Many people believe squirrel hunting is a kids sport. It’s even a lot of people’s first hunting experience. But if you go about it correctly it can be an adult’s hunt as well. No more plinking off one or two shabby little squirrels with your pellet gun or slingshot. We’re talking adult hunting here. Hunting for meat, for sustenance. Hunting to be a provider.
Some kind of squirrel species can be found in almost every state in the US. Most species only average about a pound for an adult squirrel. Don’t be intimidated by their diminutive size though, they are plentiful and easily plucked from the treetops by the bunch if you know what you’re doing.
One of the best things about squirrels is that the meat is mild and tasty. Once you get past the fact you’re pretty much eating a tree rat, you’ll be surprised to find the taste and texture quite similar to chicken or pork (depending on who you ask).
That means it's a great transitional meat for people wanting to switch over to the more natural way of getting their protein. It also means if you can toss the meat from a couple squirrels in the stew pot and some of the more picky eaters in the family will be none the wiser.
Although there are several different species of squirrels in the US, for this article we will focus primarily on the two most popular species: Eastern Gray and Fox squirrels. If you don’t have either of the two squirrels in your neck of the woods don’t fret, most of these tips and techniques can be used on just about any kind of tree-dwelling squirrel.
Habitat & Distribution
The majority of squirrels (excluding ground squirrels of course) spend most of their lives in trees. Depending on which species you’re hunting depends on what trees they dwell in.
The Eastern Gray prefers hardwood forests with a good supply of nut-bearing trees such as oaks and hickories. The red squirrel, on the other hand, prefers coniferous and mixed forests where the pine nuts are plentiful.
The humble fox squirrel, on the other hand, prefers stips of sparse forest and forest edges of mixed hardwoods that are located in or around agricultural areas.
Although there is some kind of squirrel species in every part of the US, not all squirrel species are in all parts. The majority of the squirrel populations lie along the eastern coast and the northern areas. If you live in the western states there are still plenty of good squirrels to hunt such as the Western Gray squirrel and the Douglas squirrel.
Finding squirrels isn’t hard if you know the areas. Find the nuts, find the squirrels.
Squirrels feed almost exclusively on nuts. They also eat mushrooms, berries, seeds, catkins, and buds. But for the majority of squirrels, the nut is king. Hard mast (tree nuts and seeds) is so important that it will directly affect squirrel populations from year to year.
On a high mast year, squirrel populations are way up, while on the other hand during low mast years they are down. While soft mast (tree fruits and buds) is another food source for most squirrels, it doesn’t affect their populations the way hard mast does.
Now you may be asking “how can one food source out of many affect populations so much?”.
The main reason for that is simple: squirrels are hoarders.
They scatter-hoard stashes of nuts hidden all over their territories. This provides them a staple supply of protein and fats throughout the year. Many times in spring before any of the buds or flowers are popping up you can find small holes dug into loose or soft ground.
This is where the squirrels are digging up their nut stashes from the previous year. These stashes usually aren’t too far from a good nut-bearing tree.
-Feeding - Gray squirrels feed for a few hours in the morning, and then again in the afternoon. Unlike the gray squirrel, the fox squirrel feeds primarily in the afternoon and very seldomly in the morning.
-Social life - Fox squirrels are a solitary animal. They will oftentimes chase other squirrels off their territories and offer warning calls by “chattering” angrily. This makes it possible to call them in by imitating a rogue squirrel on its territory.
A “cutting” call is great for this. Gray squirrels aren’t as aggressive as fox squirrels and tend to avoid confrontation. This means calling them in can be more difficult as they may just stay out of another squirrels way. They are very vocal though and makes using a locator call extremely effective. Although squirrels tend to spend a lot of time alone, in cold winter months squirrels must share nests for warmth.
Gear & Materials
Squirrel is one of the cheapest creatures to hunt out there. You can use a shotgun if you’re not the best aim in the world, but most people tend to stick with the trusty .22.
Cheap, effective, and no worries of chomping down on shotgun pellets. There are other things that aid in making a squirrel hunt more effective and efficient, but their necessity is debatable at best.
-Shotgun or .22 - A great upside about hunting squirrel is they are incredibly easy to dispatch. You can use a 12ga, a 20ga, .410, or even my choice weapon, .22lr. If you have a shotgun or old .22 lying around you already have a choice squirrel hunting gun at your fingertips.
-Ammo - If you plan on using a shotgun stick to the smaller loads such as #6 and #5. If you are planning to use your trusty ol’ .22 you still have a couple of options. You can go for standard velocity or you can sneak in with some quiet shots.
These little guys clock in at 710 fps and are propelled pretty much on primer alone. This slow speed doesn’t allow them to break the sound barrier and create that loud resounding boom of a normal powder charged round.
