This is not the game you might think it is.
Mention squirrels to the average hunter, and he or she probably remembers the first days of October in the field, probably as a young hunter, sitting under an oak tree with Dad’s old secondhand shotgun. Memories of warm sunshine, shiny leaves and bushy tails almost foolishly active spring to mind.
Nice. But not applicable here.
Winter squirrel hunting is completely different.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun. It certainly is. It’s an absolute blast, in fact, and a perfect way to unwind from the intensity of big game seasons.
But the squirrels in the landscape are now survivors. The more naive, or less cautious, grays and foxes are gone, reclaimed by hunters or Mother Nature.
Hunting for those that remain when temperatures drop and snow falls requires different techniques than earlier in the season.
For starters, unlike early fall early risers, squirrels in winter are typically active mid-morning and later.
That’s because, like all wild creatures, living at this time of year requires you to take in more calories than you burn. Running through the woods at dawn, when temperatures are lower, can put things on the negative side of the ledger.
Therefore, hunting from, say, 9 am to mid-afternoon is usually more productive.
Mid-mornings on the first warm, sunny day after a period of cooler, cloudier weather can be particularly good. That’s especially true if you know the location of the den trees where the squirrels spend the cold. Positioning yourself nearby when the weather breaks can be awesome.
As for where to hunt, it’s all about food.
Some trees that produce masts, such as oaks and hickories, may still have nuts high on their branches. They are good at aiming.
So are the edges of harvested cornfields, especially if you hunt fox squirrels in mixed hardwood and agricultural areas.
Generally speaking, though, most of the acorns and other foods that squirrels seek are already on the ground. So he scans the forest floor to find squirrels. Binoculars can be a help.
Just be ready to shoot from longer distances. There are two reasons for that.
First, most of the leaves are no longer on the trees. That’s both good and bad for the squirrel hunter.
Of course, it makes spotting squirrels easier. But it also makes it easier for them to notice you’re coming through the woods.
Wearing camouflage under your orange helps enough to be worth it, but squirrels have pretty decent eyesight and escaping the spotlight is difficult. You can’t wait to step on them now.
Second, there is the ground itself.
Stalking squirrels in winter works if you’re outside after a thaw. But otherwise, it’s hard to be quiet when you’re on the go. Icy ground is often too crispy underfoot.
Those things make winter squirrel hunting a game of precision, especially if you’re doing it alone.
So forget about the shotgun. Instead, a rimfire rifle, either .22 or .17, loaded with hollow points is the perfect tool, at least if you can place all your shots at 50 yards in a quarter-sized circle.
Finally, a chipmunk call can help if used sparingly.
Call too often in relatively scantily clad winter woods, and a squirrel might pinpoint your location. That’s especially true if you move too much while making squirrel noises.
But an occasional bark can sometimes be enough for the squirrels to respond and maybe show off.
So make it a point to hunt down some squirrels this winter. Seasons are long, squirrels are abundant almost everywhere, and bag limits are liberal. Squirrels are also good eaters and lend themselves to all kinds of tabletop preparation.
And there’s something really satisfying about bringing home a cap this time of year, when you often have the forest to yourself.
Squirrels can look small after months of chasing white tails. But don’t be fooled.
The challenge they offer, especially at this time of year, is quite great.