In Episode 5 of MeatEater Season 10, Steve, Janis, and Clay load up the mules and dogs for an Arkansas squirrel hunt. Here are some of Clay’s best tips and tricks to get squirrels from the woods, skinned, and into the crockpot, preferably served with dumplings.
Find the Food, Find the Squirrels Clay typically breaks out the squirrel dogs in December and hunts through February. Tree squirrels don’t hibernate, so they’re active all winter. In order to survive the colder temps, they hoard food by burying it underground or storing it in middens camouflaged by ground cover. While it’s not necessary to find individual squirrel caches, they usually won’t be far from the original food source.
“You can use what you’ve learned in the fall deer hunting and pretty much know where the squirrels are going to be because they’re going to be eating the same mast,” Clay said.
Squirrels will eat just about anything, but their winter food storage is focused on mast crops like acorns, hickory nuts, and beech nuts in the Southeast.
Glass for Tails Start with the trunk then follow the main branches of the tree. “You’re not looking for a whole squirrel because you’re just not going to see him,” Clay said. “What you’re looking for is that long tail that blows in the wind and can give them away.”
He says you should also glass at the straight lines of the tree and look for bumps. That could be a head, ear, or tail. “If they’re hiding from you, they’re going to be pretty close to the trunk or on a big limb or right in the fork where those two meet,” Clay said. “They’re real aware of their silhouette, so they won’t be out on a 2-inch limb.”
If You Spot a Squirrel, Get There Quickly “There’s a timestamp on a tree because the squirrel is extremely mobile in the canopy. So, when you hear those dogs treed, you get there as soon as you can,” Clay explained. “By the time you get to a treed dog, 50% of the time the squirrel is going to be running and 50% of the time they’re going to be holed up.”
Clay likes to use two or three dogs and keep them within about 150 yards so he can get to the treed squirrel before it finds a way to get away.
Get ‘em Moving Often you’ll find a squirrel in a hole and it’ll be hard to get them out of there. “Our biggest trick to get squirrels to move is shaking vines and limbs or just smack a tree with a stick,” Clay said. “A lot of times that squirrel is going to be in a tree with vines because they like cover, especially in late winter. And boy, you start banging those vines around and you can get those squirrels moving.”
Never Shoot at a Squirrel on the Ground “Number one rule: If he’s on the ground, let him run,” Clay said. “You don’t want to shoot a dog in excitement or even shoot somebody.”
Hunt with Buddies and Try Different Firearms “If you’re by yourself, you can’t see him while he’s on the backside of that tree. He knows where you’re at,” Clay said. “So, you circle around the tree. Well, the squirrel moves. But if a few of you can spread out and get around all sides of the tree with guns pointing up, you’re more likely to get that squirrel.”
In the MeatEater episode, Clay uses a Rossi Circuit Judge .45 Colt/.410 gauge. You can actually bid to win the exact gun (and more) right now with the MeatEater Season 10 Package in the Auction House of Oddities that benefits our Land Access Initiative.
Steve swears by a .22 in the squirrel woods and shot his CZ American .22 LR in the Ozarks. Steve claims Clay is a big fan of shotguns because he “probably isn’t as good a shot as I am,” but Clay believes you ideally need at least two people on a squirrel hunt—one with a .22 and one with a shotgun.
“If you’re hunting with dogs and you want to kill anything, you better have somebody with a shotgun,” Clay explained.
‘Black Them Out’ Squirrels are a pretty small target, so good marksmanship plays a key role in a successful hunt. If you’re shooting with a .22, you’re going to be aiming at the head. If you’re firing a shotgun, you’re more likely to blast at a running squirrel and lead it like you would a duck.
“My grandpa always said, ‘black them out,’” Clay said. “Swing your gun until you can’t see it anymore and then pull the trigger.”
For new hunters, Clay’s recommendation is just to get out: “I don’t know if there’s anything that can prepare you to shoot a squirrel any better than just going and shooting a squirrel.”
Hoot, Holler, and Have a Good Time “I’m a grown man and it blows my mind how fast my heart beats when we walk up to a tree and a squirrel breaks,” Clay concluded. “You’ve pretty much got one shot at it in the timber. It’s jumping and moving, and you just feel like you’ve come unglued inside.
“Then you take your shot. And then you’re like, ‘Man, it’s just a squirrel, why did I get so worked up?’ That is why we do it. It’s chaos. It’s great.”
If you want to see some of that chaos unfold, check out MeatEater Season 10, Part 1. It's live on Netflix right now!