Years ago, when I was desperately trying to break into the writing business, I joined an organized bunch of outdoor writers with the intention of picking their brains. One thing they all told me repeatedly was that if I was going to be a “real writer,” like them, I must keep a journal.
So I did for a few years. Then I discovered that if I spent the same time and energy used to write in the journal to work on articles for magazines that would pay me, I could actually make a living as a writer. Come to think of it, I wonder whatever happened to all those “real writers” as I don’t recall seeing their bylines lately. They’re probably too busy with their journals to publish.
Anyway, in reading those old journals from 30-odd years ago I am struck by how much of my hunting focused on squirrels. One entry deals with a crafty old bull–identifiable by his size and a partly missing tail–that had outsmarted me for much of the fall. When I finally shot him with a .22 pistol (I was also very much into handgun hunting then) I felt it victory enough to add to my journal. Another talked about the loss I felt when a storm blew down a big tree that I had sat under to welcome a decade’s worth of opening mornings of squirrel seasons. Even then it was clear I was hooked on squirrel hunting, and years later, though I have hunted all over this wonderful world, that is still the case. I try to spend a few days each fall in the local hardwoods, both to feed the addiction and to keep me grounded and reminded of who I am.
Squirrel season is the first fall hunting season to open in my neck of the woods. It not only gives me an excuse to go hunting, but it’s a great tune up for the big-game seasons that follow. I find that when the leaves start to turn in the fall and my mind is consumed by thoughts of hunting, I inevitably enter the woods with a lot of “ring rust” on my hunting skills. My feet are clumsy, my senses dulled and my instincts muted. Squirrel hunting dusts off the mental and physical dullness that has crept in over the summer and provides a catalyst for my senses to slide back into sync with the rhythms and cadence of the woods.
When trying to nail a corrupt politician, the old adage is to “follow the money.” With squirrels, follow the food. Fall is a time of bounty and they are preparing for the harshness of winter, so find the food and you find the squirrels. That usually means nuts. In my part of New England gray squirrels feed primarily in fall on beech nuts, acorns and hickory nuts. They love hickory best and shagbark hickory is their favorite. Our hickory trees typically grow in isolated pockets of one or more trees but rarely more than a few. Usually they are located on the edges of hardwoods, along the old stone walls and transition zones to long abandoned clearings. If the ground around the trees is littered with the green husks from the hickory nuts and cuttings from the nut casings spit out by squirrels mining for the meat below, I know I have found the place.
I’ll find a comfortable spot, back in the shadows and with the sun at my back. I’ll sit quietly, well camouflaged, and wait. Relatively speaking and compared to the hours spent waiting for a black bear or a big whitetail buck, it’s usually a very short wait. If it’s early morning or late afternoon–prime time–and I have not seen a squirrel in the first half hour, my mind turns to new real estate. During the midday lull, I might give it an hour, but usually no more. Maybe another hunter was here first, or perhaps a hawk has sent any survivors to other places, but if I invite squirrels and they don’t respond quickly, I won’t burn a lot of time in any spot, no matter how promising it looks. There are generally too many other good locations.
If the squirrels do show, however, I make it a point to just skim the cream from the population. I’ll hunt a place only until I take a couple of squirrels and then move on to find the next location. This leaves “seed” for future hunts and does not burn out the spot and chase off the survivors.
If you step into a vast field, what draws your eye? It’s the flaws. It might be a big rock in the center of the field; a single tree; perhaps a ditch running through one corner; or a tall clump of grass where it was too wet for the tractor to get in there to cut. Whatever breaks up the monotony of the land is what we see first. That’s where you would place a trap for a fox and it is where you should hunt squirrels. Of course, a vast beech ridge or an oak flat is a bit different in that we can’t see it all at once. But it’s similar to a field in the monotony of the “sameness.” So find the blemishes: a stone wall, a dry ravine, a small stream, a rock ledge or perhaps a clump of evergreen trees.
One thing I always look for is a tree that is much bigger than the rest–one that creates a “flaw” in the age structure of the forest. If you find the old “bull of the woods” oak you will find squirrels. Often these trees have survived because they are no good for logs. That’s usually because they are full of holes, hollows and other flaws that make them useless for timber, but are magnets to squirrels. When you find any of these flaws in the hardwood forest, if there are nut bearing trees there as well, you will usually find the squirrels.
Other good locations are the edges of the hardwoods or the transition areas where hardwoods change to a field or to another type of vegetation or terrain.
I live in mountain country and our hardwood-covered ridges often transition to spruce and hemlock as the elevation climbs. The squirrels like these evergreens for the cover they provide from hawks and owls. Or, the lower edges of our hardwoods are often separated from the fields that line the roads by a belt of thick brush, brambles and briars. Just inside the hardwoods on the edge of these transition areas are good locations to sit and watch for squirrels. Another good location is on the benches that often run along the mountainsides, or along the top. If they have mast-producing trees, these flat areas will often hold a lot of game, including squirrels.
Again, look for the sign the squirrels leave behind with pieces of chewed up nut casings. These are easy to spot with hickory, a bit tougher with acorns and it takes a sharp eye with beechnuts. Check on top of stumps or rocks where a squirrel will often sit and whittle on a nut. Also look under trees with large branches that are parallel to the ground and about 10 feet high. The squirrels like these because the branches and canopy above protect them from raptors. The branches are also high enough so that a coyote can’t reach them and the squirrels can see a tree-climbing predator like a fisher coming with advance warning. They like large branches because they provide a more stable platform for them to sit on and eat.
Also, look for the places where squirrels have buried nuts in the ground. They will show in the leaf litter on the forest floor as small disturbances in the leaves. If you find them and see that the soil is disturbed underneath, dig down and you will usually find a buried nut. A place that is littered with these is a target-rich environment. Also look for the leafy nests that squirrels build high in the treetops. These are easier to find later in the fall, after the leaves have fallen from the trees. But, mostly when you are looking for squirrels, look for nuts. Like I said, find the food and you find the squirrels.
There is a notion today among those soulless hunters who were reared watching “horn porn” with a trophy-quest attitude that hunting squirrels is just for kids and not worthy of real hunters. Don’t discourage them. If the Boone and Crockett Club ever figures out a scoring system for squirrels, pretty soon somebody else will decide we need QSM (quality squirrel management), and before you know it the very thing that makes squirrel hunting special, that indefinable quality that keeps me, and maybe you, returning year after year to the hardwood ridges will be spoiled. Let’s just keep this one a secret among friends, shall we?