Warning: Expect the winter squirrels to leave their dens and become active by mid-morning.. Dan Callister/Alamy
As a kid, my favorite place to be in winter was on the wooden ridges behind my neighbor Ronnie’s house, with my .22 rifle in hand. Ronnie loved fried squirrel, and filling his pan was my fee for access to the choice forest through his garden. But he was demanding. He didn’t take old squirrels and he didn’t put up with sloppy aim. One morning I knocked on his door and proudly showed a limit of gray hair, all crossed by his body. He flatly rejected them. “Headshots only,” he said.
I quickly learned that the winter woods, when the squirrels are in a frenzy to make more squirrels, would offer plenty of headshot opportunities if I was patient. A few mornings later, I knocked on Ronnie’s door with six gray squirrels in hand. He nodded and took them, and I paid my toll. I could keep hunting behind his house.
I don’t know how many hundreds of days I’ve spent hunting squirrels since then. I know that shooting headshots to the limit with a rimfire rifle is hard enough to make me very proud when I pull it off. I also know that there is no more productive time to try it than on a sunny December day.
Where and how to hunt late season squirrels
Once the hard mast falls to the ground, the squirrels descend from the treetops along with it. Anyone who has ever sat in a deer stand on a hardwood hill has seen and heard the chaos firsthand. The same ridges that were covered with squirrels during deer season are great places to go squirrel hunting in December. Much of the furious work you see during deer hunting is from squirrels storing caches of food that they will revisit over the winter.
Sitting in your booth after deer season with your .22 in hand can definitely work. In fact, it’s downright satisfying to punish all those rodents that looked too much like Boone and Crockett’s bucks marching through the leaves.
However, I prefer to hunt from the ground, where I can move. During a good mast year, the squirrels will continue to forage and stockpile caches of food as long as the weather allows. You’re likely to see squirrels on just about any ridge, but late in the season some places will have more nuts than others, and that’s where the action will be. I like to slide from one ridge to the next and sit on each one for half an hour. If there are squirrels nearby, it won’t be long before you hear or see them.
Why hunting squirrels in the winter is a good idea
Winter squirrel hunters have more than nuts going for them, and that’s the heat of the squirrel grind. Adult gray squirrels breed twice a year, once in winter and once in late spring. The odds of seeing a trophy boar chasing a late-season sow around the base of a large oak tree are high. When you do, remember this: Stay calm and always shoot the one below you first, to prevent them from passing the other. Do that, and you’re almost guaranteed a shot at both bugs.
Choosing a good day to hunt is simple. Go when the weather is nice. Heavy snow, freezing rain, or temperatures below 20 degrees are good reasons not to go squirrel hunting now because the squirrels are likely to stay in their dens. Calm and sunny days are the best. You also don’t have to wake up before dawn to hunt. The best action is usually mid-morning, after the frost has dissipated.
The best rifles for hunting squirrels
You can kill a lot of squirrels with a shotgun by the end of the year, but you’re missing out on a big challenge if you don’t carry a rifle. Dry, fallen leaves and open wood can make lurking near ground-feeding squirrels somewhat difficult, but that’s half the fun. Just move when the squirrel has its head buried in the leaves, or when it’s behind a tree. I grew up using saplings as rifle rests, but these days the folding Primos Trigger Sticks are hard to beat.
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My squirrel rifle is a Marlin 880 SS, and it’s the same bolt action .22 with the same 4X fixed scope that I’ve been using since I was a kid. I can still hit a squirrel in the head at 40 yards. Some hunters use more specialized equipment to shoot from longer distances. My friend Ricky King is probably the most dedicated squirrel hunter I know, and he carries a CZ .17 Mach 2 with a high powered scope. He likes to sit on high knolls and use that rifle to hunt squirrels over 100 yards.
Since the point of this game is to have fun, it doesn’t matter if you prefer to sneak up on them or shoot the squirrels from afar. You are likely to be successful. But if you want the best squirrels for the pan, my advice is the same as Ronnie’s: headshots only.