Early-Season Squirrels Brush up your woods skills with bushytails

The hunter moves like a wraith beneath the thick canopy of leaves, careful not to break a stick or rustle a bush that might give away his presence. He is dressed in camouflage clothes and is carrying a rifle with a scope. He slips from tree trunk to tree trunk, scanning the branches overhead, watching for movement and listening for the sound of shells dropping as a squirrel cuts into another hickory nut.

The hunter is looking for squirrels, but he's mainly interested in deer. To him, squirrel hunting is good practice for the upcoming deer season after a summer away from the woods. Slinking through the forest in search of bushytails will help him hone the skills he'll need to bag a buck: watching for subtle movements, listening for faint sounds, waiting for just the right shot and slowing down, being patient and hunting at nature's pace.

It's amazing how similar the skill requirements are for squirrel hunting and hunting for deer. Show me a hunter who consistently stalks his way to a limit of bushytails and I'll show you a woodsman who can sneak through deer country and frequently spot bucks and does before they see him. Of course, squirrel hunting is a reward in itself, if you enjoy any time spent in the woods.

Early Opportunities

Squirrels are among the most abundant and available of North America's small-game species. These rodents are found in a range of habitats, from Southern bottomlands to Northern hardwoods ridges. Gray squirrels are abundant in most woods; fox squirrels are less so, being more at home in small plots of trees or fence rows. Female squirrels typically raise two litters of young--one in early spring, another in late summer. Squirrel numbers fluctuate from year to year according to mast crop size. An abundant nut crop in autumn translates into a boom in squirrel population the next spring.

A few decades ago, squirrels were extremely popular targets among hunters. However, as the human population shifted to urban areas and hunting land became less accessible, squirrel hunting fell off in popularity.

All that means is that there's more game and opportunity for hunters who do continue the squirrel-hunting tradition. Today there is very little hunting pressure on squirrels, even on popular public areas close to large cities. Hunters enjoy a lot of elbow room and typically find plenty of game upon which to test their skills.

Squirrel-hunting regulations vary widely from state to state. Early fall seasons usually start in late August or September. Bag limits are very liberal. In my home state of Tennessee, hunters are allowed 10 squirrels per day. Typically, a full bag holds a mix of squirrels: mostly grays, with one or two fox squirrels for good measure.

A would-be squirrel hunter can outfit himself with minimal gear: a suit of lightweight camo, a pair of tennis shoes or warm-weather boots with soft soles, and a can of tick spray to keep crawling critters away.

Then there is the squirrel gun. Twelve- or 20-gauge shotguns are popular among meat hunters, but perhaps just as many sportsmen prefer .22-caliber rifle-and-scope combinations. Some serious squirrel hunters make sizeable investments in exotic rifles with hair triggers and pinpoint accuracy. However, most inexpensive factory models are adequate for the task. Add a 4X-power .22 scope (1-inch tube, parallax set for 50 yards) and a box of .22 LR hollowpoint ammo, and you're ready to hunt.

There is one other crucial factor before going to the woods. It's imperative to sight-in a rifle so it will drive tacks at reasonable ranges. Shooting off a bench, a shooter should be able to hit a dime consistently at 30 yards and a nickel at 50 yards. The average shot in the squirrel woods is 30 to 50 yards, with the rifle rested against a tree or limb. A rifle sighted to those ranges will be sufficient.

Where to Look

In a year's time, squirrels will eat a wide range of nuts, berries, seeds and other foods. However, in late summer and early fall, four types of mast predominate in their diet: pine seeds, hickory nuts, beechnuts and acorns. Hunters should understand that different foods are available at different times, and they should center their efforts around the right food source for the time they're hunting.

In late summer, pine seeds are a favorite food for squirrels. Bushytails will migrate to pine groves and spend hours peeling the seeds out of pinecones. Squirrels make little movement and noise when feeding in pines, so a hunter must depend on his sight.

Hickory nuts start coming in by late August. Hickory nuts on trees in lowland bottoms usually mature earlier than at higher elevations. But wherever they are, when hickory nuts are ready, squirrels find them.

The classic scenario for early fall hunting involves squirrels cutting hickory nuts and raining shell fragments to the forest floor below. Hunters can hear the shell pieces dropping and move toward their source.

