Elissa’s Day

Squirrel hunting demands keen eyes and aim, and sometimes a nudge from one generation to another.

“I got him!” Elissa exclaimed after the crack of her 20 gauge had summarily silenced all the animal noises around us in the thick oak hammock.

Elissa pushed through a phalanx of interlaced branches to reach the spot where her quarry had fallen, and when she popped back into view it was with proof in hand that she’d been correct: She was swinging a plump gray squirrel by the tail. It was my daughter’s first-ever hunt and she’d just spotted, stalked and killed the first game we’d seen on that winter morning. The fact that her prize was not a deer, a turkey, a rhinoceros or some other large or exotic game animal did not in the least temper that exciting moment when another young hunter joined our ranks.

The milestone for Elissa began weeks earlier when she noticed an oblong package under the Christmas tree. The colorful wrapping paper and garish bow did little to camouflage the fact that her first gun was waiting inside and not surprisingly the wrapping on this gift was the first to be shredded on Christmas morning. The adventure continued during the following weeks as she completed her state-mandated hunter safety course (required for all hunters born after June 1, 1975), and when we made trips to the local range for gun familiarization and target practice. When we set the date for that first actual hunting trip a countdown commenced which was punctuated by daily discussions about weather, bugs, mud, attire, picnic lunch menu, footwear and numerous other hunt-related details to which experienced hunters tend to give little thought, but which all loom large in the mind of an excited youngster.

Why Squirrels?

Gray squirrels are abundant in mature hardwood stands. They are excellent eating, as Elissa Allen would discover.

Here’s an observation: Squirrels are a lot like bluegill in a number of ways. First, while they’re both overlooked by many (perhaps most) veteran outdoorsmen, both creatures are great targets for beginners, and the pursuit of either builds basic outdoor skills which can be used later to up the ante to bigger, more glamorous game. Second, squirrels, like bluegill, can make up in numbers what they may lack in size or in cachet; a beginner stands a very good chance of getting shots even if the hunt only lasts a few hours. By day’s end on that first hunt our father-daughter duo had easily tallied 10 squirrels, the last two of which Elissa had taken on a solo side trip through the woods while dad worked on the skinning and gutting chores. On a deer or turkey hunt it might be days, weeks, or longer before game is seen or a shot is taken, and some young hunters can become discouraged or disinterested when results are not forthcoming. Lastly, both squirrels and bluegill are good on the table and lend themselves nicely to the entire stalk/take/eat experience.

Where to Look

Hunting gray squirrels can be done on many of Florida’s Wildlife Management Areas, and on some of these WMAs not many people target them. After a productive morning in the woods last winter we stopped by the game check station at the 16,600-acre Babcock Ranch Preserve in Southwest Florida to log a day’s bag of squirrels, and the FWC officer on duty, who was accustomed to logging deer, hogs and turkeys, had no place on his tally sheet for the entry of squirrels!

While squirrels can be found almost anywhere, a good bet is to locate stands of mature oak. It’s a rare cluster of these acorn-producing trees that isn’t home to a colony of squirrels. There’s no better tool than boots-on-the-ground for finding promising areas (and involving your aspiring young hunter in the pre-season scouting is a great way to add to the adventure), but there are some resources available to help narrow your search before you hit the trail. The Hunting section of the FWC’s website includes a page devoted to small game hunting, and on that page are links to “Best Small Game Hunting Areas” by region. Included are past season harvest stats by species for individual WMAs so you can see where squirrels and other animals have been harvested.

To help you further hone your search, try using Google Earth. The satellite photography provided by this service is detailed enough to help you find areas worth exploring, and with practice you’ll be able to identify remote oak hammocks and islands that you would never have seen from the road. As you move the Google Earth cursor over an image, latitude and longitude are shown at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to capture coordinates which can be input into a hand-held GPS to help guide you when you’re out in the woods. By zooming in tightly on a Google Earth window I’ve been able to record positions which
later turned out to be accurate to within less than 30 feet when checked against my GPS. If your computer skills are not as good as your hunting skills you can always put your young hunter in charge of this part of the project.

