Spring squirrels will improve your hunting skills

Even young people feel threat in an upturned face.

The squirrels that were chattering and barking minutes ago turn silent as the eyes on the ground look skyward. The quivering tails that marked the location of a squirrel lie still as its owner hugs a limb so tightly it’s virtually indistinguishable from wood.

Almost indistinguishable, but not quite. I followed a squirrel bark to this tall white oak tree, but it wasn’t easy. Squirrels are master ventriloquists. A single squirrel may sound like it’s directly above you, but seconds later you’d swear there were three or four trees there. Or over there.

It is a triangulation game. If you listen carefully, you will eventually identify the exact tree, and then the stem will begin. From where I am, there were many leaves and branches between us, preventing a clear shot. With a shotgun, a full choke, and 11/8 ounce of No. 6 lead, I could punch through obstructions and take him down.

What I’m doing is surgical. I’m using a short barreled .22 caliber rifle loaded with 40 grain hollow points stuffed into tiny long rifle cases. Any obstruction, be it a twig or a leaf, will deflect the bullet and miss. I have to get closer, and the squirrels sense that a shape crawling on the forest floor is dangerous.

Once I point to his tree, I watch the movement for several minutes. A wagging tail is a golden gift. A lead brick is a squirrel that runs to the end of a branch, jumps onto another branch, then another until it is safe and out of sight.

Less movement, I also look for the triangular shape of a squirrel sitting upright on a branch or a dark shape at the junction of two trunks or the forks of large limbs. I don’t see any of these, so I walk around the tree at a rate of two steps every five minutes. The view changes with each step.

Having made a semicircle around the tree, I see the leaves snap at the top of the canopy as a squirrel climbs higher to put distance between us. So, everything is quiet again.

I didn’t see the squirrel, only its wake. I look over the last move to see if it’s creeping higher. The natural tendency is to focus on where you last saw movement, but that’s a mistake. You have to look where it is going, not where it was.

There is no more movement. The squirrel is on the tree nearby, flat on a branch watching, waiting. He will try to wait for you, but squirrels are also very nervous and fickle. You have little time before he loses his temper and runs away. With a shotgun, you can make a squirrel run away. With a rifle, that’s unlikely.

Wearing polarized sunglasses, my eyes scan each branch from trunk to tip. One branch at a time I look higher and higher. I finally see it, an almost imperceptible lump on top of a branch among a tangle of leafy twigs. Raising my scope to 9x, I get closer. It takes almost 15 minutes, but I find it. It is well hidden, but there is a small opening that can be opened with a 40-grain hollow point.

I steady the rifle, center the scope, exhale half my air, and squeeze. The little rifle clicks and my prey falls.

Squirrel season opened May 15 in Arkansas, and with the cool weather, the early part of the season is as enjoyable as hunting in the fall. In some ways it’s also easier, not least because the moist ground cushions a hunter’s footsteps. You can creep more stealthily in the spring than you can in the crisp, crackling forest of fall.

In spring, the squirrels scatter. You have to cover a lot of ground and hunt them down one at a time. In the fall, large concentrations of squirrels descend on small areas of acorns and ripe hickory nuts. Sometimes you have to go a lot of ground to find those areas, but in the right place you can quickly fill a boundary.

When I was younger and my only goal was to kill, I used a shotgun. I came to despise the noise and weight of a shotgun. My rifle is nimble and light, and doesn’t splatter meat with buckshot. Instead of the thunderous pops that send squirrels running for cover, the .22 makes a loud crack. It stops the squirrels for a while, but the duration of the alarm is much shorter.

The spring woods are infested with ticks and chiggers. Mosquitoes swarm in the mornings and evenings. I spray my boots, cuffs, shirt collar, and pants tubes generously with high-potency repellent. For my skin I use OFF! botanicals. Even so, I have managed more ticks since May 15 than in many years. It makes me hate them even more.

The season is young but fruitful. I’ve shot 17 gray squirrels, including on the glorious opening morning when I knocked three out of a tree with four shots in about 10 seconds. My shot-to-kill ratio was almost 1:1 until two days ago, when I missed six rounds.

A wide range of 22 LR ammunition is suitable for squirrel hunting with semi-automatic or bolt-action rimfire rifles. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Bryan Hendricks

When squirrels are especially cautious, you get impatient and make mistakes. It happens to the best of us, but squirrels are far better hunters than all of us.

Sports on 05/31/2020