Learn various methods of hunting squirrels, where to look for them, and tips for spotting a bushytail hidden in a tree
There are many advantages to coming from a hunting family. I have grown to appreciate the early wake-up calls that ensured we were in the timber before the sun came up. I miss the breakfasts of fried squirrel with biscuits and gravy that my Grandma made when we returned from a successful hunt. Dad and Uncle Steve knew the farm like the back of their hands and always knew the best place to set up. Grandpa had a reputation of being the best shot and one of the most serious hunters in the area. They needed the meat in a way that most people today don’t understand and their stories of hunts were passed down as oral tradition. Our family has been passing down the practice of squirrel hunting for as long as anyone knows, I suspect back to when our ancestors began making a living off the land here in America.
Squirrel hunting—real squirrel hunting where you pursue wary game in the wild—will make you a better hunter. Every year as squirrel seasons open across the country, you will see a flurry of articles about that fact, but they rarely delve deeper, usually because they’re not written by squirrel hunters. It’s a myth that squirrel hunting is only good for practice for other kinds of hunting. Squirrel hunting, in and of itself, is a worthwhile pursuit for any hunter.
I know what squirrels are eating, when they are breeding, when they have young, when their young emerge from the nest, and when they disperse from their home area to establish new territories. All of this came from the experience of being in the woods for decades, often up to eight months per year. Hunting provides perspectives and insights into the natural world like no other activity does.
Where to look for squirrels
A promising place to hunt will have a diverse assortment of trees with a variety of hard and soft mast-producing plants. Search the ground, logs, stumps, and rocks for cuttings where a squirrel has shredded the hull of nuts or cones to get at the edible parts. In places like Virginia, with trees such as tulip poplars, you may even notice limbs with stripped bark hanging down. This is evidence of females peeling the bark to line their nests.
Understanding squirrel food sources
Squirrels eat hundreds of kinds of plants but are dependent on nuts. Their foods are available seasonally, which affects the types of forest you will want to target throughout the year. In the early spring, squirrels feed on the buds of river birch. This was historically an important time to hunt because the young animals were highly prized. Most modern season regulations miss this opportunity, so the real focus comes on mulberries for places like Missouri with an opening date in May.
The succession of the squirrel diet generally follows to pine cones, then to hickory nuts in late summer, and finally to the widely-known acorns and beech nuts in the fall. There is some variability in this based on availability, but acorns in the white oak group tend to be eaten fresh while those in the red oak group get stored due to their higher tannin content, which makes them less palatable but better for keeping. Many times I have seen a squirrel on a knob, in the bitter cold with the wind blowing its tail across its back, gnawing through the thick shell of a walnut when little else is available in winter.
If obvious foods have been exhausted, hunt timber and hedgerows around row crop fields. The squirrels will venture out into the open to search for waste grain.
Listen for squirrels to pinpoint their location
As females (sows) begin raising young, they will not tolerate males (boars) in their den. I have seen a boar run out of a hole by a sow after a heated chattering inside which sent him careening back to the outside! It might be home base, but not for him.
Listen for the tell-tale barking to pinpoint the location of a squirrel. The crunching sound of cutting and hulls raining down will help you find animals among the leaves when hickories or pecans are in season. Scuffling among littermates, rustling leaves on the ground, and even claws scurrying around on the bark of a tree trunk are all signs to be aware of to locate and slip up on a squirrel.
Methods of squirrel hunting without a dog
Still hunting techniques
There are two main ways to squirrel hunt: still hunting and stand hunting. Still hunting refers to a stalk with periodic pauses. The idea is to walk slowly while you scan the forest for squirrels. If possible, keep the sun at your back to increase your own visibility while making it harder to be spotted.
Your movements must be drawn out to the point of exaggeration. No reaching up quickly to slap a mosquito on your face, rather you must gradually draw your hand near the spot and press the offender with your fingers. It’s like that with every action. Squirrels are highly dependent on visual cues. Ever watch a squirrel barking at you or at a predator? The flicking tail serves as a warning flag, identifying danger to others in the area.
Stepping on a stick while still hunting is a major mistake because the crack will be heard at an amazing distance and will send squirrels into “another county.” Some of the most stern looks I ever received in my life were from older hunters if I wasn’t watching where I stepped. To better reduce your noise, walk heel-toe but roll your steps from the outside of your foot in toward the ball. Slow down and move with intention. Once you are able to move a few steps, pause and scan the treetops, watching for movement.
In a party of two people, it’s a good idea to walk single file but spaced a bit apart so that as one person passes a tree, the second is in good position to notice a squirrel attempting to conceal itself from the first. If you have a group of people, it is best to walk abreast within sight of one another, which serves the same benefit by expanding your view of the woods. Move from one spot to another every few minutes in a repeated starting-and-stopping pattern.