Choose Your Weapon

Put a few hunters together to discuss just about any game animal and it’s likely that a debate will break out regarding the best gun. Squirrel hunters tend to fall into two camps: those favoring .22 or .17 caliber rifles, and those favoring small gauge shotguns. Rimfire fans rightfully point out that making a
head shot on a branch-hugging squirrel with a scoped gun isn’t really that difficult, and it doesn’t mess up the meat, plus the ammo is dirt cheap and you can carry enough in your pocket to last all season. The scattergun gang touts the ability to take out a flushed squirrel that’s scampering along a limb. Santa’s delivery to our house was a 20-gauge pump gun mostly because for us it has more utility than a rimfire, having since been used for dove, snipe, quail and rabbit.

The Hunt

Hunting squirrels isn’t a gimme. Like all prey animals they’re alert to potential threats entering their neighborhood, such as when noisy humans come crashing through the woods, and they’re very, very good at becoming invisible. That gray fur is a remarkable match for the bark of most trees, so close that when a squirrel flattens itself against a tree and freezes it takes a keen eye to see through the camouflage. Squirrels are also champions of the game “ring-around-thetree,” a contest which is played by sidling around to the opposite side of a tree trunk from the opponent who is looking for you. Spotting the animals takes practice and you may find that you’ll have to point out the first few squirrels to your young hunter. Once squirrels go into “frozen-against-the-tree” mode they tend to stay put, allowing you to move your partner into position for a shot.

Some squirrels will not react to your approach by hiding from you. Some seem downright offended by our intrusion into their homes and react by “scolding” the source of their agitation, the squirrelly equivalent of a good cussing out. Scolding may serve some useful purpose in nature, but during hunting season it serves mostly to get squirrels shot because a scolding squirrel is an easy target, usually sitting upright and excitedly twitching its tail as it emits a series of loud, raspy squealing noises. Most of the time when you hear a scolding squirrel you can walk to the source of the noise and shoot the animal without much difficulty.

There are different ways to approach the task of finding squirrels. Some hunters simply go for a walk through the woods, looking for squirrels bounding along the ground, running along limbs, or hiding among the branches. This technique works better if there are two hunters who work together by taking turns doing the moving. You should move apart until just barely in sight of one another (fairly close together in heavy cover, farther apart in more open woods) and let one hunter walk ahead while the other stays still and studies the trees above the first, watching for squirrels that change positions as the walker passes beneath. By alternating who’s walking and who’s watching, you’ll pick up animals that would otherwise be unseen.

Recognizing sly movement among the branches is easier on calm days when there’s less rustling and shifting of wind.Another popular strategy is to find a likely spot, take a seat, and quietly watch the trees. Any squirrels in the area will have likely frozen in place upon your arrival but they will eventually move. Be
patient because they’ll sometimes stay put for a long time, but sooner or later they will stir and give themselves away. When you make a shot, don’t be in a rush to pick up the fallen animal; instead keep scanning overhead because the sound of your shot will often cause other nearby squirrels to move, giving you the chance to double up.

Squirrels can also be called. Squirrel calls produce a very loud and high- pitched squeal that imitates the sound made by a young squirrel in dire distress. Adult squirrels in the area will come from
surprisingly far away to locate the source of the calling, and when they come they tend to be excited and in a hurry. Sometimes a squirrel that’s scampering from tree to tree towards the sound of a call will get close, stop, and switch into scolding mode when it realizes that something’s not right.

Time for Supper

Every hunter, including your new young recruit, needs to understand that with few exceptions we kill only what we’re going to eat, so it’s important to complete the hunting adventure with a meal made from your quarry. Fortunately, squirrel is good on the table, but they can be a real pain to skin. The “stand on the tail and pull by the hind legs” technique (Google how to skin a squirrel to see plenty of Youtube videos) seems to work about two-thirds of the time, but on the more stubborn animals you’ll be tugging and pulling for a while to remove the hide. Recipe options abound. Bon Appetit! FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Dec. 2012

By Ralph Allen