Most small game hunters start chasing squirrels only when the leaves fall off the trees and they are easier to locate in the canopy. I too love to chase these fuzzy tailed critters in the winter months, but if you want a challenge and some early season fun, I would suggest you get into the woods when the leaves are still on. This can be a fun way to kick off your hunting season and with a few pointers can be a great way to put some food on the table.
Choose the Right Trees
We all think of squirrels as animals of the forest and we usually see them dashing for a tree when they spot us. However, knowing what kind of trees squirrels feed on during particular parts of the year can be an essential way to locate these shy critters when the leaves are still on.
Squirrels usually choose trees for one of two reasons; they have a den in them or they are feeding off the nuts that the tree is dropping. In the denning situation, pay attention to any trees that appear to have hollow places or small openings where a squirrel can make their nests. They count on these hollows to escape predators and store their food for winter. Chances are that if you find a good denning tree the squirrels will not be far from them.
When it comes to food, the two types of trees that drop their nuts first in the areas that I hunt are hickory and pecan trees. This is always a great area to pay attention too, sure, there are other nutting trees but these two species tend to fall in late September through August and as a result, condensed squirrel foraging under them.
Squirrels are a natural prey item for many creatures in the forest. As a result, they are very sensitive to disturbances and have a natural reaction to freeze when they think something is wrong. This can make things particularly difficult when the leaves are on the trees because all the squirrel has to do is tuck itself up above a thick clump of leaves and it disappears. My advice on this is to find yourself in a good spot and sit down. Place yourself on a high knob or even just an area with a good vantage and wait. You will notice the silence when you first sit down, but as time passes, you will start to hear the shuffling of leaves and soon after that, you will begin to see squirrels going about their business. I have had good luck with this tactic.
I also bring along a set of binoculars to pick apart the trees and see if I can find a squirrel. This is more or less a way for me to pass the time between shots when I am waiting for the next opportunity. Nevertheless, it has proven successful a handful of times.
Choose the Right Gun
I have found that choosing the right gun for your skill level and the area is key to early-season squirrel success. In the late season, I would only ever consider using a .22 or .17 hmr. This is because the opportunities are much more frequent and if you do miss a shot, it is much easier to track the squirrel through the naked canopy for a follow-up shot. However, in the early season you usually only get one crack at it and they disappear into the dense canopy. I would suggest that you would consider a 20 gauge or .410 when hunting in the early season. They offer the hunter more forgiveness and it is much easier to place a shot on a running squirrel with a shotgun. I personally hunt with a Savage Model 24v which is a .22 over .410. It is a blast to hunt with and offers the best of both worlds.
No matter what gun you choose to hunt with, early-season squirrel hunting is a blast. It is a great way to get out into the woods after a long summer and brush up on your marksmanship skills before the big game seasons start later in the fall. It is also a great way to put some tasty snacks on the table. All you have to do is try squirrel and dumplings once and you will be a believer for life. I would strongly suggest that if you have never given squirrel hunting a chance that you consult your local game regulations and get out into the woods for a fun and often humbling experience.