The Complete Guide to Hunting Squirrels

The Complete Guide to Hunting Squirrels

Squirrels should be regarded as a worthy quarry for beginner hunters and seasoned veterans alike.  Hunting squirrels can help you learn and maintain stalking skills, and it can hone your abilities as a precision shooter.

Squirrel seasons are long and bag limits are generous. In most states, hunters can legally chase squirrels for several months or more per year and can typically harvest between four and six squirrels, combined species, per day. They provide continuous action through the fall and much of the winter, often when nothing else is open.

Scientific Names
Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger)
Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)
Western Gray Squirrel (Sciurus griseus)

Some folks refer to the eastern fox squirrel as a red squirrel, which is erroneous and misleading. The actual red squirrel, sometimes known as a pine squirrel, is a very abundant tree squirrel in northerly latitudes that is typically ignored by hunters due to its small size, about a half-pound and the piney flavor of its flesh.

Bar Room Banter
There’s a long-running debate about whether or not squirrels can actually remember the locations of their cached nuts. Some studies support the view that they can’t, and suggest that squirrels recover nuts cached by other squirrels at the same rate as nuts cached by themselves. Others studies support the view that they can.

For “Grey Squirrels Remember the Location of Buried Nuts,” a paper published in the journal Animal Behavior, researchers released multiple squirrels in an outdoor arena and allowed them to cache 10 hazelnuts each. When the squirrels were put back into the arena after periods of time ranging from 2-12 days, they retrieved significantly more nuts from their own caches than from the caches of the other squirrels. The great squirrel debate rages on!

Physical Characteristics
The eastern gray squirrel is gray above with paler gray underparts. Black-phase gray squirrels are common in the northern portions of the species range, sometimes outnumbering gray-phase specimens. A big eastern gray squirrel might weigh 1.5 pounds.

The western gray squirrel has grizzled grayish fur above and whitish underparts.  They are heavier than easterns, weighing up to 2 pounds. The eastern fox squirrel is the largest tree squirrel in North America, weighing upwards of 2.5 pounds. They occur in three color-phases, the most common being rust-colored.

Tree nuts from hickory, beech, and oak are squirrel staples, though they will readily consume tree buds, seeds, fungi, pinecones, berries, and agricultural crops such as corn and apples.

Life and Death
Avian predators such as hawks and owls are the primary killers of squirrels. Their life expectancy is usually just a few years, though there are documented cases of squirrels living to be 12 years old.

Breeding and Reproduction
Fox squirrels and eastern gray squirrels usually have 1 or 2 litters of 2-4 young every year, born during springs and summer. Western gray squirrels usually have only one 1 litter, born in the spring.  Gestation for all species is around 45 days.

Mixed forests, usually with abundance of nut-bearing trees.

Telltale Sign
Look for bushel-sized and smaller nests of leaves and twigs in the high crotches of treetops. These resemble the nests of crows but are more leafy and disheveled. Evidence of feeding includes divots in earth or snow where squirrels are caching or retrieving nuts.

Also gnawed husks of tree nuts on or near stumps or horizontal logs that serve as feeding platforms. When feeding on corn, fox squirrels will devour entire kernels; gray squirrels will often eat just the germ end and discard the rest. In the snow, squirrel tracks are typically “paired;” unlike the tracks of a rabbit, the front prints fall side by side.

Good. Reminiscent of chicken though usually tougher, darker, and more fully flavored. Suitable for many chicken applications.

Hunting Opportunities
Of all squirrels, the eastern gray and fox squirrels are the most common. Both have native ranges in the eastern states, but are widely available in western portions of the United States as well.

Most states have squirrel seasons that run from September to January, with some states including a limited spring season. Most states have a limit around six, but some western states have lower limits due to lower availability.

Hunting Methods
The best squirrel hunting method uses a combination of tactics taken from a variety of hunting styles, including spot-and-stalk, still-hunting, and ambush hunting. The exact approach differs somewhat according to whether or not the deciduous trees have shed their leaves.

When the leaves are on, you can’t see squirrels at long distances and thankfully, they can’t see you. Action tends to occur at close range. While a .22 rifle is suitable at all times for squirrel hunting, think head shots, many hunters prefer to use a shotgun loaded with #6 pellets at this time of year in order to capitalize on shot opportunities presented by squirrels that are moving in the treetops behind a thin veil of leaves.

Concentrate Your Hunting Time
Regardless of weapon choice, you should concentrate your hunting efforts on mornings and evenings as much as possible during the leaves-on period. Squirrels become late-risers when temperatures plunge in the early winter, preferring to let the air warm up before they leave their nests or tree cavities to begin foraging.

If you can, get into the woods about fifteen minutes before daybreak and sit against a large tree in an area that you know from past experience or pre-season scouting to be frequented by squirrels. When daylight hits, spend the first half-hour or so just looking and listening. You might shoot your first squirrel of the day like this, right from your seated position and possibly shooting into the same tree that you happen to be leaning against.

When hunting in the evening or even mid-day, if that’s the only time you have, you still want to do the same thing. Slip into a good area and then sit tight while the woods settle down around you and the animals go back to their business.

While sitting, listening is perhaps even more important than looking. Squirrels make a lot of racket as they bound through trees that are still holding their leaves, and it’s especially easy to hear this during the period of early morning quiet.  Also listen for the sound of tree-nut husks raining to the ground as squirrels feed.

Eventually you’ll want to move from your seated position, either because you’ve identified some distant squirrel activity or because nothing’s happening in your area. If it’s the former reason, keep some large trees between you and the squirrels you’re stalking while you approach.

