Top Tips for Hunting Squirrels
Hunting squirrels may not be as glamorous as taking down a whitetail deer, but it offers its own enjoyment and advantages. Squirrel hunting is easier, so it’s a great “gateway” hunting activity for novice marksmen. It’s a great way to connect with nature and bring home some sustainably sourced meat for your next meal, as well.
But no squirrel hunt will be successful without the right strategies. Check out the guide below for a detailed collection of top squirrel hunting tips to help you bag some bushy-tailed critters this season.
NOTE : Please research your local state/country laws on hunting and pest control on your own. This article is meant to be informational only.
Hunting Squirrels: Seasonal Strategies
What Is Squirrel Hunting Season?
There is no ubiquitous squirrel hunting season, as actual seasonal start and end dates depend on your local state regulations. However, many states observe two hunting seasons: one in the spring and one in the fall and winter. Because the behavior of squirrels can change depending on their habits or feeding goals, you need to follow different hunting tips depending on the season you choose to participate in.
In many cases, the spring hunting season is technically the “off-season”, as fewer than 10 states allow you to hunt squirrels between May and June. Interestingly, there’s a lot of variation between what different states allow in terms of hunting seasons – for instance, Arkansas has a squirrel hunting season from mid-May all the way to the end of February, essentially observing a single, long and uninterrupted season instead of splitting hunting efforts into two time blocks.
On the flipside, Virginia only allows a short springtime squirrel hunting season for a couple of weeks in June.
Regardless, springtime is when squirrels are out eating, mating, and raising their young. At the same time, temperatures in the later part of the day (depending on your state or climate) can drive squirrels to rest and hide.
As a result, it’s a great idea to try hunting a few hours after dawn and a few hours before sunset. These windows are when squirrels are most active and when temperatures will be quite comfortable for you, as well. No one wants to be squirrel hunting in humid conditions with temperatures of over 80°!
In general, you can find squirrels in various leaf litter piles, especially since many autumn leaves will still be dry and crunchy – these may make sounds that are easy for you to pick up to locate a potential target. However, most squirrels will be relatively high in the trees feeding on various buds.
The fall and winter seasons are great opportunities for regular big-game hunters or just stir crazy sportsmen to bag some smaller targets and enjoy the hunting experience without all the stress of chasing deer.
The seasons are also the typical squirrel hunting seasons in most states. They usually extend from late August or early September, but can also extend to early January in some territories.
In general, it’s easier to hunt squirrels at the beginning of the season since winter hasn’t fully set in and squirrels won’t be hibernating. However, recent climate change adjustments may cause winters to progressively become milder over the next few decades, meaning squirrels may hibernate less and less. Still, beginner hunters will probably want to get their shots in during the fall months as opposed to the winter months.
When hunting in fall or winter, remember that you can’t hide your approach nearly as well as you can during the spring or summer seasons. Furthermore, it can be pretty tough to see squirrels during the winter – they’ll stand out if they’re forging in the snow, but they’re also generally hard to see on the ground as opposed to up in a tree (that has likely lost many of its leaves).
The best bet for many squirrel hunters is to set up near a potential “den tree”, which is any tree with a hole in the side of it where you think a squirrel or a family might be nesting. Some exposed leaf nests might be visible in the morning, too.
To these ends, good squirrel hunting times are usually in the midmorning to the early afternoon, when temperatures are most agreeable and when many squirrels will exit their dens for some hopeful foraging if they didn’t gather enough food earlier.
“Still hunting”, a technique when you walk very slowly through the woods, is a good strategy. It takes a lot of patience, but taking all the time you can and being a silent as possible will prevent squirrels from being driven away by the crunching of fallen leaves or cracking twigs.
Times of Day and How They Affect Your Hunt
We touched on this aspect a little bit above, but let’s dive in for more detail.
