Use the Sun’s Position
Keep the sun to your back to make it more difficult for the squirrel to spot you. Sit or stand against a tree with the sun behind your shoulders. This also makes it easier for you to place an accurate shot without the sun in your eyes.
Hunting with Dogs
A guaranteed way to locate squirrels fast is with squirrel-hunting dogs. A good squirrel dog will creep along the forest floor while tracking the squirrel, and then signal you with a bark once the squirrel is treed. They often see squirrels jumping tree to tree well before the squirrel hunter does.
Training a squirrel dog can be tricky, but some breeds have a natural aptitude for hunting small game. The best dog breed for squirrel hunting is the Mountain Cur. Feists (similar to terriers) and hounds also possess good treeing instincts.
Whether you enjoy squirrel hunting to hone your skills for larger game or simply enjoy the thrill of the chase with these unpredictable creatures, hunting these small game animals is a blast. It’s fun for young hunters, beginning hunters and seasoned hunters. It’s also an excellent way to practice woodsmanship and help to manage squirrel populations in the U.S.
Ultimately, the success of your hunt comes down to practice and experience. So, get out on the squirrel trail as often as you can during hunting season.