I’ve written quite a bit about squirrel hunting in the past, and I hope I haven’t bored you. This type of traditional, close-to-the-land hunting strikes a chord with me. I can’t help it; it just does
I think it has to do with where I come from and what shaped me as a versatile wood rat and hunter. We really can’t escape who we are.
I have been a squirrel hunter for most of my life. In some parts of the country, hunters think that’s a strange statement because they didn’t grow up hunting squirrels and it’s not part of their hunting culture. In my part of the world, the southern Appalachian Mountains, there was a time when most young hunters started out chasing squirrels. Squirrel Forest is where we learned to be hunters, gaining all the basic skills needed to chase everything from bushy tails to large kudu, and so can you.
Squirrel hunting was made for first time hunters. You can hunt them almost anywhere – any wooded area is likely to have squirrels. East of the Mississippi, there is an estimated 384 million acres of forest; much of this is on public lands, such as national forests or state wildlife management areas. As for private land, many times landowners will give you permission to hunt squirrels when they couldn’t hunt deer or turkey. As a result, expensive leases are not required to be a squirrel hunter.
In addition to stalking and tactics, the squirrels will teach you other basics that every hunter should know. Learning to find and recognize the food that the game needs is essential for any hunter. If you think about it, much of what a wild animal does every day is walking around and looking for something to eat. This applies to deer, bears, turkeys, and squirrels. The latter will establish a home range, especially if it is centered around a good burrowing tree, usually a large, old tree that has holes for squirrels to crawl into. This is the bombproof haven they’ll go to when all else fails, and it can be their bedroom during bad weather.
Squirrel hunting also doesn’t require a lot of special equipment. If you have a .22 rifle or shotgun and a pair of boots, you’re ready to go squirrel hunting. Camouflage clothing can help, but is not absolutely necessary; you can use your old jeans and a sweatshirt. If you have a turkey vest, they are a great way to carry squirrels and whatever gear you choose to carry, as well as providing a seat cushion. A small game or bird vest is also helpful.
Any .22 rifle that can shoot accurately out to 50 yards will work just fine, as will most shotguns, and you don’t necessarily need three-inch, 12-gauge magnum cartridges; a 20 caliber will work just fine, or even a .410 for younger hunters.
Let me take you back to when I was 10 or 12 years old. On the first day of squirrel season, I jump out of my bed, where I’m sure I didn’t sleep. Getting ready involves nothing more than throwing on blue jeans and a flannel shirt, and maybe grabbing a plate of Cheerios. Unlike the mountain of gear that seems to be necessary nowadays, I have my squirrel pin (it’s for attaching the squirrels I collect and is made by folding a coat hanger) on my belt and some .410 cartridges in my pocket. I follow Dad out the door, he turns on the International Scout and off we go.
This is a day trip close to home, so in a few minutes it stops on an old dirt road and we sit in the pre-dawn darkness. The anticipation, the suppressed emotion, is palpable. We’ve waited months for this, and now it’s here. The realization that the event is here and we are now experiencing it seems, well, almost euphoric.
I look back now, after all these years, and wonder: Was Dad really as excited as I was on those opening mornings? Or was he just playing with a skinny kid who lived to go hunting? It’s just one of a hundred questions I wish I could ask you.
Many of today’s hunters may find it hard to believe that the opening day of squirrel season was ever such a big deal—I mean, as big a deal as the start of deer season. It was not uncommon for the surrounding woods to resound with the hunters’ shots on opening day. I remember Dad saying it sounded like a “young war.” In the past, hordes of hunters would go into the woods in search of a tree-dwelling rodent that could weigh a pound or two.
Why? There are probably several reasons.
Fifty years ago, we certainly had more hunters. Hunting was something that more people considered important, and more young people naturally followed their fathers, uncles and grandfathers to the squirrel forest, more than today. In some areas, like my native southern West Virginia, small game such as squirrels may be the only game in town. Deer were not found in the entire state, and wild turkeys were not in abundance either.
Saturday is the start of squirrel season in West Virginia. It’s already started in some southeastern states, including Georgia and Tennessee, and others will soon follow, with Alabama on board this Saturday. Would you consider an early morning trip to the misty forest this year? Maybe a long time has passed for you, since life and other types of hunting got in the way.
The golden autumn forest, the squirrels and that boy with wide eyes full of wonder are waiting for you.
“The Trail Less Traveled” is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.