by Ed Wall
Most outdoorsmen old enough to remember The Ed Sullivan Show can recollect chilly winter mornings when they sat, motionless, under a big old oak tree as the sky turned light gray, then pink.
Nestled in a hand-me-down hunting coat, they clutched a well-worn shotgun or .22 rifle and waited for a squirrel to show himself on one of the upper limbs.
In my case, the gun was a 16-gauge Iver Johnson whose bluing had worn to a dull brown.
I was at least the third generation to hunt with it and it could be counted to bring down what you fired at – IF it fired at all.
The problem was, the gun’s firing pin and the spring that made it function were so worn that every so often I would pull the trigger and nothing would happen.
I would pull back the hammer and keep trying until, eventually, it would erupt with a “boom.”
The trick was keeping my quarry in the sights while I manipulated the thing.
The old gun wasn’t very efficient but it was an unending source of amusement among my hunting buddies.
That was alright though.
Squirrels were so plentiful back then that even an overeager, somewhat clumsy adolescent could bag a sack full most days if he showed a little patience and some basic skills.
The same is true today. There are probably as many squirrels as there have been at any time since colonial days.
The season is long (through February in most southeastern states); the daily bag limit is liberal (8 in North Carolina), and there are a lot of places to hunt.
Folks who might not let a stranger have access to their land during deer season often welcome hunters who just want to have a go at squirrels.
Late winter is a great time to get out and stalk what is arguably our most popular small game.
If you do, there are a few things that can put the odds in your favor. Some of them were learned through experience.
Others were passed down by older, smarter hunters.
–Hunt creek bottoms.
Hardwoods, which include most mast-bearing oaks, are more prevalent along creek bottoms than on higher ground where pines have often taken over.
This time of year, most of the acorns have fallen and that’s where the squirrels will be – scavenging in the leaf litter for a quick meal.
A plus is that the bottomland is often wetter than other areas which makes for quieter, stealthier movement.
– Shoot and stay put.
Regardless of whether he is carrying a .22 caliber rifle or a small-gauge shotgun, a hunter who shoots a squirrel would be wise to mark where it fell and then sit tight for at least 10 minutes or so.
Others in the area will often come back out of their hiding spots to see what all the fuss was about.
– Pick your spots.
Early in the season, white oaks are great places to look for squirrels but their acorns are usually gone by late winter.
Pin oaks and live oaks hold their nuts longer and provide food later into the season. They’re good places to try when days get short and cold.
– Go slow and use your ears.
Stalking, where the hunter stops to look and listen frequently as he moves slowly through the woods can be a good tactic this time of year.
The key word is “slow.”
Woodland squirrels are not the same as the ones we see at our backyard bird feeders.
They are used to dealing with all kinds of predators and will duck into a hole or behind some cover at the first sign of danger.
Squirrel hunters should use the same skills they would in hunting deer, including listening for the sounds of squirrels barking or cutting nuts.
-Use a call.
Commercial calls that sound like a squirrel barking are often effective in getting them to show themselves.
So are those that replicate a squirrel gnawing on a nut.
The latter can be made by using two quarters.
Simply scrape the edge of one against the edge of the other several times, wait and then do it again. Squirrels who think they’re missing a meal will sometimes come running.
– Be invisible.
“The Duck Commander” once said the most important pieces of camouflage are those that cover the face and hands.
He said that those parts of a hunter flare ducks more often than anything else.
Many experienced squirrel hunters will tell you the same thing.
They recommend face masks and gloves like those bow hunters use.
Remember, the blaze orange rule applies to squirrel hunting but that’s not a problem since squirrels are color-blind.
– Watch the sun.
Some master squirrel stalkers suggest that hunters be aware of the location of the sun.
On one hand, a rising or setting sun behind the hunter puts the glare in the squirrels’ eyes and makes movement easier.
But, it also creates shadows that extend across the forest floor ahead of the hunter and may alert his quarry.
– Outsmart ‘em.
Squirrels’ brains are about the size of one of the nuts they’re so fond of, thus you would think humans would have a big advantage.
They do if they use their imagination.
For example, some hunters have figured out they can make a squirrel reveal his location by tossing a rock or stick to the other side of a tree where he’s hiding.
One fellow I know swears he has had success by using a mirror to reflect light into a hole in a tree where a squirrel is hiding.
Apparently, the flash infuriates the squirrel and prompts him to run out to see what’s causing it.
Whether you use tricks to bag a mess of squirrels or just outlast them while sitting under a tree, late winter is a great time to be out hunting one of our favorite small game animals. A squirrel pot pie or traditional Brunswick stew can be the reward.