More than 20 years ago, when Tim Lemon first went to work as a wildlife enforcement officer for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, squirrel hunting was a big deal.
“At one time, there weren’t as many deer, and everybody went squirrel hunting,” said Lemon, now a hunter-safety coordinator for the WRC in northwest North Carolina. “Back then, it was a big deal to catch an out-of-season squirrel hunter.” “Back then” – before every corner of North Carolina was full of whitetail deer — gray squirrels were one of the most highly sought-after game animals, with farm kids and their fathers eagerly anticipating the mid-October season opener. Even when deer started to flourish — but before bow hunting became almost the rule instead of the exception — October became a great way to “kill two squirrels” with one stone, that is, hunt for squirrels while scouting deer turf. But somewhere in the late 1980s, the number of squirrel hunters started to decline, replaced by the deer as the Tar Heel state’s most-popular game animal. However, about that time Gray Bullins actually killed his first squirrel. “I guess I was eight or nine — small enough for a 20-gauge shotgun to knock me down,” said Bullins, a millwright from the Stokes County town of Walnut Cove who hasn’t missed a squirrel season since he knocked their first animal off a tree limb. “I was hooked for life,” he said. “I deer hunt, but I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as squirrel hunting.” These days, with the season scheduled to end Jan. 31, Bullins squeezes in at least a day or two of squirrel hunting every week, even if he’s got to rush home after work to get in 30 minutes or an hour before dark. He figures he averages killing about two or three squirrels per trip, and even though he hasn’t killed a daily limit of eight, he typically approaches his season limit of 75. “It’s tougher after the (deer) season goes out (in mid-December) because all the leaves are off the trees and any movement you make, they can see it,” he said. “A lot of people will use a squirrel dog, like a feist, but I still spot and stalk. I sit out there and snipe at ’em.” Bullins said staying still, moving very slowly and less often, are the primary differences between early-season and January squirrel hunting. When the season opens during mid-October, enough leaves remain the trees that hunters can locate squirrels by their barking, the noise them make scampering across the bark on tree trunks and limbs, or their rattling in the leaves. At that point, Bullins said stalking squirrels is much more effective, easing through the trees to within range of the animal, with his movements screened by the leaves. “Early in the season, when there are still leaves on the trees, you can hear ’em bark and ease through the trees to ’em,” Bullins said. “Sometimes, you’re shot will be pretty long. I killed one that it took me 30 minutes to slip up on and get a shot. “Squirrels will stay in the same places the whole season.” Bullins said their typical fall range will encompass areas of woods where mast-producing trees such as oaks, hickories and beeches are littering the forest floor with their plenty. “They won’t change location much,” he said. “And there as many squirrels out in January as early on. They don’t really (hibernate) until February, after the season is over. “I hunt mornings more often late in the season, after the (daylight saving) time changes, when it gets dark earlier. It doesn’t leave much time in the afternoon when I get off at four and I’m not ready to go until five, when it gets dark at 5:30. “But I’ve had good luck in the mornings and afternoons. You just try to catch ’em when they’re out there.” Bullins normally doesn’t expect to find squirrels out and on the move at the crack of dawn. When he hunts mornings, he sets 8 a.m. as his time to be in the woods. “I’ll ease in and move from tree to tree, just work my way through the woods,” he said. “I’ll find an old hickory tree that’s putting out nuts and sit down and wait for ’em. They’ll come out and come to me when they get hungry.” Typically, Bullins will sit up against a tree trunk for about 30 minutes before moving to new territory. He tries to pick a spot in a grove of mast-producing oaks, hickories or beeches because there’s no stalking or slipping through the woods. Like sitting in a deer stand, it’s a matter of staying quiet and still in a good area and waiting for the game to approach. “I’ll sit 30 or 35 minutes at every tree; I’ll stay until I get tired of sitting,” he said. “I’ve killed them sitting in white oaks — I’ve even killed one this season in a pine. “When I get a decent shot, I take it. And I try to shoot ’em on the ground because with a rifle, you know where the bullet is going.” Although Bullins killed his first squirrel with a 20-gauge shotgun, he does all of his hunting now with a .22 Savage Mark II rifle topped with a 4x28 Leopold rim-fire scope. He likes to shoot CCI Stinger hollow-point bullets, which