We recently had a visit from some out of state relatives, one of whom was a teenager fresh off his first deer hunt. Speaking of hunting in general, he mentioned that a friend of his was hunting squirrels after a successful deer season.
The teenager’s mother was less than enthusiastic about all this interest in hunting and, looking at me, asked, “Why would anyone hunt squirrels?”
I offered a short and simple answer that I thought was appropriate for the occasion, replying, “First of all, they’re good to eat.”
This concept was obviously quite unpleasant, as evidenced by his facial expression. I gently reminded her that prior to her years in a more metropolitan setting, she enjoyed a certain stir-fry dish at our home along with a number of other family members. They just couldn’t seem to get enough of the combination of tender, boneless squirrel meat and seasoned vegetables. His memory seemed to improve when other people present remembered the same food.
This little incident really got me thinking about squirrels and small game hunting in general. How many years has it been since I went into the woods specifically to hunt squirrels? I have observed the trend with other hunters; As we age, we seem to focus on hunting deer and other larger game. I know that personally, given the choice between deer archery season or a day to hunt squirrels or grouse, my efforts lately have been focused on deer.
Of course, when he was young, he was out in the woods at every opportunity, finding time to hunt whatever was in season. Small game hunting, to me, is a lot like fishing; It’s a lot of fun as long as there’s action. This doesn’t always translate to many animals brought home, but even miss shots of a speedy grouse, weaving rabbits, or squirrels in the treetops have always been a good moment for me.
All of this reminds me of a guy I sometimes found myself in one of my favorite valleys. He came to McKean County from the Pittsburgh area and apparently stayed at a campground here with some friends. At the time I met him, he was at the stage in life where I thought he should walk about half a mile in the woods before he started hunting.
This gentleman stayed a couple of hundred yards from the paved road as his walks were limited by respiratory problems caused by many years in the coal business. In deer season, he often saw it sitting in a stand of hemlock, often within sight of the road. In squirrel season, I saw him less often, but he taught me some valuable hunting lessons.
I was amused when I first met him, thinking it was cool that he wanted to be in the woods, but what were the chances that he would actually see deer from that spot? I began to understand after several times, when walking back through the woods, I found my friend with a dead deer at his feet while I was often empty handed.
Still not quite understanding it, I saw him from time to time in the small game season, enjoying his time in the warm autumnal woods. His stall sight was usually within a hundred yards of his deer season spot, and armed with a good .22 rifle with a scope and snacks, he was ready to spend some time watching bushy tails.
Very often, after greeting him or stopping briefly for a visit, I would hear his deadly .22 shooting at the squirrels as I kept walking further and further into the woods. I finally realized that it was much more important to find a specific place with good food, shelter, and game signs than to put my boot prints all over the woods.
I think he used his time in squirrel season not only for the sport he enjoyed, but also to look for signs of deer in the general area. Often in squirrel season there are deer tracks, scuffs and scrapes that are easily visible. Over the years, she gained a lot of confidence in this area and it has resulted in great success.
All this aside, squirrel hunting is in itself a worthwhile hobby for any hunter. As mentioned above, given the chance, most people like meat. To be sure, the effort of processing any small game animal does not produce the results that you get from slaughtering a deer, but I realized long ago that there is much more involved than the weight of the meat obtained.
Beautiful fall foliage, warm weather, and more casual hunting are good reasons to visit the squirrel forest in October. The practice gained from following a bushy-tailed rodent at your scope as it swoops down from tree trunks and your attempts at a good shot with a small-bore rifle will put you in excellent shape for shooting big game seasons.
My first hunt of any kind of game was squirrels. My dad trained me while he was taking aim at a gray squirrel climbing up a big old oak tree. The critter, thinking he was hiding in the crotch of a large limb, was probably no more surprised than I was when he fired the old double-barreled shotgun. In no time at all, I managed to knock another gray off a limb, and just like that, I was a happy 12-year-old hooked for life.
Although an accurate .22 rifle is the classic squirrel gun, I’ll admit I shot a fair number of them in my youth with 12-gauge shotguns. This came about in part because there was always a chance of shooting a grouse, but also because it’s important For a young hunter to bring something home, the shotgun creates a better chance of success.
Over time, I have used a wide variety of .22 and other rifles to kill squirrels and a few grouse that foolishly crossed my path. Shooting grouse out of the pot on Canada hunts will be a story for another time.
It may not be as dramatic to describe a tough shot on a squirrel to your friends as it is on a male eight pointer, but one skill can easily lead to the other. I had a friend who described my squirrel hunting as “the surgical removal” of bushy tails from the woods. I still consider it one of the best compliments I have received on my photography.
I’ll try to remember all of this next fall and try to pack enough squirrels for another stew or stir fry. Most people like it very much.
(Retired Bradford Police Chief Roger Sager is a lifelong firearms expert and hunter.)