Words by Kevin Murphy
In most parts of the country gray squirrels like the big hardwoods whereas fox squirrels like more open lands such as river bottoms. But both can be found in either habitat.
Squirrels have two breeding periods, one in the late spring and early summer and another in the days leading up to the winter solstice.
Noting the Nests
Nests are a sure sign that squirrels have been in the area. You may see a couple of different types of nests. A big round tight nest the size of a basketball will be used to raise young in or as a secure hiding place from avian predators.
A smaller flat-type nest will be used for lounging. A shabby nest coming apart is most likely an abandoned nest and will not be used unless there is no other place to hide or escape. Fresh cuttings of nuts on stumps and logs tells you that squirrels are active and using the area.
Hunting squirrels with a treeing dog happens mostly in the late fall when the trees have given up their leaves for the season and the squirrels are on the ground searching for food and mates. The best times of day to hunt are the first two hours of the morning and the last two of the evening, except when you have a foggy, misty day. Then squirrels tend to stir the entire day and will stay low in the tree on the main trunk or the lower limbs. This is my favorite time to hunt, because squirrels will tend to stay put when treed and they don’t run into dens as bad.
As with all scenting dogs, squirrel dogs will cover more area and will find more game if you hunt your dog into the wind every chance you get. When a dog chases a fox squirrel, the squirrel might take the dog on a long run before it trees. You may think the squirrel dog is messing around and chasing off game, but it might just be doing its job.
Understand the Barking
Know how your dog reacts to a treed squirrel. Most tree dogs have a standard bark that says, ‘Hey I got him over here, when you have an extra moment, come and shoot him.’ But there are times when your dog will go berserk. This means the squirrel is on the move and potentially heading for a hole. If you want that squirrel to end up in your game vest, you better move fast.
After a dog puts a squirrel up a tree and barks to tell you, ‘Hey he is over here,’ he has pretty much earned his feed. Now it is up to you to find the squirrel. When approaching the tree, take a close quick look at the tree from top to bottom.
A Treed Squirrel
Search for knot holes, splits, nests, grape vines, and any other hiding places, but most of all look for the squirrel itself. If you can’t find it, look for a piece or part of a squirrel such as a tuft of hair from the tail, the hump of a body, or the lemon shape of the head. If you’ve been gifted with good eyes you can maybe see just a foot or claw.
When there are two people hunting, you need to split up and take opposite sides of the the tree to search for the squirrel. Squirrels can be very cagey and will try to keep some type of cover between them and their pursuer.
It is best when the hunter with the best eyesight remains still while the other hunter shakes a bush or rattles a grapevine to try to scare the squirrel into giving up his location. If you are alone it can be tough to locate a squirrel. I prefer not to wear any blaze orange unless it’s required by Law.
Prime Time Squirrel Hunting
During the first couple of weeks in December, in my part of western Kentucky, gray squirrels perform a mating ritual and may gather in numbers in the largest tree of the forest. The glands on boar squirrels swell and they come into rut and will pursue any willing female gray squirrel. During this time, your dog may tree on a rut tree and there may be several gray squirrels in the tree at the same time.
This is the jackpot of squirrel hunting. In this situation you must abide by this rule: Shoot the bottom squirrel first! If you choose to shoot a top squirrel, it will fall past the lower squirrels and spook them and make them go into a frenzy of escape.
A good friend of mine, who happens to be an excellent waterfowl shot, agrees that running squirrels are very hard to hit. An exception to the shoot-the-bottom-squirrel rule is when you see a squirrel with its head pointing down the tree. This means he is a runner! Shoot him first.
When it comes to squirrel guns, I like to shoot a scoped .22 LR rifle that’s zeroed for 35 yards, though I know where it shoots at 65 yards as well. My favorite is a Czech-made BRNO model 1 that I inherited from my dad. It has a 2X7 Redfield Scope. My second favorite is a Ruger 10-22 with a Manlicher stock and a 3×9 scope. It’s short and handy in the woods and I have taken running squirrels with it.
A shotgun is good to have as a back up to a rifle, but in my opinion it should only be used on running squirrels or in areas limited to shotgun use. I use #5 shot, which really puts the squirrels on the ground. I suppose if you really wanted to get serious about squirrels you’d get a Savage 24 DL, with the 22 WMR barrel that sits over a 20-gauge shotgun barrel. Top it with a 2×7 scope.
There will be no prisoners taken with that weapon.
For a hat, I like a short brim that does not cut down on my peripheral vision. I wear a Centerfire hunting vest that has all types of pockets for gear, water bottles, etc., and it lets you carry the bulk of the load on your hips instead of your back and shoulders.
I carry a sharp knife, a good pair of game shears, and a pair of catfish skinning pliers for pulling hides on those old tough boars. A final good tidbit of squirrel information is that when you cook fox squirrel the bones will turn a pinkish color, whereas gray squirrels remain white.