pack a punch at 1,640 foot-per-second muzzle velocity. “That’s why you have to shoot ’em in the head; if you shoot ’em in the body, that’s a big hole,” he said. “Most of my shots come at about 30 yards. “Really, shooting them in the head, you’re shooting at something about the size of an egg. I’ve shot ’em with open sights, but that’s where the scope really helps. Squirrel hunting will really help your marksmanship.” Because that kind of crack-shot accuracy is needed to fill his game bag, Bullins never takes a shot at a running squirrel — the kind of shot that a hunter carrying a 20-gauge could make day-in and day-out. Instead, he’s got to wait for a squirrel to become extremely still, and that takes a great deal of patience and woodsmanship. “They’ll jump around a lot; they’re hunting for something,” he said. “You’ve just got to get on ’em and wait for ’em to stop. A lot of the time they’ll stop on a limb that’s on the ground, or on a stump, so you’re shooting about waist high. “There are people who can whistle a squirrel and stop him, but that’s way beyond my level.” Bullins said the weather can either help him or hurt him. “If it’s real dry and the leaves are dry, you’ll really have to sit and wait,” he said.”After a rain, you can move around easier, but you can’t hear them as easy. “There’s no use going if it’s windy because you can’t hear them coming through the trees.” There’s one situation that gives Bullins a lot of good daydreams — a block of hardwoods close to a cornfield. “If you’re hunting around a cornfield, there’ll be plenty of squirrels,” he said. “They’re almost like deer; they’ll come to corn every day. “What you do is just get around the fields before they come out. You hunt just inside the edge of the woods around the cornfield, and they’ll come out of the trees and go right there.” Bullins has only to pick a likely spot, sit down and pick the squirrels off as they make their way from the woods to the field. When he’s squirrel hunting, Bullins normally wears a camouflage coat, a blaze-orange cap (to fulfill hunter-safety requirements) and a pair of jeans or work pants. He feels like staying still is as important at keeping squirrels from spotting him as being totally camouflaged. “Sometimes I think they can see your orange, even though the scientists say they can’t,” he said. “Mostly, you wear it to keep someone else from shooting you.” Bullins believes part of the decline in numbers of squirrel hunters as to do with people switching over to deer hunting as that population exploded. Part of it, he believes, is people aren’t as apt to spend the time and trouble it takes to kill — and clean — enough animals to make a good meal. And, he said, kids aren’t starting out hunting squirrels they way they did 20 or 30 years ago. “They’re not doing as much hunting at all,” he said. “They’re playing video games.” But those kids haven’t had anyone make squirrels for them the way Bullins’ grandmother has for him. Her recipe is fairly simple: cut a squirrel into six pieces — all four legs and two pieces from the ribs — boil them until the meat is tender, then roll them in flour, salt and pepper and fry in a skillet or frying pan. Wildlife biologists say hunting pressure has no appreciable affect on squirrel populations. The driving factor is the quality of the mast crop in a particular season. If there are plenty of acorns, hickory nuts and beech nuts this fall, squirrels will bear and raise larger litters the following spring, putting an awful lot of squirrels in the woods when the season opens. In years where with a general mast failure, squirrel reproduction takes a big hit. Terry Sharpe, the long-time small-game expert for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (he retired in December), said squirrel populations have been basically stable for years. “They don’t respond to the same factors — whatever they are — that quail and rabbits do,” Sharpe said. “The squirrel population is, generally, good. “The state of the annual mast crop affects reproduction the following spring. In the years following good acorn crops, you have good hunting; in the years following mast failures, there aren’t a lot of squirrels in the woods.” Sharpe said squirrels will switch off from one food to another as they become available. Hickory nuts generally fall in September followed by beech nuts. White-oak acorns and red-oak acorns follow in October; Sharpe said squirrels will eat white-oak acorns first. “They’ll also eat pine burrs early in the fall, and their fourth main food is mushrooms and fungi,” he said. As far as hunting at public or private game lands, biologists recommend searching for the oldest timber at any tract. Sections of timber at national forests such as the Nantahala, Pisgah, Uwharrie and Croatan have been thinned or even clear-cut and replanted. The oldest sections, some of which haven’t been logged in 75 or 80 years, probably have the largest and best mast-producing trees, whether they’re oaks, hickories or beeches.