Fishing or squirrel hunting? What will it be?
That’s what many Arkansas athletes are wondering this month. Summer is a great time to enjoy some of the best angling of the year for bass, bream, crappie, trout, and other sport fish. But squirrel hunting is also great this season, and many who enjoy being outdoors despite the heat and humidity of summer are also drawn to the popular pastime. Decisions decisions ….
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose one favorite hobby over another. The hardwood forests along many fishing streams in The Natural State are home to scores of foxes and gray squirrels, and on a river boat trip, anyone with a penchant for squirrel hunting and fishing can enjoy the best of both worlds.
Some take a floating trip primarily to fish, and if a squirrel or two are picked up along the way, that’s just a bonus. For others, the squirrels are the main reason for being on the water, and fishing fills the time when there’s a lull in the action. For now, let’s assume squirrels are your focus and discuss some tips and tactics that can make your next hover hunt a success.
Start by locating a stream that flows through good squirrel habitat: mature forest made up of oak, hickory, and other mast-producing hardwoods. Select a stream that runs through a national forest, wildlife management area, or other public land where you can hunt without worrying about encroachment issues. Many rivers in Arkansas fit this mold, including the portions of Big Piney Creek, the Illinois Bayou, and the Mulberry River that run through the Ozark National Forest; sections of the Caddo and Ouachita rivers in the Ouachita National Forest; Glaise Creek and Little Red River in the Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area near Bald Knob; Robe Bayou in the Dagmar WMA near Brinkley; and the Cache River in the Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA near Augusta.
The slower the current, the better the float technique will work. Whitewater rapids are neither safe nor feasible when you plan to shoot from the water. The best streams are classified as Class I or II: moving water with few or no rapids and obstructions, so little maneuvering is needed.
Unless you can drive back to your launch site, you should also select a creek with bridges or road access at convenient entry and exit points. A 5- to 10-mile stretch is usually ideal for a day float hunt, but how far you should plan to travel depends on the speed of the current’s flow, the amount of hunting time you have, and if you plan to camp. Arrange shuttle service with an outfitter ahead of time, or plan to hunt with a partner and drive two vehicles to the river.
Canoes are the boat of choice for most squirrel hunters on the water because they are quiet and easy to maneuver with just a paddle. John boats can also be used. They provide a more stable alternative and can be easily maneuvered with a small trolling motor or by paddling from the front seat.
River squirrel hunting offers several advantages. First is accessibility. In a canoe or small boat, you have access to secluded areas rarely visited by hunters. The hunting pressure is usually light and the shooting results of high quality.
Hover fighters also bring you closer to your intended prey. River squirrels are rarely wary of hunters in boats, and floating eliminates sounds made by even the most careful stalker. A silent approach by water, even through areas that are heavily hunted, usually fools the squirrels.
Hunters must be afloat at dawn when the squirrels are most active. Most hunters work in pairs. One rows the boat into position while the other shoots, and they change places periodically, working as a team.
It helps to come up with a set of simple hand signals that allow the two of you to communicate, silently, during the crucial moments after a squirrel is sighted. The rower may lose sight of the squirrel while maneuvering the boat. The shooter, therefore, must keep his eyes on the quarry and let his partner know the best position to position the boat for a good shot. When all is well, and not until then, the gun is shouldered and the archer shoots.
As you move downstream, move along one creek bank or another, taking advantage of overhanging cover for concealment and keeping within reach of trees and shoreline. Move slowly and stop in likely areas.
From time to time, it may be necessary to tie up and spend some time looking for and listening for squirrels. If the float takes you to a good section of woods with an active population of squirrels, feel free to beach your boat and disembark to hunt in areas away from the creek. However, make sure you don’t trespass on private land and always tie your boat down to something solid so the river doesn’t steal it.
Shotguns are the safest and most effective for bagging bushy tails from a boat. A 20-gauge or 12-gauge loaded with #6 shot works well, and only one gun is needed because it’s safer for the person in front to shoot. Other gear essentials include life jackets for each hunter, an extra paddle, a cooler to store your game, plus a dip net to catch squirrels that fall into the water.
If you’ve brought your rod, reel, and tackle box, take some time now and then to enjoy fishing, too. When my friends and I go out float hunting, we usually chase bushtails early in the day when they are most active, then release and retrieve bass, crappie, bream, and other fish mid-morning or so when the squirrels usually return to their spots. . nests and burrows. Very often, we will bring home a limit of squirrels and a large quantity of fish to put on the family tables.
What constitutes a successful river squirrel hunt? For some, it’s nothing short of a squirrel cap. But for most of us, just being there is a triumph. As we move downstream, we find peace, relaxation, and relief from all the tired realities that bind our hearts and minds. And if we catch a few squirrels, or maybe catch a fish or two, along the way, that’s just an added treat.