“Acorn rain” is still a couple of weeks away, but now is a prime time to hunt squirrels across the Natural State.
Cool weather and the urgency of autumn makes squirrels active in the mornings and evenings as they scurry in the treetops munching acorns. You can easily spot them as they shake branches, but stationary squirrels also reveal their locations with their keening, catlike calls that squeal through oak and hickory forests.
If you’re stealthy, you can get close to squirrels without alarming them. Dominant male squirrels often hold their ground and bark at intruders. Their oscillating tails are easy to spot among the thick foliage. All of that makes for easy, relatively effortless hunting.
Squirrel numbers run in cycles, but they seem to be plentiful almost everywhere this year thanks to favorable weather and abundant food throughout the spring and summer. That means there are a lot of young squirrels in the woods. Those are the tender, mild-flavored ones that hunters prefer.
Squirrel hunting is beautifully simple. You don’t need special equipment or advanced expertise. You only need a place to hunt and some time to learn where squirrels are concentrated and what they are eating.
When hickory nuts are ripe, for example, squirrels will forsake acorns. A good crop of beechnuts attract squirrels, too, and you can never go wrong hunting in a pecan grove.
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 are eating in a particular area.
Shooting squirrels in the head with a .22-caliber rim-fire rifle is great marksmanship, and it doesn’t damage meat unless you enjoy eating squirrel brains.
In the fall, head shots are difficult because thick foliage often obscures squirrels from sight. You’ll get far better results with a shotgun. A full-choked 20-gauge and a 3/4- to 1-ounce load of No. 6 lead shot will bag squirrels at all reasonable heights and distances.
Remember, you’re watching for movement high in the tree. It might take a few minutes watching a branch shake to figure out how a squirrel is positioned. Even with a shotgun, head shots are best. Aim so that you clip the head and neck area with the edge of your pattern.
You’ll kill more squirrels if you blend into the woods. Wear camouflage clothes or muted tones. A ballcap will obscure your eyes, as will shades with light-gathering lenses, like yellow or persimmon.
Squirrels in wild woods are not like the squirrels in your neighborhood that are accustomed to interacting with people. They are warier, so you’re not likely to stroll right up to a squirrel in the Ouachita or Ozark national forests.
Usually, wild squirrels go about their business quietly. They start feeding right after dawn. If you hear leaves rustling loudly or see branches bouncing, creep as close as you can.
The approach will take some time, so be patient. Advance a few steps at a time, from tree to tree. Avoid stepping into the open, and watch your steps to avoid cracking twigs.
Dry leaves are a squirrel hunter’s bane, but dew will dampen crackly footfalls, as will hunting in a light mist or drizzle.
Squirrels that are not moving are probably eating. You won’t see them. Instead, listen for the sounds of squirrels gnawing — or cutting — hickory nuts or acorns. It’s a light rasping sound that blends in with other woodland noise. It’s distinctive, but you have to train your ears to isolate it.
You’ll also see hickory nut shavings — cuttings — fluttering from the leaves.
A shotgun blast will often send other squirrels within a large area running for cover. Be still, and they’ll often resume their activities after a quiet spell.
Many hunters mitigate that element by using suppressed.22-cal. rifles. They sound like air rifles, and you can often zap several squirrels from the same tree without causing panic.
Using dogs is a very fun and effective way to hunt squirrels. Squirrels often freeze in a tree surrounded by dogs, but sometimes they’ll try to escape by running and jumping through the crowns. Experienced dogs follow them until they finally isolate and stop a squirrel.
To skin squirrels, I use a tool called the Hunter’s Helper. Made in North Little Rock, it is a metal frame that you can strap to a tree. They also make one bolted to a frame that slips into your vehicle’s hitch receiver. It makes the following procedure much easier.
Make a 1½-inch cut through the top layer of skin beneath 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 skin.
Step on the tail and pull 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 vent and remove the entrails.
Squirrel has a rich, gamey, iron flavor. Most people quarter their squirrels, coat them in batter and pan fry them.
I prefer to stew them in a Crock-Pot 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.
Hunting with dogs is a fun and exciting way to pursue squirrels in the Natural State.
Many other recipes are available on the internet.
Squirrel hunting is most fun when you take a youngster. Time together makes the experience memorable.