Basic Squirrel Hunting Tactics Can Help You Bag a Buck This Season
A sleepy sun begins to crest over the ridgetop. In the hardwood hollow below, an ever-slight rustling sound reaches the hunter’s ears. The camo-clad hunter strains to get a peek at the critter rummaging through the fresh fallen autumn leaves while remaining as motionless as possible.
Sunlight filters through the canopy of hardwoods striking the forest floor in a patchwork of shadows. The rustling of leaves stops momentarily. The early morning woods remain in an eerie silence, except for the occasional leaf rubbing and a pesky crow in a distant pine.
The hunter knows there is something crushing leaves near the base of a giant white oak around 60 yards to his left. After what seemed like an eternity, the hunter finally spots the source of the leaf rustling. The tip of an antler protrudes from behind the oak.
Connected to the antler tip is a large racked buck with his head down nosing through the leaves for some of nature’s fall candy, white oak acorns. In a slow, deliberate motion, the rifle stock finds the hunter’s shoulder. His eyes blink to focus the scope squarely behind the buck’s shoulder. The rifle reports, shattering the morning silence.
It only takes a few minutes for the hunter to recover his trophy. Grasping the rack, the hunter reflects back how a simple squirrel hunt led him to this deer.
Back to Squirrel Basics
“I squirrel hunt mainly to scout for deer,” mentions Luke Wright of Munford, Ala. “It gives me a chance to get out in the woods and locate some deer sign.”
Wright says he enjoys squirrel hunting in February after a majority of the hunters have forgotten about the woods. However, during the early fall chasing bushytails with a new carpet of leaves can help him locate deer sign and the deer.
A majority of hunters probably haven’t been in the woods since last season. A few may have ventured out during spring turkey season, but they weren’t looking for deer sign. The woods can change a lot over the course of a summer. Timber cutting, storms and other weather conditions can alter certain areas of a hunter’s favorite deer spot.
Long, hot summers can have hunters lounging around the house allowing the minds and bodies to become weak. What better way to get in shape than to partake in a squirrel hunt? Hunters will have to re-hone their woodsmanship skills and a squirrel hunt is great practice.
“Most of the time I’ll sit near the top of a ridge and just listen,” Wright explains. “I will watch for squirrels and determine where and what they are feeding on.”
“Locating a couple of acorn-enriched locales will give a deer hunter some top choices for a stand site.”
Every hunter knows that acorns are the prime food source for squirrels, deer and other forms of wildlife. Locating a couple of acorn-enriched locales will give a deer hunter some top choices for a stand site. However, not every oak tree will have acorns.
Weather conditions from the spring through the summer months can affect acorn production. A late frost in the spring can kill or reduce the number of buds on the oaks that grow into acorns. Droughts too can cause a reduction in the amount of acorn production. Sometimes this can be over a wider area or restricted to specific locations.
Squirrels are experts at finding acorns. Savvy deer hunters know that a squirrel can just about always find a nut or two. A squirrel hunt can lead a deer hunter to active acorn areas and hence deer.
Spot and Stalk Skills
Earlier Wright mentioned how he will just listen when he is on a squirrel hunt. The sound a squirrel makes scampering or foraging in the leaves is different that a deer walking. However, it takes a trained ear to distinguish between the two. Practice, that is being in the woods listening and observing, is key to learning the difference.
“When I see a squirrel, I listen to the sound it makes in the leaves,” Wright reports. “If I can hear squirrels cutting acorns out of an oak, I know it is a good tree.”
Watching a squirrel move across the forest floor and up and down trees will help hunters understand the same sounds late in the season. Deer are larger and have a different cadence in their walk, but deer can also be surprisingly stealthy.
Locating the direction for sounds in the woods or afield is beneficial to hunters. Again proper tuning of ears and eyes to specific sounds makes for a more efficient hunter. Wind rushing through the treetops or rolling across a carpet of leaves can hide the sounds of an approaching animal. Hunters must learn to tune out distracting noises and focus on the critical sounds.
Stalking down a ridge or across an oak bottom on dry leaves may seem impossible. While the crunching sound may not be completely avoidable, there are methods to walk or stalk quietly in the woods.
As humans, we develop our own swag or walking rhythm. This may be okay around town or at the local mall. However, once in the woods there has to be a different mindset. Don’t shuffle your feet. Make each step deliberately. All it takes is some practice.
Yes, a deer is much larger than a squirrel, but how many times have you had a deer just seem like it appeared out of nowhere?
Spotting a squirrel in the leaves is one thing, but try to pick one out in a tree with around 50 percent leaf coverage! That’s not an easy task. Just as hunters can train their ears, they can also train their eyes. Look for an ear, nose or fuzzy tail section. Not all of the animal may be visible.
“Learning how to pick out a squirrel can help you hunt deer,” Wright advises. “You hardly ever see the whole thing, only a part of it.”
Yes, a deer is much larger than a squirrel, but how many times have you had a deer just seem like it appeared out of nowhere? Learning to look for a portion of the animal will greatly improve your odds of seeing a deer in a thicket or behind a tree.
Often, the top of an ear, part of a leg or an antler tip may be all that is visible. Noticing one of these parts can help a hunter focus in on the quarry. Then the hunter can determine the direction the deer is facing or travel route.
Whether hunting with bow or gun, practice is important. Deer hunters will make certain their scope and rifle are shooting properly and on target before they head off to the deer stand. However, what about the hunter? With the high price of rifle ammo, a hunter may not be shooting his or her rifle enough. Dialing in on an orange dot at the center of a paper is fairly easy.
“Using a scope for squirrel hunting can help your shooting skills,” Wright mentions. “Later when you pick up your deer rifle aiming comes more natural.”
Using a .22 rifle tipped with a quality scope will help a hunter sharpen his or her shooting skills when afield. Spotting and aiming at a squirrel in a tree or hugging the ground, gives the hunter the proper sight picture. Shooting in actual hunting situations is different than shooting at the target range.
Shooting skills can become rusty without proper practice. Make the time and effort to practice with the rifle you plan to use for hunting. A good idea is use the same brand and size scope on your squirrel rifle as on your deer rifle. It may not sound practical at first, but think about it.
Another off-the-wall idea is to grab a climbing stand, your trusty .22 and head out to the squirrel woods. What’s a better way to practice shooting at deer from an elevated stand than popping a few squirrels for supper from such a stand?
Obviously, squirrels and deer are different animals. One gets a lot more attention than the other. However, in ways the two have a few things in common, such as foods, cover and a sense to survive. Both can be elusive at times, but hunting techniques for both are not that much different.
While some may scoff at the idea of hunting squirrels to improve your chances for bagging a deer, others will realize the benefits and also enjoy some great days outdoors.