You settle under an oak tree, your back snugly against the trunk, the shotgun in your lap, the warm autumn sun on your face, and you wait.
That’s squirrel hunting, right?
Can be. Hunters catch many squirrels that way each fall. But there are also ways to improve the game and make things a bit more exciting.
Hunting bushytails armed with a squirrel call is one.
“If you’re a true squirrel hunter, you’ll have one of those types of calls with you,” said Jimmy Primos, director of operations for Primos Hunting Calls.
“Squirrels are very vocal animals, and using a call is a very effective way to hunt them down.”
The calls, made by a variety of manufacturers, are intended to mimic a series of chipmunk sounds. Gray squirrels and foxes have chattering, alarm and distress calls, screeching and barking. The sounds they both make are similar, if not exactly the same, with deeper sounds like fox and squirrel, among other things, he said.
Calling doesn’t attract the squirrels so much, like what happens when you call turkeys, but it makes them reveal themselves.
You can use them in an oak or hickory forest before you have seen your first squirrel, to make the animals chirp.
That’s a good tactic, Primos said. However, his favorite trick is to position yourself in an area with a .22 rifle and then wait. Only after seeing a couple of squirrels around him, and even shooting one, does he launch the call for him.
“If I shoot the first one I see, the others that may be around remain hidden, and I don’t even realize they’re there. If I wait until I see several, I can shoot one and then after a few minutes I can work on the call and the rest come right back out,” Primos said.
“The shot from a .22 isn’t very strong, so maybe they’ll decide that shot was nothing to worry about.”
Primos gets its best results in those cases by using its call to create chattering sounds with a “hiss” at the end.
“I’ve seen and heard a lot of squirrels get up and make that hiss,” he said. “I don’t know what it says to a squirrel, but I’ve really had some luck with it.”
Chances are, if you’re trying to hunt squirrels, you won’t have much competition.
The number of squirrel hunters has plummeted over time. There were nearly 370,000 squirrel hunters in Pennsylvania in 1990. Last fall there were only about 140,000.
“I don’t see many squirrel hunters anymore,” said Rich Joyce, a wildlife conservation officer for the commission in southern Washington County.
“I think there are so many other seasons open at the same time, and so many opportunities, that the squirrels get overlooked. Maybe all the old squirrel hunters are sitting in a tree waiting for deer.”
Matt Lucas, conservation officer in southern Westmoreland County, agrees. He sees some parents hunting squirrels with children and even entire families.
But adults who hunt squirrels for their own sake are rarer, he said.
However, if you decide to spend some time hunting squirrels this fall, armed with a .22 and call or not, the prospects are good.
Unlike other small game species, chipmunks are abundant throughout the state.
Their populations are at least stable everywhere, if not entirely good in many places, said Matt Lovallo, supervisor of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s game mammal section.
And although the total number of captures has decreased as hunters have disappeared, the number of captures per 100 days spent in the forest has remained stable.
That, Lovallo said, means the squirrels are there, if the hunters decide to go after them.
“I don’t think we have a shortage of squirrels, that’s for sure,” Lovallo said.
Some reports indicate that fox squirrels, which can weigh 2 pounds, twice as much as their gray cousins, are even expanding their territory, he said.
Additionally, acorns, a primary food source for squirrels, are abundant in many places.
“The areas where I find oaks, it’s like a marble festival,” Lucas said. “There’s a lot of food out there.”
Nate Kimmel, the commission’s conservation officer in north Somerset County, said the acorn crop is also good in his area, as does Chris Reidmiller, the commission’s office in south Indiana county.
Hickory nuts, another squirrel favorite, are especially abundant, Reidmiller said.
All that remains is to get out. Joyce will be squirrel hunting with her son for pot pies and other favorite foods of hers.
“We have a lot of squirrels here,” Joyce said. “You can pick just about any grove or any playground in southwestern Pennsylvania, and especially here in Washington County, and you’ll find squirrels.”
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.