Hunting squirrels

Squirrels require perhaps more hunting skills than any other game for the rifleman. They're small, often elusive, smart and can test your shooting, stalking and patience.

The trees were just beginning to silhouette clearly against the slowly lightening fall sky, their coal-black shapes etched ever sharper against the faint gold and pinks forming in the eastern sky. Not a breath of air moved, the silence so intense it was almost a noise in itself.

As I marveled, a single acorn fell from an oak, striking several leaves on the way down before hitting the ground with a thud. That acorn triggered a rush of thoughts and I smiled, almost laughing out loud, amazed that a single falling acorn could hold so much significance.

Fall, the end of the year, the once-green hills now bare and drab, so symbolic of death and decay. Then, into this pristine silence of what might be considered mourning for the past year, a single acorn falls, symbolizing the earliest genesis of rebirth, and the return of bursting and budding life in the spring to come. In 100 years that acorn could be a mighty tree, its branches laden with thousands of acorns feeding deer, squirrels, turkeys and bear.

There was poetry here, meaning on a vast and deep scale, God’s teachings so profound if we but look, listen and meditate.

I would have missed it all this morning if I wasn’t hunting squirrels. However, the lessons were to continue, I was soon to find out.

This was my first morning after squirrels this fall and I was carrying the .22 magnum with a 4x12 scope with a parallax adjustment. I was sighted in at 50 yards and the AO was set so the crosshairs stayed on the target no matter my head position on the stock. I felt confident in my equipment.

Moving slowly ahead I suddenly spotted three squirrels, high in a hickory. I lined up several trees and snuck closer, but they spotted me and vanished as only squirrels can. It was then that I realized I wasn’t wearing my facemask or leafy camouflage jacket. My white face was easily seen and my outline dark, my human form easily seen especially when moving.

I knew better, but had forgotten how spooky squirrels can be.

I saw several other squirrels in the next half hour and tried to get within shooting range, but they too saw me and ran off. Well, if stalking was out of the question the only other choice was to sit motionless in a good location and let them come to me.

I parked myself by a thick, smooth-barked hickory, slipped on my gloves to hide my white hands, pulled my hat brim as far down over my forehead as possible and worked on being patient. Experience had taught me it may take 30 minutes or more for the squirrels to move.

Luckily, I only had to wait 20 minutes before my almost useless hearing detected the scrape of claws on bark. Wow! If I could hear that the squirrel was really close, maybe in the tree I was sitting against.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement as a big gray slid down a maple 15 yards away, stared at me and ran 40 yards to a big oak. The oak was surrounded by smaller trees, some beech still with leaves. The squirrel was up and down the oak and neighboring trees and soon two others joined him. The leaves, twigs and branches prevented a shot.

Why did I sit in an area that was so thick?

I had to leave by 10 a.m. and, in that time, despite the number of squirrels around me, I only managed to shoot two. I’d forgotten the basics, been careless and paid the price. My next trip here would be different, the lessons I’d forgotten were clear.

Next time out, I once again took the long walk and arrived just as dawn was breaking. I had on my leafy camouflage, which makes me literally invisible when sitting, my leaf-covered hat and facemask, camo gloves and camo pants pulled down over my Muck boots.

I’d also cleaned my glasses and scope lenses to aid my vision. This morning I sat in a more open area, avoiding thicker spots. My back was to a large oak and a smaller tree grew beside it, which I could use as a rest. I felt the shots might be longer today in such an open river bottom, and a solid shooting position would be necessary. Confident in my preparations I anxiously awaited the dawn.

It wasn’t long until I saw a slight movement up in a tree. I somehow knew it was a squirrel. I stared intently and after a few minutes a bushytail ran out on a limb, grabbed a nut and dashed back. Soon three squirrels were busy in the treetops, never once allowing me a shot.

I didn’t panic, just waited patiently. Sooner or later one would give me an opportunity. One did, at 40 yards, then another. After an hour I moved to another location, then a third. Before the morning was over I had six squirrels, all of which had to be shot at distance. You simply couldn’t get close and if one happened to run nearby, even with great camo it wouldn’t stay still long enough for a shot.

Walking out I analyzed the morning. There was no way I could have bagged the limit of squirrels without strict attention to every detail. First, I had to have an accurate rifle that’s choosey to ammunition. I found the right ammo, Winchester solids, and was sighted in at 50 yards. As it turned out, almost every shot was right at 40 yards. I don’t like to shoot that far, but there was no choice.

To hit a squirrel at that distance requires the ability to acquire a solid rest and then get off a perfect squeeze. I missed twice by slightly jerking the trigger. You have to practice and control your nerves to do this. To add to the challenge squirrels seldom sit still. You have to get off an accurate shot in three to five seconds. It’s a test!

Another critical detail is camouflage. Squirrels have excellent eyesight and are very cagey after being hunted. Don’t underestimate how wily they can be. Your face should be hidden and the better you blend in the more squirrels you’ll bag. If the squirrel sees you raise your rifle, but can’t determine exactly what you are it might stay still, staring at you long enough for a shot.

Try and sit in areas that allow you to see some distance and are clear of heavy leaf cover, brushy small trees and ground-covering brush. You have to have a clear shot to score.

Lastly, be patient. Badly spooked squirrels may not move for an hour. If you know there are squirrels around you and they’re not moving, sit down and remain motionless. The squirrels you can’t see are lying on limbs, peeking around trees with only half their head showing or hanging on the opposite side of the tree from you. They may be in a hollow tree or simply in a shallow dip in the ground out of sight. If you remain very still with good camo, they’ll show themselves sooner or later.

Again, hunting squirrels with a rifle is a big challenge requiring multiple skillsets. If you can consistently bag squirrels with a rifle you are without any question one of the best hunters around — anywhere.

(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is wadewrites3006@gmail.com.)

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