You’ve heard me talk a lot about squirrel hunting in the past, and I hope I haven’t bored you with it. This type of traditional, close-to-the-land hunting strikes a chord with me. I can’t help it, it just does. I think it has to do with where I come from and what shaped me as a versatile wood rat and hunter. We really can’t escape who we are.
I have been a squirrel hunter for most of my life. In some parts of the country, hunters think that’s a strange statement. They did not grow up hunting squirrels and it is not part of their hunting culture. In my part of the world, the southern Appalachian Mountains, there was a time when most young hunters started squirrel hunting. The squirrel forest is where we learned to be hunters. It’s where we learned all the basic skills needed to hunt everything from bushytails to Greater Kudu. You can too.
Squirrel hunting was made for new and first time hunters. You can hunt them almost everywhere; any wooded area is likely to have squirrels. East of the Mississippi is an estimated 384 million acres of forest. Much of this is on public lands like the National Forest and state wildlife management areas. As for private land, many times landowners will give you permission to hunt squirrels when they couldn’t hunt deer or turkey. There are no expensive leases required to be a squirrel hunter.
In addition to all the stalking and tactical skills, the squirrels will teach you other basics that every hunter should know. Learning to find and recognize the food that the game needs is essential for any hunter. If you think about it, much of what a wild animal does every day is walking around and looking for something to eat. This applies to deer, bears, turkeys, and squirrels. Squirrels will establish a home range, especially if it is centered around a good burrowing tree, usually a large, old tree that has holes for squirrels to crawl into. This is the bombproof shelter that squirrels will flock to when all else fails and can be the place to sleep during bad weather.
Squirrel hunting does not require a lot of special equipment. If you have a .22 rifle or shotgun and a pair of boots, you’re ready to go squirrel hunting. Camouflage clothing can help but is not absolutely necessary, use your old jeans and a sweatshirt. If you have a turkey vest, they are a great way to carry squirrels and whatever gear you choose to carry, as well as providing a seat cushion. A small game or bird vest is also helpful.
Any .22 rifle that can shoot accurately out to 50 yards will work just as well as most shotguns, and not necessarily a 12-gauge and three-inch Magnum shells, a 20-gauge will work just fine, or even a .410 for younger hunters .
When I was 10 or 12 years old on the first day of the season, I would jump out of my bed where I’m pretty sure I wasn’t sleeping. Getting ready involved nothing more than throwing on blue jeans and a flannel shirt and maybe grabbing a plate of Cheerios. Unlike the mountain of gear that seems to be necessary nowadays, I have my squirrel pin (it’s for attaching the squirrels I collect and is made by folding a coat hanger) on my belt and some .410 shotgun shells in my pocket.
I follow my dad out the door and he starts up the International Scout and off we go. This is a day trip close to home, so in a few minutes it stops on an old dirt road and we sit in the pre-dawn darkness. The anticipation, the suppressed emotion, is palpable. We’ve waited months for this, and now it’s here. The realization that the event is here, and now we are living it, seems good, almost euphoric.
I look back now, after so many years, and wonder if Dad was really as excited as I was on those opening mornings. Or was he just playing with a skinny kid who lived to go hunting? It’s just one of a hundred questions I wish I could ask you.
Many of today’s hunters may find it hard to believe that opening day of squirrel season was once such a big deal. I mean, as important as deer season. It was not uncommon for the surrounding woods to resound with the hunters’ shots on opening day. I remember my dad saying it sounded like a “young war”. In the past, hordes of hunters would go into the woods in search of a tree-dwelling rodent that could weigh a pound or two. Why? There are probably several reasons.
Fifty years ago, we certainly had more hunters. Hunting was something that more people considered important and more young people naturally followed their fathers, uncles and grandfathers to the squirrel forest, more than today. In some areas, like my native southern West Virginia, small game like squirrels might be the only game in town. Deer were not found throughout the state and wild turkeys were not abundant either.
September 11 marked the beginning of squirrel season in my home state of West Virginia. In some southeastern states, the season has already begun; others will soon follow. Would you consider an early morning trip to the misty forest this year? Maybe it’s been a long time for you, life and other hunting got in the way. The golden autumn forest, the squirrels and that boy with wide eyes full of wonder are waiting for you.