“Acorn rain” is still a couple of weeks away, but now is the best time to hunt squirrels in the Natural State.
The cool weather and urgency of fall keep squirrels active morning and night as they scamper through the treetops eating acorns. You can easily spot them as they shake branches, but stationary squirrels also give away their location with their catlike cries that screech through the oak and hickory forests.
If you are stealthy, you can get close to the squirrels without alarming them. Dominant male squirrels will often stand their ground and bark at intruders. Their swaying tails are easy to spot in the thick foliage. All of that makes hunting easy and relatively effortless.
Squirrel numbers develop in cycles, but they seem to be abundant almost everywhere this year thanks to favorable weather and abundant food during spring and summer. That means there are a lot of young squirrels in the forest. Those are the tender, mild-flavored ones that hunters prefer.
Squirrel hunting is wonderfully simple. You do not need special equipment or advanced knowledge. You just need a place to hunt and some time to learn where the squirrels hang out and what they eat.
When hickory nuts are ripe, for example, squirrels will abandon the acorns. A good beechnut crop also attracts squirrels, and you can never go wrong hunting in a pecan forest.
However, squirrels will migrate a long way overnight if a preferred food source comes online elsewhere. Spending a few hours in the woods each week will tell you what squirrels eat in a particular area.
Shooting squirrels in the head with a .22 caliber rimfire rifle is excellent marksmanship and doesn’t harm meat unless you enjoy eating squirrel brains.
In the fall, headshots are difficult because the thick foliage often obscures the squirrels’ view. You’ll get much better results with a shotgun. A fully choked 20 gauge and 3/4 to 1 ounce load of No. 6 lead shot will hunt squirrels at all reasonable heights and distances.
Remember, you are observing the movement at the top of the tree. It may take a few minutes to watch a branch shake to figure out how a squirrel stands. Even with a shotgun, headshots are the best. Aim so that you cut the head and neck area with the edge of your pattern.
You will kill more squirrels if you blend into the forest. Wear camouflage clothing or muted tones. A hat will darken your eyes, as will shades with light-catching lenses like yellow or khaki.
Squirrels in the wild are not like the squirrels in your neighborhood that are used to interacting with people. They are more cautious, so you are not likely to approach a squirrel in the Ouachita or Ozark National Forests.
Wild squirrels usually go about their business in silence. They start feeding just after sunrise. If you hear leaves rustling loudly or see branches bouncing, get as close as you can.
The focus will take some time, so be patient. Take a few steps at a time, from tree to tree. Avoid going outdoors and watch your steps to avoid breaking twigs.
Dry leaves are a squirrel hunter’s bane, but dew will muffle crunching footsteps, as will hunting in a light fog or drizzle.
Squirrels that aren’t moving are probably eating. You won’t see them. Instead, listen for the sounds of squirrels gnawing or chopping hickory nuts or acorns. It is a slight harsh sound that mixes with other noises from the forest. It’s distinctive, but you have to train your ears to isolate it.
You will also see hickory nut chips, cuttings, fluttering from the leaves.
A shotgun blast will often send other squirrels within a large area running for cover. Stand still and they will often resume their activities after a quiet period.
Many hunters mitigate that element by using suppressed .22-cal. rifles They sound like airguns and you can often take out multiple squirrels from the same tree without causing a panic.
Using dogs is a very fun and effective way to hunt squirrels. Squirrels often freeze in a tree surrounded by dogs, but sometimes try to escape by running and jumping through the canopy. Experienced dogs follow them until they finally isolate and apprehend a squirrel.
To skin squirrels, I use a tool called Hunter’s Helper. Made in North Little Rock, it’s a metal frame that you can tie to a tree. They also make one bolted to a frame that slides into your vehicle’s hitch receiver. It makes the following procedure much easier.
Make a 1½-inch cut through the top layer of fur below the base of the squirrel’s tail.
Make two small cuts through the skin at the back of the hind legs.
Holding the squirrel by the tail, separate the hind legs from the fur.
Step on the tail and pull on the legs to remove the skin, then cut off the head, arms, and feet.
After skinning, open the chest with a knife from the throat to the cloaca and remove the viscera.
Squirrel has a rich iron flavor. Most people butcher their squirrels, batter them, and fry them.
I prefer to stew them in a slow cooker with carrots, potatoes, green beans, sweet corn, and other goodies. This method distributes the flavor and tenderizes the meat. It also ages well, so it tastes better with each serving.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
The Hunter’s Helper makes the complicated task of skinning squirrels easy.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks
Hunting with dogs is a fun and exciting way to chase squirrels in the Natural State.
Many other recipes are available on the Internet.
Squirrel hunting is more fun when you bring a youngster. The time together makes the experience memorable.