Start ‘Em on Squirrels – Hunting and Fishing

start with the squirrels

Squirrel hunting lays the foundation for universal hunting skills and can serve as a springboard for a lifelong appreciation of the great outdoors. (Photo courtesy of Federal)

This article on small game hunting appeared in the September East issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to find out how to subscribe

September marks the 50th anniversary of my first wild game capture, a fox squirrel captured when I was 8 years old and had just finished Bruce Knodel’s hunter education course.

It was my father who located our quarry, the creature was busy cutting the top of a short hickory tree out of cormorant bark. We sat under it side by side, hooves raining down until finally, an eternity for an 8 year old, the bushytail slithered onto a branch with a hickory clenched in its mouth.

I don’t remember the exact exchange between my dad and I, just that I’m sure it included advice on taking my time and making the shot count. I don’t remember the shot or the recoil. However, I do recall the loud thud of the squirrel’s rust-red body hitting the leaves.

In the time since then, I have introduced a long list of youngsters to consumer sports through the squirrel forest. It’s true that whitetails, wild turkeys, and waterfowl are great species for young hunters to get started on the trail, but squirrel and chipmunk hunting provide the perfect outdoor educational environment for a number of reasons.

No hurry

Squirrel hunting is about taking the time to expand a youngster’s knowledge of the outdoors in general. It offers a fantastic classroom in which to study topics such as bird, tree and mushroom identification. A small stream winding through the wood provides an opportunity to study aquatic life. (“Look, there’s a salamander!”) I’ve learned more about the world around me from the men I’ve hunted squirrels with than while chasing all other types of game combined. Why? Weather. When you hunt squirrels, you are not pressed by the clock. Therefore, anything and everything is fair game in terms of study, observation, and experience.

The weather is warm

Let’s face it: it’s easier to take a 10-year-old to the field if it’s 70 degrees and sunny rather than 33 degrees and rainy. With the squirrels, it is possible to pick and choose your days; that is, wait until the weather is nice, the sun is shining and there is only a gentle breeze to help keep mosquitoes at bay. It is very likely that the squirrels think the same and are also away from home.

It’s a controlled environment

Squirrel hunting provides a controlled environment for the new hunter, as controlled a setting as can be provided in the hunter’s world, anyway. You, the teacher, sit next to your young charge. You discuss the goings-on step by step. The stem, if there is to be one, is done in tandem. The shot is taken slowly and deliberately, almost with a play-by-play commentary from the mentor. If a situation needs to be discussed, the hunt stops and the scene is discussed.

you can sleep

In my experience, the gray squirrel gets up a little earlier than its larger cousin, the fox squirrel. However, neither requires the 0:30 am wake-up and departure often associated with turkey or waterfowl hunting. In fact, afternoon hunts can be just as productive as morning ones, as the bushy look for a last-minute bite before preparing for the night.

They are everywhere

“Very abundant” may be a bit of a stretch when describing public access and squirrel hunting, but most states in the east offer ample public land, and many of those acres provide good squirrel hunting. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, for example, oversees more than 1.5 million acres of public land throughout the Keystone state.

That doesn’t include several state forests and the 500,000-plus acres of the Alleghany National Forest, but all of it is home to populations of gray squirrels and foxes. In short, finding a place to hunt squirrels shouldn’t be a problem.

Long Seasons, Liberal Bags

New York squirrel season runs from September 1 to February 28, with a daily limit of six. Pennsylvania’s is more or less the same, and its youth guided hunting permit is only $2.97 for children ages 7 to 11, and $6.97 for guided hunters ages 12 to 16. Vermont chipmunk season runs from September 1 through the end of the year; shorter than the aforementioned pair, but long compared to whitetail, turkey, or even duck seasons.


Suppose our protégé is completely new to the sport and to firearms. Where do we start?