This will hopefully prevent them from seeing you and allow you to get into easy range. If it’s the latter reason, head toward the greatest concentration of mature nut-bearing trees in your area, keeping in mind that field edges and ridgelines are generally good places to start looking.

Either way, move very slowly and keep your eyes focused on the tree tops. Watch and listen for fluttering leaves that might signify a feeding or traveling squirrel. Also watch and listen for close-range squirrels that are watching you in hopes that you’ll simply pass by without noticing them. These are the easy squirrels, and they taste just as good as the hard ones.

If you’re toting a .22, aim for just behind the squirrel’s ear in order to give yourself a little room for error. If you’re toting a shotgun, hold your bead off the end of the squirrel’s nose in order to limit the number of pellets that get into the meat. Ideally, you want to pepper his head but leave his body unscathed. The exact hold-off needs to be estimated according to the distance of the squirrel and spread of the shotgun, it’s wise to experiment with your shotgun ahead of time by shooting at paper targets from various ranges.

When you do go after a distant squirrel, one of three things is going to happen.

Slip Into Range
You slip into range of the squirrel undetected, usually because it’s distracted by its own feeding activities, and you make your shot at a stationary animal. That’s ideal.

You Get Busted but Get a Shot
You get close and the squirrel goes streaking off through the treetops, bouncing from limb to limb. At this point the shotgunner simply does a pass-through swing on the squirrel, just like on a bird, only slower and knocks the squirrel down to the ground.

A hunter with a .22 rifle should follow directly beneath the squirrel as it travels, being very careful to NOT let the squirrel get out of eyesight, even though that’s basically impossible because the squirrel is almost inevitably going to vanish. The goal, however, is to be able to pinpoint as closely as possible the place where it vanished. At this point, refer, below.

The Hunt Begins Again
The squirrel vanishes, seemingly into thin air. In this situation, the first thing you want to do is circle the suspected tree and check for holes, cavities, and nests in the vicinity of the squirrel’s last known location. If you see a hole or cavity, especially one that shows evidence of squirrel use in the form of a gnawed and widened opening, you might as well give up and go look for another squirrel. Ditto if you see a nest.

No matter what, never succumb to the temptation of shooting up into the nest in hopes of knocking the squirrel out. It’s reckless and imprecise and doesn’t work. Once you’ve ruled out the presence of cavities or nests to best of your ability, it’s time to start looking for the squirrel. You have to trust that it’s up there hiding from you. Use your binoculars to study the crotches of limbs and the topsides of any large horizontal branches. You’re not so much looking for a squirrel as you’re looking for a squirrel-colored lump or even a wind-tousled wisp of hair from the squirrel’s tail.

Study the tree from directly beneath, then circle the tree and study it at various distances and angles. As you move, the squirrel will move as well in order to keep portions of the tree between you and itself. Eventually, hopefully, it’ll screw up and expose a portion of its body. Often, this portion happens to be the tail, as squirrels seem to be less aware of this part of their anatomy when it comes to concealment.

Obviously, you can’t shoot the tail, so then your job becomes a waiting game. Without losing sight of the tail, get into the best position to make your shot when the squirrel inevitably changes position. Often, the simple act of hunkering down against a tree will inspire the squirrel to move. Since it can no longer hear you walking about, it’ll get curious about where you went and then it’ll move to get a better look.

If it can still see you while you sit there, its patience will certainly outlast your own. But if the squirrel can see you, you should be able to see it. Keep your binoculars in hand and use them to do a detailed study of the tree. One of the more rewarding things in hunting is finally finding a squirrel that’s befuddled you for the past twenty minutes.

When the Leaves are Down
When the leaves are down, things can be quite a bit different. First off, it’s smart to leave your shotgun at home and bring along a scoped .22 rifle that you can comfortably shoot out to 50 or 60 yards. Predators or hunters have picked off many of the less cautious and younger squirrels. Those that are left are naturally going to be a bit cagier, it’s not nearly as easy to close the distance on them.

You can spot the squirrels at much greater distances, but they can spot you at greater distances as well. At this time of year, it’s common to see squirrels busting away from you across the forest floor a hundred or more yards out and then disappearing without giving you a chance to pinpoint their location. Right off, it’s clear that the easy pickings of autumn have come and gone.

The key here is to do a lot more sitting and a lot less moving. Think of it as setting up mini-ambushes. Picking your locations is easy when there’s snow on the ground, because you can identify areas of strong activity by looking for tracks and burrowing marks in the snow.

Once you find these spots, take a seat and hold tight. It might take an hour or more before the squirrels forget the disturbance and begin their activity again. In the absence of snow, you can do another form of “scouting” by just taking a walk through the woods on the day before your planned hunt. You’re basically just strolling through the woods with the intention of spooking squirrels.

Watch the ground as much as the treetops, because late-season squirrels spend a lot of time down there caching and retrieving nuts. Once you’ve bumped three or four squirrels or seen them in the far distance, calculate the most central position to all the activity and then set up there against a tree the next morning. They’ll have forgotten all about the previous disturbance by then and they’ll likely be right in the same areas. When you see one, don’t go heading off in that direction. You’re too likely to spook it. Instead, just hold tight and wait.

Let the squirrel go about its business and trust that it’ll eventually come into range. If you’re in a good area, you might even end up with several squirrels working around you as they come in and out of range. If so, wait until you have two within shooting distance. Shoot the farthest one first, then quickly ready your rifle for another shot. Quite often, the other squirrel will jump to the side of a tree and then freeze there while it sorts out what just happened. It’s a great opportunity for a double-header.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article