Squirrels are not as popular as deer or turkeys among serious sportsmen. No one decorates their walls with mounts of European squirrels or brags about how many rodents they caught during the rut. Come to think of it, the humble bushytail may be among Michigan’s most underrated game species. All of that aside, there’s a lot to love about the sport.
For starters, there’s simplicity. You don’t need lures, trail cameras, or tree supports. The season is long, lasting a full six months, from early fall to early spring. Plus, it’s a great activity during the winter when almost all seasons have closed and stream fishing still seems a long way off. Bag limits are liberal, with five bushytails allowed per hunter, per day. But make no mistake, labeling is not easy. No matter how the city squirrels behave, the wild country variety is skittish as a white-tailed deer, so serious hunters bring their A-game outdoors. Beginning gamers often start small game, and in the Midwest, that usually means squirrels or rabbits. Likewise, the first wild game I brought into the bag (aside from starlings) was a fox squirrel that fell into a hail of airgun pellets. That afternoon I strutted home, full of pride and swinging my prize for his magnificent copper-colored tail. I have recorded many “firsts” over nearly four decades of hunting, but that experience is especially high. Dinner never tasted so sweet.
Squirrel meat rivals the best table food, but you don’t need to remind it of Lani, the long-suffering wife of fellow columnist Chris Smith. She just last week served a squirrel dressed as a chicken… to which Sweet Wife then ordered seconds. What a shame it would have been if she had completely missed out on this delicacy simply because he had been honest. And Lani is not alone. Most people are surprised to learn that well-prepared squirrel tastes mild and delicious.
Michigan is home to several varieties of squirrels, including the large reddish fox, the slightly smaller gray (which includes tan and black phases), and the tiny red, which is normally only hunted for pest control, not I eat food.
Look for fox squirrels along the ground, rather than scampering through an oak tree. It’s not that they don’t use trees, just that they are less likely than the gray ones. Establish along transition areas where crop fields meet hardwoods. Southwest Michigan, where I hunt, is overrun with them, especially among the winding strips of forest that separate riverbeds from soybean fields. Instead, focus on mature stands of oak, beech, and hickory for grays, as they seem to spend more time in the heights than their crop-loving cousins. Watch for a wagging tail or a ragged protrusion protruding from a trunk or branch.
Hunting squirrels with dogs is popular in the south, but north of Dixie, the two most popular tactics are sit-and-wait and still hunting (which, despite the term, means moving slowly through the woods, not standing still). Either method can be effective, but the temperature dictates the approach and it is more comfortable to move around when the weather is very cold. Whichever you prefer, check the forecast for clear, calm mornings, and reach the forest before sunrise.
Hunting squirrels with a rifle is like hunting deer: you just sit there without moving a muscle. Beyond that, success comes down to waiting, which can be harder than you think. Often an hour passes immobile before the bushytails appear. When it comes to weapons, any tack will suffice, whether it’s a bolt-action, lever-action, or semi-automatic rifle. Accuracy is paramount, so a quality rimfire specific scope set at 50 yards is ideal. Iron sights work for close quarters, but a quarter-sized headshot at 50 yards requires magnification.
Shotgunning, on the other hand, involves creeping quietly and using hills and valleys to hide. However, once the squirrel realizes something is wrong, he goes off to the races, and the situation feels more like a track and field event, with no shortage of huffing and puffing. Dress in layers for comfort and don’t forget to wear a bright orange garment for safety and legality.
While rifle hunting is a solitary sport, shotgun hunting is more of a team effort, in part because squirrels love to hide behind tree trunks. When the hunter moves, so does the squirrel. It goes round and round until the hunter finally gives up, assuming the prey must have gotten into a den or moved on. However, when two hunters employ a tag team approach, the squirrel has a harder time hiding and shooting opportunities improve dramatically.
Squirrels may not have the value of larger, more glamorous game, but they demand every ounce of stealth, patience, and marksmanship a hunter can muster. Plus, a chipmunk meal is hard to beat. So try them. If you are successful, please email me about the squirrel and dumpling recipe mentioned above. I am happy to share.