The downside is their effective killing range is reduced to about 50 or so yards. Lucky for us, the majority of most squirrel kills happen within the 50yd range. The other downside to the quiet rounds is that they aren’t quite strong enough to cycle a semi-auto rifle.
This means they are best suited for single shots, lever, and bolt actions. I fire mine just fine in my marlin which is a semi-auto, but i have to manually cycle the action after each shot.
-Blind - This bit of gear is completely optional for this hunt. Many people will simply carry a piece of camo mesh or netting and set it up from area to area. A traditional pop-up style blind may be a bit too cumbersome depending on your style of squirrel hunting.
-Camo - Squirrels have great eyesight for spotting potential predators. Good camo or at least good concealment is a must. Obviously you want to pair the proper camo with the appropriate squirrel habitat, but honestly, as long as you sit still and break up your figure with good cover and hide your glaring skin you should be fine.
-Calls - There are actually a few squirrel calls on the market. Some that bark, some that make cutting sounds (the sound feeding squirrels make when cracking into a nut), and there are even distress calls.
From time to time you can call in a squirrel with a call (usually out of territorial disputes), but most of the time a squirrel call will simply be a locator. If you use a barking call, other squirrels will bark or chirp back and let you know they are in the area.
These calls aren’t entirely necessary if you know where to look for squirrels, but they do help out quite a bit in an unfamiliar area. You can even make your own “cutting” or feeding squirrel call with two quarters. You simply turn one quarter on its side and rub the ridges that go around the edges of the two quarters together. When done slowly this sounds a lot like a squirrel cutting.
Hunting squirrels and hunting deer actually have a lot in common. If you take away the fact the the deer are on the ground while you’re in a tree vs the squirrels in a tree while you’re on the ground, the principals are similar.
-Stalking - Stalking squirrels is pretty similar to stalking any other game. You walk a bit, call, listen for a response. Depending on if you heard a response or not you can either hunker down and wait for the squirrel to show itself or move on to the next potential area and give it another go.
-Waiting - This is a pretty straight forward method. Find an active squirrel area by scouting out some food sources or active squirrel nests and plop down with your back against a tree and start scanning the canopies for movement. This method pays off to scout ahead of time or have a good understanding of where the hard mast (nut bearing) trees are in the area. Especially white oak. That is a favorite among many animals including both deer and squirrel alike.
-Combination Hunting - This isn’t really a hunting strategy, but more of a way to utilize your time. Combinations hunting is when you combine hunts or in other words you are hunting more than one kind of animal. While in a lot of states it’s illegal to hunt certain game together (or at least have certain kinds of ammo present while hunting certain animals anyways), in most states there are a few combination hunts generally allowed.
Such as most smaller game (squirrel, rabbit, groundhog, etc…) and upland game birds like quail and pheasant. Obviously you’ll want to check your local hunting laws and dates to make sure the hunts can coincide together but some fun hunting trips can be had going after game birds and snagging a couple of rabbits or squirrels along the way
Squirrel hunting for the most part is pretty straight forward. If you’re a veteran squirrel hunter then you probably know most of the tips in this section, but if you’re new to hunting squirrel keep reading and hopefully we can help you make your next squirrel hunt a successful one.
-If possible, scout out the area ahead of time. Look for nut-bearing trees such as oak, hickory, walnut or possibly even pine if you have pinyon species in your area.
-Be incredibly still. Squirrels have excellent eyesight for detecting predators.
-Look for nests in trees. They appear as big balls of sticks and leaves in the crotches and forks of a tree. They are easy to spot in winter when the trees have gone bare. Find the area with the most nests and get into position before sunrise.
-Never shoot into a squirrel nest. Not only is it unethical, but it’s also illegal in most areas.
-If the big fox squirrel is what you’re after then check woods adjacent to big agricultural fields, especially corn. If you ask nice enough, many farmers will gladly let you hunt squirrels on their properties as they are considered a pest.
-Gray squirrels are smaller than the fox squirrels, but also tend to be more tasty. Look for them to be where ever white oak is found.
-Squirrel hunting is easiest after late fall when all the branches are bare. This makes it easier to spot flashes of movement.
-Under extreme weather such as severe winds, downpours, or even harsh cold temps, save the squirrel hunting trip for another day. Squirrels usually hold up in their nests until after the worst of the worse passes
Squirrel hunting can be a great way to introduce someone into hunting or simply break up the big game seasons a bit. It’s not uncommon to get half a dozen squirrels in a day’s hunt. That’s a fair amount of meat for your freezer and a fun way to keep your marksmanship skills in top shape for big game season.
As long as you go about squirrel hunting as a level headed adult and actually think about where your prey is and what they are doing, then it’s pretty easy to nab your fair share of bushy tails. The best part is the minimal amount of gear you actually need to hunt them. Keep the tradition alive by bringing your kid on their first hunt. Grab a couple .22’s, a thermos full of hot chocolate, and make a memory they won’t forget.