The stark bare gray limbs of hardwoods right now offer the best of times and the worst of times for squirrel hunting. Tree rats are easy to spot a long way off, but they can see you the same distance, too. It is easier to find them but harder to get close enough for a shot.
The population is lower than at the start of season back in August. Human hunters and natural predators have taken some of the squirrels that survived last winter. But both have killed many more of the dumb young ones born during the spring and summer. They are much easier targets.
Sitting and hunting is tougher this time of year. Squirrels aren’t coming to an oak or hickory that is full of nuts to feed. They are scrounging around, looking for nuts they buried earlier when they were falling, and looking for anything else edible in the winter woods. You can’t sit under a good tree waiting on them to come to you.
After a rain you can find them eating mushrooms in pine thickets, but that food is scattered, like everything else. And the green needles on pines make it hard to spot a squirrel when they scurry up a tree and hide from you.
Creeping up on a feeding squirrel is possible, but deer hunters would be impressed with the abilities of a squirrel to spot you and flee. Any movement in their world draws instant attention and they will either flatten against a limb or tree trunk, making them very hard to see, or head for a hollow tree where they are totally protected.
One of the best tactics for me was to take off running through the woods when I spotted a squirrel in a bare tree. That usually made them freeze in place, trying to hide rather than running to a hollow. With no leaves on the tree I could usually find the hiding critter.
A little breeze helped in several ways. It would move bushes and limbs enough to confuse squirrels’ senses, making it easier to creep up on them. But when searching for them up in a tree a little breeze would often fluff their tail a little and the hair moving or sticking out from the tree trunk would make them easier to find.
Another trick was to scan for their ears sticking up. Not much natural up in a tree looks like squirrel ears. It helped that I had a good scope on my .22 to scan limbs and trunks, looking for any telltale sign. I always carried it rather than my .410 in the winter, expecting to get shots at squirrels sitting still rather than running through the limbs when the .410 helped.
I also learned to throw a stick to the far side of a tree where a squirrel hid. The noise and movement of it hitting a bush would make the bushy tail move to my side of the tree. I could see him from the movement, and could usually get a good shot.
Every squirrel killed when I was growing up was eaten. I was pretty good as skinning and gutting them and mama could cook up fried squirrel with gravy, squirrel and dumplings, BBQed squirrel and squirrel stew that was delicious. The younger squirrels were best for frying, but even tough old boar squirrels were good and tender when cooked right.This is a great time to take a kid out and teach them gun safety and hunting skills. Deer season is over and the woods are quiet and bare, offering fun and good food!