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Tips for Late-Season Squirrels
Hunting late-season squirrels challenges many hunters. During severe weather, squirrels may be almost totally inactive and seldom seen. Leaves have fallen, making the hunter more visible to the game he stalks. Nuts no longer cling to the branches, so squirrels are moving more on the ground, making them harder to see at a distance.
Despite all these negatives, however, late-season squirrel hunting can be productive and fun. Winter hunts are more difficult, to be sure, but squirrels are still available and the knowledgeable last-minute hunter can enjoy some of the year’s best gunning, rivaling that of even some upland hunting.
Here are some tips and tricks that can help any hunter bag several dozen squirrels each winter.
Good Things in Small Packages
Squirrel fans should be flexible when selecting hunting areas. Large stretches of timber can be very productive for savvy squirrel hunters, but in country with a mix of small woodlots and big woods, a squirrel hunter may do better working smaller patches during later weeks of the season. Small tracts are often overlooked by other hunters, and although they may not hold large numbers of squirrels, the restricted environment makes bushytails easier to find. It’s best to move from one small tract to another, taking care not to overhunt any single area.
Plan The Stalk
While squirrels are sometimes easier to locate in winter when leaves have dropped, the bushytail, from its vantage point high in a tree, still has a tremendous advantage. Its super sharp eyes and ears make winter stalking a very tough sport.
To overcome the squirrel’s keen senses, the squirrel hunter should select a stalking route carefully and shouldn’t attempt to stalk and hunt at the same time. He should concentrate on moving noiselessly with his eyes to the ground, pausing frequently to study the surroundings for game. He also should extend his surveillance to the point that he’s searching the woods a couple hundred yards ahead. If he doesn’t, squirrels will see him and be hidden before he’s even aware of them.
When a squirrel is spotted, it’s best to move in waltz time. The slower one goes, the better one’s chances are apt to be. If he can swing it, the squirrel hunter should do your traveling at the same time the squirrel is in motion. For instance, he should move forward when the squirrel is reaching for another nut and freeze when he’s eating it. The single most important thing a squirrel stalker can learn is that patience is a golden virtue.
He should also remember never to stalk with the sun over off either shoulder (to the right or to the left). Doing so makes his shadow sweep across the ground perpendicular to his movements, increasing his chances of being seen. When leaves are still on, most smart squirrel hunters stalk into the sun if possible. It’s easier to spot moving squirrels in leafy branches if they’re outlined against the sun. Later in the season, though, when squirrels forage more on the ground, it may be best to hunt with the sun to one’s back to put the glare in the quarry’s eyes. Either way, the hunter should use a tree shadow to hide his own shadow when stalking in for the kill.
Keep to the Low Ground
When give a choice of squirrel hunting between a ridge or a creek bottom, the hunter should stick to the creek bottom. The leaves will be wetter and the going quieter. He’ll also be able to keep a lower profile so squirrels won’t be as likely to spot him. For short distances, he can keep a large tree between him and the squirrel as he moves slowly into range, employing the stalking tactics described above.
Watch for Sign
Acorns and other nuts are the most important winter foods of squirrels. To pinpoint squirrel concentrations, the hunter needs to watch for nuts and fresh cuttings (fragments of nutshells) on the ground. Fresh cuttings have brightly colored edges, a sign squirrels have been feeding in the area, and it should be good for hunting.
Another sign of winter squirrel activity is the scratching left when buried nuts have been dug up and eaten. These are usually small mounds of dirt and rotting leaves where squirrels have done their excavating. They’re easy to spot when there’s snow on the ground, but one will have to look a little harder to spot the telltale mounds when there’s no snow cover.
Scouting for active tree dens and leaf nests is another way to zero in on a good patch of squirrel woods, and for this, binoculars are a great aid. Use the binoculars to scan each likely home site. Active den holes are usually worn smooth and shiny around the entrance, and often have little tufts of fur stuck in the rough edges. Leaf nests are rarely used in winter unless tree dens are scarce, but where that is the case, watch for big, full balls of leaves with no open patches where light can shine through. These are most likely to harbor squirrels. Squirrels make regular repairs to winter nests; thus, nests that look threadbare and unkempt are probably inactive.
Binoculars also can help a hunter find the squirrels, especially during still, sunny days when they like to stretch out on a limb or in a fork during midday hours. Move slowly through the woods, using binoculars to peruse such spots for an ear, a patch of fur, a tail or other bits and pieces that reveal basking bushytails.
- During mast-poor years in hilly terrain, center the search for squirrels on north-facing slopes. The north slopes are more protected from sunlight and tend to retain moisture better. Consequently, they usually have more hardwoods, better mast crops and more squirrels.
- Winter squirrels are usually reluctant to leave a reliable food source, even after hearing gunfire. When several squirrels are found feeding in a small area, mark the location of your first kill, be sure the squirrel is dead, then stay put. Within five to 10 minutes, the remaining squirrels are likely to be moving again, and another shot will be presented.
- If possible, hunt mountains or hilly areas when wind conditions are unfavorable. Scouting will often reveal a few hollows where calmer conditions prevail and squirrels are more active.
- It’s important to listen for even the slightest sound made by a squirrel. Rustling leaves often give a squirrel away. So can the sound of the rodent’s sharp teeth gnawing a nut, or cuttings falling to the forest floor like the pitter-patter of rainfall. Also listen for barking or chattering squirrels. These are often rutting squirrels that pay more attention to potential mates and competitors than to the hunter who quietly stalks them.
- Clothing with a bark camouflage pattern does wonders to conceal hunters from wary winter squirrels, but safety aspects should also be considered. When a hunter leaning against a tree, another hunter could mistake any slight movement for a squirrel. It happens with tragic regularity, and in many states, “victim mistaken for squirrel” is one of the leading causes of hunting accidents. Be cautious, and wear fluorescent orange clothing whenever appropriate.
These techniques and tips aren’t the final answer to late-season squirrel hunting success. But if when other methods prove unproductive, trying these may produce more bushytails. The squirrel’s brain may not be any bigger than a hickory nut, but he’s got plenty of smarts tucked away inside. To outwit him, the hunter must be better at playing his games than he is.