In a nutshell, a typical squirrel’s day goes something like this:
- During spring, squirrels will be out and about in the early morning and evening, and they may decide to rest during the afternoon when temperatures are highest. They spent a lot of time foraging, socializing, or looking for mates. Since squirrels have two mating periods (one in early spring and another in mid-summer), you might also catch some families with little squirrels in your search
- During summer, squirrels typically become even more active during the early part of the day and the later part of the evening. They may rest during the afternoon to avoid the midday heat, although they are still much more active than in winter
- During the fall, squirrels are active throughout the day as they forge and try to store as much food as possible. If a squirrel mated during the late-summer period described above, they might also have young squirrels to care for
- During winter, squirrels are most active during the middle of the day, in sharp contrast to their behavior during the other seasons. They tend to exit their dens later and go to bed earlier, so your potential hunting windows may be a little more truncated
So plan your hunting windows for either the beginning and end of the day during “leaves on” periods of the year, or the middle of the day if you plan to hunt squirrels during winter.
You should also take the time of day into account when you think about visibility and gear. Dawn and dusk are great times to hunt (not just for squirrels but for plenty of other types of game). But they don’t offer as much light for hunting in some cases. It may help to invest in rifle optics that can collect extra light so you have better visibility.
Squirrel Type – How to Hunt Different Squirrel Species
The great thing about squirrel hunting is that seasons are typically pretty long (as you can see above). Furthermore, bag limits – the number of squirrels you can legally harvest each day – are fairly generous compared to different types of game. Most states let you harvest around five squirrels each day with a little variation from territory to territory.
There are three main varieties of gray or Fox squirrels that most states will allow you to hunt: these are the eastern fox squirrel, the eastern gray squirrel, and the western gray squirrel. Some people think that the eastern fox squirrel is the same thing as a red squirrel, but these are actually two distinct species. In fact, red squirrels are usually ignored by hunters because these critters are too small to be worthwhile in most cases.
Regardless, there aren’t very many hunting differences between the different baggable species. Gray squirrels are usually a little over a pound in weight, although fox squirrels can weigh up to 3 pounds. Either way, you don’t need very advanced shooting equipment or gear – a common .22 caliber rifle or shotgun is enough for most hunters.
In addition, all three species of squirrels tend to eat the same foods, so picking out these foods can help you locate good waiting spots for future targets. In the spring, squirrels tend to eat various tree buds, mushrooms, seeds, and so on. They eat various berries, nuts, wild grapes and more during the summer and fall as their plants fully bloom. Pickings during the winter are much slimmer, but you can still find each of the above squirrel types hunting for acorns, nuts, corn, buds, and even bark.
How to Tell Which Squirrel You’re Hunting?
Each squirrel species is pretty easy to tell apart thanks to their appearances. The eastern gray squirrel is usually gray on top and features paler gray fur underneath. You can also find even darker fur “gray” squirrels in the northeastern United States, though these still count as part of the eastern gray squirrel species.
A western gray squirrel looks a little grizzlier and features gray fur on top with whiter underfur. These are usually a little heavier than their Eastern counterparts and can get up to 2 pounds in weight.
Eastern fox squirrels are larger, and as mentioned can reach sizes of up to 3 pounds. Their fur phases in three distinct cycles; most commonly, you’ll find them with rust-colored fur, hence the name.
General Hunting Tips
There are several key hunting tips you can use for most squirrel hunts.
Look for Telltale Squirrel Signs
Squirrels always leave signs of their activities behind, though these can vary from season to season.
For instance, nests of leaves and twigs in the higher reaches of treetops are usually signs of either big birds or squirrels. In general, they’ll look somewhat like crows’ nests, but are usually a little leafier or more disheveled.
You can also look for signs of feeding. These will be small divots in the earth or snow – they’re signs that a squirrel was either digging to store nuts or searching for food to consume. Similarly, if you find any chewed-on husks of old tree nuts near logs or tree stumps, you might have found a squirrel feeding platform. Squirrels like to eat when they can see the surrounding area, as they feel safer. This area may be indicative of a nearby nest.
