New Hunter Mentoring: It all starts with a gray squirrel

It’s a warm October afternoon in a hickory ridge, and I’m doing my best to be a ghost. Slowly, slowly, I drop my foot onto the dry leaves on the forest floor. Moving silently in these conditions seems impossible, but I slide down the ridge, looking up at the sky. Sixty yards ahead, in the top of a Shagbark hickory, two gray squirrels rain the clippings of the hickory nuts they are devouring onto the ground.

I grip the old .22-caliber Remington rifle tight, trying to find a quiet step for each step. Slow, slow, I fight the urge to be faster – patience is key here. It’s hard to see through the foliage, but if one of the squirrels changes position, I stop and lie still for a few minutes until I think it’s safe to move. When I get to about 35 yards, I settle down next to a red oak tree and settle in, trying to get a good rest for the rifle. I know it may be several minutes before one of the squirrels clears up enough to shoot. Patience, I tell myself. When I finally see the opportunity, the sight is placed at the base of the squirrel’s ear; I exhale and begin to slowly and steadily squeeze the trigger.

Most of us would agree these days that we have a shortage of hunters. The decline in the number of hunters has been a major concern in recent years and many organizations (including the NRA) have worked to improve this situation with programs such as the three R’s: Recruitment new Hunters, to hold back the hunters we have, and reactivating hunters who have stopped hunting. These are all worthy goals and I applaud them, but how do we attract new hunters to try our sport and how do we train and educate them in the many facets of hunting? One way is squirrel hunting.

gray squirrel on limb

the forest classroom

For many of us east of Big Muddy, the squirrel forest is where we learned to hunt. The skills needed to hunt anything from Whitetails to Greater Kudu can be learned by chasing bushytails. So, let’s think about it; What are the basic, foundational things that the young hunter (or anyone new to hunting) needs to learn?

Hunter holds the trophy

How to get around the forest

hunter with squirrel

Moving silently in the woods has been a necessary skill for hunters since the days when we all carried sharp sticks. Those who have never hunted squirrels may think that this is not necessary to bag a limit, but they are wrong. Do not confuse the squirrels in the city park with the ones you are going to hunt. Walking through the forest on dry leaves will not give you the ingredients for squirrel sauce and cookies. The squirrels will teach you when to move, how far to move, and what is safe to step on. These are the building blocks for any spot and stalk effort.

how to stay still

Just like moving silently, the simple act of staying still is essential for all hunters. For young children (and some adults) this seems almost impossible, but it can be learned in short sessions. The new hunter will soon discover that most animals will pay no attention to them. if they don’t move. Having a close encounter with different creatures teaches a new hunter a lot, and best of all, it’s a lot of fun. This is all supposed to be fun, remember?

Find the food, find the game.

Another lesson that all hunters must learn is to hunt for food sources. Most wild animals spend much of their day simply looking for something to eat. No matter how good a stretch of forest looks, if there’s no food there, the game won’t be either. The squirrels depend heavily on the conditions of the mast (the seeds and nuts of various trees). Oaks and hickories (hard mast) will be your main targets, but squirrels also enjoy some soft masts like dogwood berries and apples. Sessions in the woods before hunting season are a great way to learn and will be very beneficial. A tree identification field guide is a good resource for the new hunter who will soon learn which food sources to focus on.

Huntress points up a tree at a squirrel

Shoot don’t shoot

The squirrels will quickly teach the hunter when to shoot and when not to shoot. There are times when the squirrels stay still for long periods and other times they are in almost constant motion. During the move-stop-move routine, the novice hunter learns to wait until the correct shot is presented. Shot placement for a clean and ethical kill, and knowing when it’s safe to shoot are all part of the equation here.

safety lessons

The new hunter, under the supervision of a mentor, will learn the many aspects of hunter safety. First come the cornerstones. Always keeping your muzzle pointed in a safe direction, taking your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot, and positively identifying the target before you touch the trigger are just part of the lesson here. After this, many other facets of hunter safety can be addressed, such as safely crossing fences, wearing bright orange clothing, unloading when crossing an unsafe walking area, safely storing the firearm in a vehicle and many others.

Game Care Basics

Those who don’t come from a squirrel hunting background sometimes think it’s weird if you talk about eating squirrels. Just trust me on this, properly prepared squirrel is some of the tastiest wild game you will ever eat. Learning to properly dress and groom squirrels and other small animals is simple, but it does take a little practice. A few good days in the squirrel forest will give you that practice. Taking pride in producing clean, well-managed wild animals will produce years of delicious entrees for the family table. When the new hunter graduates from hunting small game to the first deer, he will be much better prepared to handle it.

National Forest Boundary

low cost of entry

Squirrels can be the perfect game to start and train hunters young and old. Almost any wooded area can have huntable numbers of these tasty little critters. There are millions of acres of public hunting land in this great country of ours, and on the private land side, landowners will often allow you to hunt squirrels even when resisting deer or turkey. No fancy gear needed: a pair of boots, some old jeans and a sweatshirt with a bright orange vest and you’re ready to go. Just about any .22 caliber shotgun or rifle will do a good job as a squirrel gun.

Whether you’re a new hunter or a mentor, the squirrel forest is waiting for you. What are you waiting for?