Also, squirrels feeding in hickory trees climb out onto small-diameter limbs that give with their weight. A shaking branch is a dead giveaway that a squirrel is foraging for nuts.

Sometimes a hickory tree will have several squirrels feeding in it at the same time. If you shoot a squirrel, mark where it falls to the ground, but don't move. Any other squirrels will be alarmed by the commotion and will hide for a few minutes in the branches. Then, if there is no further disturbance, they'll start feeding again and you'll have a chance to take at least one more squirrel from the same tree.

Beechnuts follow hickory nuts as squirrels' food of choice. Beech-feeding squirrels don't move much; they can gorge themselves in one small area. The key to hunting beech trees is to hunt slowly and patiently.

Acorns are the last of the fall foods to mature. Acorns of the white oak family are most desirable; red oak acorns, which have high tannin levels, are least preferred.

Hunters can improve their success by learning this natural menu progression and remembering prime feeding areas from one season to the next. A good hickory tree this year will probably be good next year.

Most squirrel hunting in late summer and early fall is done by watching and listening for game. However, some hunters prefer a more proactive approach, including calling.

Two types of squirrel calls are available: a bellows call, which imitates a squirrel's excited chatter, and a shrill whistle that mimics the distress cry of a young squirrel. Shaking or rapidly tapping the bellows emits a sound that squirrels make when they are curious, excited or irritated by an intruder (especially a predator) in their domain. Often the chatter spurs other squirrels nearby to join in. Once he spots a squirrel, a hunter can put up his call and stalk close enough for a shot.

The whistle is anything but subtle. It mimics the sound made by a squirrel caught by a hawk or a fox. Hunters using a whistle frequently shake bushes or slap their caps against their legs to simulate struggling noises. The commotion excites nearby squirrels and causes them to come out for a look or move away; in either case, they expose themselves.

Squirrel hunting is enjoyable in its own right, besides being a good way to tune up for deer season. Bushytails can be anywhere. The weather is comfortable and there's no pressure; opportunities to take game are plentiful. These are all reasons why anybody--seasoned hunter or novice--should get into the squirrel woods when the flag drops on this first hunting opportunity of the season. Deer can wait.

Walk Softly for Squirrels

Boots for squirrel hunting should meet four main requirements: they should be cool, lightweight, waterproof and quiet.

Generally, early-season hunting occurs during hot weather, so boots with no insulation are best. Also, the lighter the boots are, the better; they'll be more comfortable to wear while walking up and down the hardwood ridges where you're likely to find squirrels.

Squirrel-hunting footwear should be waterproof, since dew may be on the grasses and weeds first thing in the morning. Then, too, you'll probably cross a shallow stream or two while you hunt. Boots with a waterproof membrane will keep water out but will also "breathe" to allow heat and perspiration to escape from inside the boot.

The best squirrel boots have soft, spongy soles that allow a hunter to feel objects under his step, aiding his efforts to slip quietly through the woods without alerting bushytails.

Several companies offer good squirrel-hunting boots that provide firm ankle-support. Among my favorites for early-season squirrel hunting are Georgia Boot's Eagle Lights, left. Give them a look at Georgia Boot's Web site: www.georgiaboot.com

Bushytails and Scouting

I find more good deer-hunting spots through squirrel hunting than by any other method. When you're squirrel hunting, you take on a predatory mindset, rather than a scouting mindset, so you tend to be stealthier and more observant.

Squirrels feed on many of the same foods as deer, including white oak acorns. If you find a white oak that squirrels are cutting on early in the season, deer will use it as long as the nuts are hitting the ground.

The mobile squirrel hunter becomes familiar with the lay of the land, and he can find terrain features such as natural funnels and creek crossings, which are great areas for deer stands. Squirrel hunters are usually in the woods at daybreak and sunset, about the same times of day when deer are moving. There's no substitute for being in the woods and actually observing deer as they go about their daily routines. Don't worry much about leaving scent behind; it will be long gone by the time deer season begins. When combining squirrel hunting with deer scouting, limit your firearm to a .22. The blast of a shotgun tends to alert more squirrels and deer that a hunter is in the woods. --Will Brantley