In Arkansas, squirrel season runs through the end of February. Part of this period, from late December through January, is the squirrels’ mating period, a time when these normally wary creatures may chase through the trees all day, throwing caution to the wind. .
Rutting squirrels exhibit behavior very similar to rutting deer. Squirrels’ high-level hormones drive them a little crazy. They can appear at any time of day, running up, down, and around trees, totally oblivious to the stealthy hunter. It’s one of the few times you’ll find squirrels off guard and one of the best times for a successful hunt.
“During the rut, you’ll see a lot of squirrels running through the treetops,” said Benton hunter Joe Huggins. “Like white-tailed deer in rut, [squirrels] They seem oblivious to what is going on around them. They pay no attention to the hunter. They’re making so much noise that they don’t hear you like they normally would. They’re barking all the time, so it’s easy to find and slip on them.”
Huggins has hunted squirrels in sweet pecan groves along the lower Arkansas River since childhood. Trees on these bottoms often exceed 100 feet in height. A motionless squirrel can be difficult to spot.
“I like to hunt during heat because the squirrels are more likely to be on the ground,” he said. “The mast has fallen down, so they do most of their feeding on the ground. It also gets cold at night, sometimes in the 20’s or teens. That means the squirrels come out of their nests and burrows a little later at that time of year. You don’t have to be out there at dawn to hunt them down. They will wait until it warms up a bit, around 9am, before going out to eat, and you will see most of them scratching leaves on the ground.”
Although squirrel hunting is a solitary sport for most, Huggins prefers to hunt with a partner in winter.
“As we stalk through the woods, we will scare a lot of squirrels to the ground,” he said. “Usually they jump off the side of a tree and then start running. Watch them, and you will likely see them run towards a lair tree or a tree that is covered in vines. You’re pretty much out of luck if they hit a lair hole. But if they run up a tree that has some creeping vines, two hunters can catch them almost every time.”
A hunter puts down his weapon and grabs a vine. The other backs up where he has a good view of the treetop and trunk and prepares for action.
“The squirrel knows you’re there, so it will cling to the bark, moving around the tree so it won’t be seen,” Huggins said. “Sometimes it will be lying on top of a branch or on a fork. When you shake the vine, it’s not likely to run away. But it is likely to be thrown over the side of the tree or branch. The guy with the gun watches the movement closely, circling the tree if necessary. When he sees the squirrel, he tells the buddy about it, makes sure he has a sure shot, and then tries to kill it.
“When the grind ends at the end of January, the squirrels don’t run around making such a racket,” he continued. “Instead, they are more likely to feed, then climb onto a high branch and lie down, soaking up the sun to keep warm. So they are like totally different animals. And because they are harder to spot, they are also harder to hunt. That’s why we like to hunt during the mating season. The squirrels are not so cautious then; they are louder and easier to spot, and that makes them easier to hunt.”
Lake Village’s Jerry Seamans also enjoy squirrel hunting at the end of the season. He hunts throughout the Arkansas season, but notes that his early-season tactics differ greatly from those used during the grind.
“There are some big differences in squirrel hunting this time of year,” he said. “One is the fact that the tree cover is generally gone. The leaves have fallen off, and that can be both a plus and a minus. You can see the squirrel more easily, but he can also see you more easily.
“Another thing is that the food that the squirrels ate during the first part of the season is mainly on the ground. For that reason, it’s a good idea to try to find trees that have held their acorns longer. For example, pin oaks seem to hold their neck a little longer than white oaks. So they are likely to attract a lot of squirrels to their branches, where they are easier to spot.”
Like Huggins, Seamans spends most of his hunting time late in the season looking for squirrels on the ground. But he prefers a solitary hunt, usually lurking in the woods or peering into the trees of the burrow.
“If you know the locations of some den trees, those are good places to hunt this time of year,” he said. “Move in as quietly as you can as soon as you can; then sit back and wait for the squirrels to come out.
“You can also do some static hunting, moving very slowly and quietly, trying to spot a squirrel before it sees you. I see a lot more squirrels in the winter while sitting at a deer stand instead of moving through the woods. The main reason is that they can see me when I move. If you’re moving, make sure you’re wearing good camouflage. I believe in wearing camouflage no matter when you’re hunting, but it’s especially important when the leaves are off. Some hunters think you can get away with a little less camouflage when hunting squirrels, but squirrels have good eyes just like deer, ducks and other wildlife.”
Dawn hunts are often most productive during the early months of squirrel season. But when the routine is active, Seamans notices a second peak of increased activity at the end of the day.
“My experience has been that you hear more squirrels barking and in heat in the late afternoon than in the morning,” he reported. “It is the coldest season of the year and, being small animals, squirrels have to maintain their body heat by eating regularly. So first they work on their food supply,
early in the day and resume their rutting activities later. Anyone who has ever sat in a deer stand has probably noticed this. There is more activity among the squirrels later in the day, making it a great time to hunt.”
Using the tips shared by Huggins and Seamans can help a hunter get the most out of a late season squirrel hunt. For those who enjoy a dinner of squirrel and meatballs or fried squirrel with gravy, it’s the best time of year to enjoy a day in the woods.