  • Hunter Education: Hunter education is mandatory in all states for new hunters born on or after January 1, 19 and something (varies by state). The only exceptions are instances like the Pennsylvania Youth Mentor Program, where children can hunt as long as they are accompanied by a licensed adult. However, hunter education remains an eventual requirement even in such programs. So first things first, you and your young hunter will take and successfully pass a certified hunter education course.
  • Firearms Instruction: A part of all hunter education courses involves safe firearms handling and shooting skills, but firearms instruction shouldn’t end there. Shooting, as youngsters will learn, is fun and instrumental to hunting success. That said, it’s important to spend time at a shooting range, formally or informally, and practice topics like safe gun handling, marksmanship, ammunition selection, and firearm maintenance.
  • biology: Have your new hunter investigate his prey. Where does he live? That eats? What are your habits? What do I need to know as a hunter to find and hopefully harvest my first squirrel? Hunting is a never-ending learning process and it starts right here.
  • Ethics and Psychology: Now it is time for a discussion of the hunter’s ethics. What does it mean to be a hunter? How should a responsible hunter behave, both in the field and in public? How does a hunter respond to people who don’t like to hunt? While you’re at it, this is a good time to talk about the psychology of hunting. What does it mean to harvest an animal? How should a hunter feel about it? What happens if a hunter injures an animal? What does it mean to give due respect to one’s prey? This doesn’t have to be heavy and deep, but it’s best to address these questions before the hunt.


The day of the hunt has finally arrived. What is the best way to do it?

  • Decelerate: Remember that this is not about you, nor is it a race to the limit. Take your time. Instruct. Point out everything and then explain it. Why does a squirrel build a “nest”? How does he make that chattering sound? What kind of tree is that? Remember, everything is old to you, but the child is new to the game. And when you two harvest that first bushytail, spend a few minutes with a biology lesson.
  • Do not apply pressure: Sure, you’re excited to see your student hunt their first squirrel, but it’s essential not to add pressure to the hunt. If the student moves slowly, you move slowly. Don’t rush a “doubtful” shot. Remember that this is all very new to him or her. Of all the things you take with you from the field, a good dose of patience is perhaps the most important.
  • Focus on the basics: Squirrel hunting, when done correctly, can teach a person everything they need to know about hunting, regardless of whether they are hunting whitetails, turkeys, waterfowl, or other small game. Remember the basics. Teach them to walk quietly through the woods, to listen and to use their eyes. Talk about what to look for among the foliage. Encourage questions and periodically stop for a lesson on this or that. It’s the best classroom, and it’s all yours.
  • Lead by example: Stay positive from start to finish. Think before you speak or do. Feel free to repeat your instructions until they are ingrained in your student and become second nature. If you see a mistake about to be made, you might consider letting them make it, but only if it doesn’t involve firearms safety or ethics. Harmless mistakes are great opportunities to learn.


In wildland firefighting, we have what we call an “after action review” or AAR. It is a summary of what happened during an incident, what we did, and what we might do, differently or not, in a similar future situation.

Your young hunter could well benefit from such a post-hunt AAR. What went well? What could we have done better? Were there any security issues that needed to be addressed?

Assuming you’ve been successful in harvesting a fuzzy tail or two, it’s time for another biology lesson: Game Cleanup 101. This leads into knife handling, food storage, and eventually meal prep. Don’t forget about proper weapon maintenance as well. It’s all part of this thing we call hunting.


A custom-built shotgun and rifle for young squirrel hunters

  • Mossberg 500 Junior Super Bantamweight

Even though I killed my first squirrel with an old Harrington-Richardson .410, I wouldn’t recommend the little pistol to a new hunter. Why? There isn’t much room for error with the .410’s No. 5 shot’s tiny 11/16-ounce load, especially when the leaves are thick in September. Better than the .410 is a good 20-gauge 3-inch like Mossberg’s venerable 500 Youth Super Bantam. It offers smaller shooters the option of using low-recoil 2 3/4-inch shot cartridges before moving on to the heavier 3-inch shells. From the included stock spacer to the adjustable chokes and 22-inch vent-ribbed barrel, this pump-action is also a perfect fit for ducks, turkeys, and even whitetails. ($489;

I gave serious thought to the quintessential .22 LR here: Ruger’s self-loading 10/22. But for the new hunter, I like something that requires conscious physical action to bring a new round to the battery. Enter Winchester’s Xpert 22, a new bolt-action rifle that does everything a squirrel hunter needs a rimfire firing pin to do. At 4 1/2 pounds, the Xpert is light, but not whip-light enough. It has a tough, child-resistant polymer stock and standard iron sights, though the receiver comes drilled and tapped to mount a scope. ($320;