How soon we forget! Three generations ago, when both deer and turkeys were scarce as hen’s teeth, squirrel hunting was the top-rated sport in terms of hunter participation in South Carolina and across the South.
That popularity was amply justified. Most years, and especially after a couple of solid mast crops, bushytails were plentiful. Moreover, they made mighty fine table fare, presented a meaningful sporting challenge, and offered as fine a sporting apprenticeship as one could possibly need.
Today, that has changed and changed dramatically. Yet the factors that once made squirrel hunting so appealing remain in place, and in South Carolina, it is worth noting that the treetop tricksters offer a full two months of hunting opportunity after another deer season has come and gone. The season, which opens Oct. 1, doesn’t close until March 1. The daily bag limit is 10.
There are three basic ways to hunt squirrels; each has its own special appeal. These are still-hunting — and in the case of squirrels this literally means play a “wait ’em out” game rather than slipping through the woods as in still-hunting deer — stalking and using dogs. What follows is a closer look at the techniques associated with each of these three faces of the sport.
Once the leaves were off the trees, still-hunting was the way most experienced hunters dealt with bushytails back when they were hunted in a serious fashion.
Seasoned hands would look for a den tree, a number of recently constructed nests concentrated in a small area, or abundant indications of recent cutting on oak, hickory, beech, or black walnut mast. They would then set up shop on a handy stump, fallen log, or at the base of a tree. The latter was favored by many simply because it provided a convenient prop for steadying a .22 rifle.
A .22 (or other rimfires such as the new, popular .17 caliber from Remington and other gunmakers) is preferable for still-hunting, at least in part because it makes much less noise. You can topple a squirrel or two from a tree or take them while feeding on the ground and make relatively little noise, whereas the roar of a shotgun will close down everything in the immediate area for 15 to 30 minutes.
Once comfortably settled in place, it is important to keep still and make as little noise as possible. In that regard, it is a good idea — when conditions are dry — to clear the leaves out from around your feet. This allows you, silently, to adjust your position or move a leg that’s threatening to cramp.
In situations where you know there are a number of squirrels available, hold off shooting until you have spotted three or four out actively feeding or moving. That way, you are more likely to have the opportunity for multiple shots after the first trigger squeeze. Also, pay careful attention to treetop hiding places such as larger limbs running more or less parallel to the ground, tree forks, or small limbs that provide a convenient perch tight against the trunk.
When it comes to den trees, they tend to be used year after year, and there will be telltale signs such as slick entrances into knot holes and bushytails heading home in the gloaming of a winter’s evening. These trees are also a source of refuge when squirrels are disturbed by a hunter or something else, and often you will hear a chirring sound from squirrels as they enter hollows.
A single den tree will often hold several bushytails, and that’s another reason to keep a keen eye out for such places and use them in your hunts year after year.
Hunting squirrels on the move, whether you describe it as stalking or in the terms my Grandpa Joe loved to use — “sneakin’ and peekin’” — brings woodsmanship skills into full play. This approach is pretty much a non-starter in the latter part of the season when the forest floor is dry. You simply make too much noise to expect to get within shooting range of a bushytail undetected.
Early in the season, however, when leaves are still on trees and squirrels are feeding in the trees rather than on the ground, it’s a great technique. Foliage helps hide your approach, shaking limbs and dropping nut cuttings send signals about the squirrels’ location, and if you watch your step and ease carefully within shooting range, it is often possible to reach that point without alerting your prey.
This type of hunting is also feasible late in the season after a soaking rain has left the forest floor wet. It is then possible to creep along almost silently, taking care to avoid stepping on sticks and doing at least as much looking as you do moving. One big difference from early season is a longer sight distance, but that’s both a plus and a minus. Squirrels can see you at a greater distance, but the same holds true for you, and a .22 with its added range comes into play after leaf fall. Early in the season, you will be more successful with a shotgun.
Either way, stalking lets you cover considerable ground, take the action to the squirrels, and is definitely preferable to sitting still when the weather is quite cold. Should you come to an area where ample sign tells you this is a hotspot — or you see squirrels without getting shots — it is always possible to switch to still-hunting. Just find a good spot and wait them out; usually, squirrels will resume normal activity within a half hour of having been disturbed.
Hunting with dogs
For flat-out fun, predictable action, the likelihood of a hefty game bag and sporting camaraderie, it is hard to beat taking to the woods with a good squirrel dog. This is particularly true later in the season, when a staunch canine companion can utilize not only his sense of smell but his vision to the fullest advantage.
Good squirrel dogs come in many forms and breeds, from the old-fashioned “meat dog” with distinctly uncertain lineage, to mountain curs or feists (sometimes spelled fice or fyce). A good squirrel dog trails silently, then barks when it trees. Hunting with a dog is best done with at least two people, and if one carries a rifle and the other a shotgun, you’ve got the bases covered.
Sometimes, a squirrel will take refuge high up in a tree, showing only a tiny target area; that’s the place for a .22 to be put into action. Other times, the bushytail will suddenly remember urgent business half a county away and take the treetops express route to get there. Then is when a shotgun comes in mighty handy.
The ideal squirrel dog is one which hunts fairly close. Even then, you are going to cover quite a bit of ground, and chasing after a dog that persists in barking “treed” a quarter-mile away can get tiring in a hurry. A good canine partner works the woods well rather than ranging over too wide an area, and such a dog will quite often tree several squirrels in one small patch of woods.
One of the beauties of hunting with dogs is the time clock punched with this technique. There’s no need to be in the woods at the crack of dawn. Instead, wait until mid-morning (or mid-afternoon) when bushytails are most likely to be out and about the business of feeding late in the season. Incidentally, this is primarily a late-season sport, since squirrel dogs need for the animals to be feeding on the ground in order to pick up scent. Damp days, whether after a rainfall or maybe a heavy frost that melts in the sun, are ideal. This is doubly true if the weather is settled with little or no wind.
Follow an eager, capable squirrel dog for a few hours, and chances are you will smile a lot, frown a little at “false treeing” or one that ran in a hole, and shoot a good bit. Where squirrels are plentiful and the conditions right, there’s no greater fun or finer way to bag a bunch of bushytails.
Try any or all of these approaches to a great hunting tradition. You will be walking squarely along a path that runs as a bright fabric through this country’s sporting history. It’s also a great way to extend your hunting season, master woodscraft skills, or introduce a youngster to sport. Each of squirrel hunting’s three faces has its special appeal, and collectively they offer the potential for some five months of Palmetto pleasure.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has written or edited more than 30 books on the outdoors. To learn more about these, or to subscribe to his free monthly e-newsletter, visit his website at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com.