Feeding signs can differ based on species. For instance, fox squirrels will eat corn and devour the entire kernel. But gray squirrels of either variety usually eat the germ end of the corn and toss the rest. If you see corn kernels, chances are you’ve stumbled into a habitat with mostly gray squirrels instead of fox squirrels.
Keep an eye out for tracks as well. Squirrel tracks are usually paired, with their front pawprints falling side-by-side. These are distinct from those of a rabbit, which may seem single-file or narrower.
Use Leaves to Your Advantage
During the “leaves on” seasons (spring through early fall), you may become frustrated by your inability to easily see squirrels if they take cover in trees. While it’s true that leaves provide great cover for these little critters, you can also use them to your advantage.
If you can’t see a squirrel, the squirrel can’t see you. While they might still be able to hear you crunching around if you aren’t walking carefully, you can use your cover to approach and get close enough to take a shot with your .22 rifle or your shotgun.
When leaves are off (i.e. you’re hunting during late fall or winter seasons), you’ll have an easier time using a longer-range .22 rifle with a great scope. That’s because you’ll be able to see squirrels a lot easier, and they’ll be able to see you. They won’t let you get in as close as you could during spring or summer, so take advantage of your greater effective range and bag your targets from afar.
However, don’t ever shoot a squirrel in its nest; you may not be able to retrieve the animal safely or quickly.
Bring a Partner
It’s always a good idea to bring a hunting partner along, not just for the opportunity for conversation and companionship but because of practical benefits. Simply put, squirrels are crafty little critters that will do their best to evade you as soon as they see you approaching.
Any squirrel hunter with some time logged knows the frustration of carefully setting up their position, only for a squirrel to scamper around to the opposite side of a nest tree. If a squirrel is particularly annoying, it can continually circle a tree and waste your time, staying just outside of your eyesight and effective range.
If you have a partner, they can take the other side of the tree. Between the two of you, you’ll be able to effectively box in the squirrel and give it nowhere to hide.
Use a Dog
Depending on how you like to hunt squirrels, you might consider bringing your canine friend along for a great time. Dogs can be excellent squirrel hunting companions.
The basic strategy for using a dog to hunt squirrels is as follows:
- head into the woods with your dog and let them sniff out potential targets
- if your dog is properly trained, they’ll find a tree with one or more squirrels and chase the critter up into the branches. It’s unlikely your dog will catch a squirrel that isn’t totally off guard
- your dog should chase the squirrel up a tree and bark aggressively to keep the squirrel there until you arrive
- once you’ve caught up your dog, and spot the squirrel and take it down, provided that it isn’t hungering inside an interior den
The only downside is that a squirrel is unlikely to exit an interior den if they know a dog is barking at them from below. So dogs are only good hunting companions for taking squirrels that spend most of their time on tree branches rather than huddling in a den. Because of this, dogs provide more benefits during spring and summer rather than winter hunting seasons.
Rifle or Shotgun?
You’ll usually use either a rifle or shotgun for your squirrel hunting. Shotguns are great tools for spring and summer hunting, as most of your engagements will be up close due to the aforementioned difficulty of seeing squirrels from afar. Most of your hunts will be slow going and progressive, but a shotgun is useful since you don’t have to be extremely precise a close range.
In fact, you can use a good shotgun to perform a sweep with your weapon and potentially catch a squirrel as it tries to make an escape by scampering down a long branch.
The reverse is true during winter and fall. As leaves fall away, you’ll need to take squirrels from further distances. .22 caliber rifles with good optics provide the precision and range you need to bag squirrels from a good ways away.
Ultimately, though, your choice of weapon depends on your comfort level and personal preferences.
All in all, squirrel hunting is a great outdoor activity both for experienced hunters and newcomers to the sport. It’s not nearly as stressful or strenuous as big game hunting, offering a relatively relaxed way to enjoy the outside and participate in what might be the oldest human tradition in the world. Follow these tips, and your next squirrel hunt is sure to have some success. Good hunting!