Stand hunting techniques
Stand hunting refers to taking a fixed position for a period of time. Select your stand (a spot where you post up, not an elevated seat like a deer stand) based on locating a patch of trees with potential to offer a good sight line for shooting, the presence of a natural food source, perhaps a den tree with freshly chewed entrance, or a fluffy, new leaf nest. Over time you will begin to get a sense of whether a nest is active or old and no longer in use.
I tend to prefer a spot on a ridge where I can overlook a creek bottom with some combination of the hill, a big rock, or large tree at my back. This breaks up your outline but is also an important safety consideration, particularly if you prefer camouflage clothing to blaze orange.
If you are used to hunting deer or turkeys from the ground, a lot of the same principles apply. Some folks make use of blinds for squirrel hunting, but most don’t. Arrive at your spot either right before dawn or around 2:00 pm for an evening hunt (especially in the shorter days of winter). Dawn and dusk are the optimal times. Sit down and get comfortable in a position where you can remain motionless for as long as you can tolerate. Clean fallen leaves away from your feet to avoid rustling if you shift positions. Sit on a log or carry a compact, comfortable stool or seat pad with you.
Stay there in your spot for 45 minutes to an hour. When you think you’re ready to move, wait five more minutes. If there is no sign of squirrels after that, get up and try another location. Once you move and get settled again, birds will begin stirring after about 15 minutes. Start timing your hour again.
If a squirrel appears, wait briefly to see if others make themselves known. After making sure the shot is one you can make with a good backstop, aim and squeeze the trigger. DO NOT rush over to pick up your prize. Mark its whereabouts in your mind and remain frozen. Slowly lower your gun if you do not immediately see any other squirrels and continue to blend into your surroundings. Visualize yourself melting back into the ground or tree you are leaning against. If at any time you need to talk to another hunter, whisper.
If you are watching a squirrel-magnet like a mulberry tree with ripe berries or a group of males chasing a female during the breeding season, you will eventually find yourself in a situation where you have multiple squirrels in a tree. Start at the bottom of the tree, shooting the lower squirrel first and work your way up. Keep track of where they all drop so you can pick them up when you’re ready. I have killed a limit of squirrels out of a single mulberry tree more than once.
Tips for spotting squirrels in a tree
A common mistake hunters make is trying to spot the entire squirrel. You are looking for a part of the critter: an ear sticking up from a branch, a tail hanging down off a limb, or their furry back in the fork of a tree. You will often see a quick flash of movement or something that does not match what the rest of the area is doing in the wind. Take notice of anything out of place like a knot or dark spot among foliage at the top of a tree. I have seen squirrels pull leaves around their bodies to conceal themselves.
There are major behavioral differences between species and between old and young squirrels. Old squirrels are more prone to running through the treetops and will not stop until they reach the safety of a den or nest. Young fox squirrels are known for heading to the top of a short tree and staring at you, while gray squirrels tend to run more than their larger counterparts that spend more time on the ground. Educated, mature, squirrels that have seen significant hunting pressure will be as wild as a covey of quail, scampering in all directions to evade you.
When to hunt squirrels
Light rain is the time to go for a hunt because squirrel activity really picks up. It also makes it easier to locate them as they jump from one branch laden with wet leaves to another. It makes an obvious shaking noise. The wet leaves on the ground are less crunchy under your feet than on a dry day. Skip an outing if there is ice on tree limbs or there is a dense fog. Wait and go a little later after the ice melts in the sun or the fog burns off.
The main times of squirrel movement are morning and evening. If they move a lot during one period, they will be less active during the following period, so patterning squirrels in your area is helpful. Do not rely on what the yard squirrels are doing in town, because it won’t accurately reflect what the wild squirrels are doing.
A bright moon the night before you want to hunt could spell disaster because the animals were likely out feeding late the period before you want to go. High wind is also bad for a squirrel hunt. You can’t hear as well and the entire woods are filled with erratic movement.
Squirrels do not hibernate but they will lay up for extended periods during bad weather. However, be assured that they have to eat and will be coming back out for you to find. Any time when it’s calm and the sun is out, regardless of temperature, is worth a try.
Perhaps the hardest part of squirrel hunting is describing where a hiding squirrel is to someone else! The effort of entering a stand of trees to chase bushytails will be rewarded with the opportunity to spend valuable time out in nature and, hopefully, some high-quality eating.
Marc Gray has been hunting squirrels for nearly 30 years with his Dad and other members of the the Gray family. He grew up in Central Virginia and has family in North Central Missouri where he also hunts regularly. His nationally-known line of squirrel dog founded in 2005, Gray’s Mountain Feist, is in its seventh generation and has hunters in more than 20 states enjoying the strain. Since 2913, he and wife, Jess, have produced two dvd videos showcasing their dogs hunting across the country. Gray is a 2006 graduate of Unity College in Maine with a Bachelor’s in Wildlife Conservation. In 2009, he completed his Master’s in Wildlife Science at South Dakota State University. Marc works internationally on advancing conservation of natural resources, notably pollinators, most recently. @GrayFeist on Twitter & Gray’s Mountain Feist https://www.facebook.com/grayfeist/