Squirrel hunting sounds easy enough. Afterall, on any given day I have four or five in my yard and I could easily get my limit while on a short walk through my neighborhood. Unfortunately, these squirrels are off-limits allowing them to develop a high tolerance for human presence. Wild grey and fox squirrels on the other hand are shy, elusive, and can be tough to drop from their airy perches.
The first important step you must take, prior to taking aim, is having the knowledge and ability to identify the legal species of squirrel that you are allowed to hunt in your area. For me, in Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia, this means the Grey Squirrel and Fox Squirrel. Red Squirrels or Mountain Boomers, can also be found but are smaller in size, and often do not have an open season.
A Grey Squirrel is usually around 17″-19″ from tip of the nose to the tip of its flattened “bushy tail,” a common nickname, and weigh in around 1-1 1/2 pounds. It can be found across all of the eastern U.S. and even as far north as Canada and west beyond the great Mississippi River. In my old stomping grounds of Maryland and Virginia, they are quite common and can get a deer hunter’s heart beating when their rustling in the leaves is mistaken for a deer’s gate. The grey coloration for which they are named, appears on the back, outer limbs, tail, and head. But a healthy mix of browns and blacks are usually present, with a solid white underbelly. Levi captured a photo of an albino grey squirrel in Maryland in 2012 (left).
In contrast, the Fox Squirrel is larger in size at a length of 17″ to nearly 28″ tip to tip and weighs between 1-2lbs. Its range is similar to that of the grey squirrel except it is not found in the New England states. Southern New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the far western part of New York tend to be the squirrel’s limits in this region. I have found them to be common in the Appalachian Mountains of southwest Virginia and the Redlands WMA in northern Georgia, but less common in Maryland. A fox squirrel’s coloration is commonly seen as a grey and brown mottled back and outer limbs with an orangy/rusty colored tail, and black ears and face with a white-tipped nose. But I have seen fox squirrels that were jet black with small patches of white and vise versa, with combinations of all these colors in between. The more unique color phases can make beautiful trophies and are often mounted and proudly displayed.
Now that we know what we are looking for, where do we look and what sign tells us there are squirrels in the area? Both species coexist in the same habitats where hardwoods or mixed forest exist. I tend to look for fox squirrels on hardwood ridges or flats where there are a lot of oaks producing acorns. Grey squirrels on the other hand, can pop up anywhere from hardwoods, pine forests, creek bottoms, and fence rows in the middle of agricultural fields. One thing is for sure, you find the food and you’ll find the squirrels. Acorns and hickory nuts are the hot ticket items, but you can find them feeding on walnut, beech nut, pecans, Tulip Poplar fruits, corn, and soy beans. These trees and plants all have husks or shells protecting their fruits which are great indicators of squirrels feeding in the area. Squirrels are messy eaters and you will want to look for the gnawed up nutshells on the ground or small holes where nuts may have been stashed for harder times. I have noticed that grey squirrels tend to eat near the food source, where as a fox squirrel may favor a particular branch or log. This may result in a large concentration of litter from the nutshells in these areas and may help you distinguish between the two species.
Another sign that squirrels are around are their nests. Although abandoned woodpecker nest holes in trees are a common favorite among both species. Each also makes large nests in the branches or crotches of trees that are round and ragged. These nests are simple bundles of leaves and twigs which are quite pronounced in the winter.
The weapon of choice among squirrel hunters is as varied as a squirrels choice in nuts and really boils down to personal preference. The .22 cal. long round is a favorite choice for the extended range and precision. A head shot on a squirrel with a .22 preserves the maximum amount of meat from an otherwise low yielding animal. But a squirrel’s head is barely larger than a quarter. So a well tuned scope is a necessity. I have my .22 sighted in at 50 yards to be nail driving accurate. I also practice at 75 yards and 100 yards to compare bullet drop. However, 75 yards is my maximum range for squirrels.
There is some controversy over the use of a rifle capable of firing a projectile that can travel over a mile into the air at a squirrel. Naysayers insist that the small target increases the chances of missing and the bullet typically passes through the squirrel on impact. Therefore, aerial shots are dangerous. I agree completely. I use my .22 for squirrels in areas where I am usually far from residences, roads, and other populated areas, and I try to limit myself to ground or low-level shots with safe backdrops. A basic safety rule to be applied to all weapons.
The other option is the shotgun. I know some bow hunters try their hand at them with stick and string but realistically, a rifle or shotgun is chosen. The shotgun will be limited in range but will increase your chances of a hit, particularly on moving targets. Squirrels are not the Chuck Norris’ of the woods so one pellet finding its mark is usually all it takes to bring them down or at least allow you t o catch up with them. Unlike the rifle, a shotgun’s pellets have an effective range for squirrels of under 50 yards and a safety range of under 100 yards. So aerial shots are no longer a concern. Any shotgun will do; .410, 20 gauge, 16 gauge, or 12 gauge, but you will still want to aim or the head. I prefer to use either a 16 gauge or a 12 gauge with #6 or #7 shot.
OK, we have our weapon and know where they are, what is the best technique for hunting squirrels? I almost always find myself employing one or both of two basic hunting tactics. The first is simply walking slowly and quietly through the woods while stopping often behind trees, rocks, or logs and the other is setting up in an area and waiting quietly while remaining still for 15-20 minutes. During both techniques, I am scanning the treetops, trunks, and the ground for movement and listening for leaves rustling, “cutting” or the sound of squirrels gnawing on a nut, or barking (an alarm call made by squirrels to announce danger). Frightened squirrels caught away from their nests or a hole will often lay flat against a tree in the crotch of a branch in hopes of going unnoticed. These are definitely places of interest if you’re a hunter in search of a sly bushy tail. Walking quietly is a great way to sneak up on a squirrel distracted by finding/hiding food or chasing off a rival or after a potential mate. Whereas, sitting patiently will allow the woods to “calm down” from your disturbance upon entering the area, and return to the normal comings and goings. A squirrel will usually wait about 20 minutes for the all clear and resume its daily activities. The key is to remain very, very still, and always look with your eyes before turning your head.
Once you have your limit, you need to clean them up and get the ready for the table. I skin my squirrels like a skin my rabbits but Adam will tell you different if you ask him. I start by making a small incision through the hide perpendicular to the spine in the center of the back. I slide two fingers from each hand into the incision and pull in opposite directions. This should allow you to remove all the hide all the way to the tail and ankles of the hind legs; and to the wrist and base of the head without leaving any hair of the meat. From here just use your knife to sever the head, tail, and paws just above the ends of the hide.
With the hide removed, gently open the abdomen and extend the incision through the sternum allowing access to the heart and lungs. Just like any other animal being field dressed, you do not want to puncture any of the digestive organs, bladder, etc. Use your knife to crack through the pelvis, and in one motion, start at the heart and pull all the organs out of the squirrel. Rinse the body in cold water thoroughly to remove and blood or hair. I use this time to explore and wounds that may be in the body, particularly those in the muscle tissues of the limbs, for pellets or hair trapped by a pellet. There you have it! Place the cleaned squirrels in a bowl of salt water for 24 hours to allow any remaining blood to be drawn from the meat. Change the water out about halfway.
Recipes abound for these little tree rats. Anywhere from pan frying to I have heard the brains are a delicacy. I personally like to fry the limbs but they can get stringy and a little tough. Cooking the meat off the bone in boiling water and then chopping it up for stew is good, but adding it to gravy is even better. Squirrel gravy is my favorite way to enjoy this bounty.
I hope after reading this you are better prepared and are more successful the next time you go after some bushy tails!
Knopf, Alfred A., The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, Chanticleer Press, New York,