January and February can be a tough time for a hunter. Most of the big game seasons have ended, or you have already filled your tags for the year. There are some late conservation seasons for geese, but other than that it is scarce as far as hunting opportunities go. However, this time of year offers a great opportunity for one of my absolute favorite small game species: Squirrels. The leaves are off the trees, but these crafty little survivors can be quite difficult to get on the ground this late in the season.
One of the best aspects of hunting these critters at this time of the year is great visibility. Most, if not all, the leaves are off the trees, so it makes it quite easy to spot the squirrels as they are running through the trees or on the ground. The flip side of this is the great visibility runs both ways. The squirrels can also see you coming from a very long way away, which will lead them to do one of two things: run or hide above a branch and blend in. When they run, you can usually get a shot at them before they scoot down a hole or around the trunk of a tree, but if they stick to the tree like glue and don’t move, they can be difficult to spot. You must remember, typically by this time of the season, all those dumb squirrels that were sitting on a limb barking at you in October are long dead. The squirrels that are leftover in the late winter have already survived three months of human hunting, not to mention all the other things in the woods that like to eat them. I have a few tricks to get some squirrels into the bag for this time of year: be still, use your optics, and have access to a dog.
Being still while hunting this time of year cannot be underestimated. If you think about the critters that like to eat squirrels, it makes sense that they freeze or run when they see movement that they are uncomfortable with.
Everything from hawks, owls, coyotes, and weasel will try to take advantage of a squirrel if they are given a chance. It is for this reason that taking things slow and being patient are critical for success this time of year. The tactic that I use is taking advantage of terrain features. If you can get just a little elevation or find the edge of a small opening in the woods, it can become a great place to look for these tasty critters.
Once you find a spot that you believe holds some squirrels and has reasonably good visibility, the key is to be still. At first it will seem like the woods are void of life but give it 10-15 minutes and you will start to see the woods get back to normal. Once this happens, keep a wary eye and ear out. You will soon hear the rustling of leaves and see bushy tails running through the trees and on the ground.
I usually make 3-5 sits in places that I believe are good for holding squirrels before I reach my limit. I wouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. I would take two or three shots from each location, then take the opportunity to move to your next spot because at this point, the squirrels will know what’s going on and the jig is up.
Having a pair of binoculars in the woods when you are hunting squirrels is almost invaluable. When you know that there are animals around, but you simply can’t find them, binoculars are great. I use a whole range of vortex optics when I am out looking for squirrels, especially when the leaves are off. These little buggers can really cling themselves to trees and logs. You may think that you have a keen game eye, but the color and camouflage of a squirrel can often be hard for the human eye to pick out against the backdrop of winter woods.
When I find there to be a lack of activity, usually late morning into early afternoon, I deploy this strategy. I will find one of my key terrain features that I mentioned above and will pull out my binoculars. I then start picking apart the canopy looking for any sign of a squirrel’s body. Often their tail will give them away, but I have managed to get a shot based on seeing everything from parts of legs to ears sticking up behind a branch. I also check out places where squirrels are likely to hang out when they are resting. Look in the crooks of trees and on large branches that offer a place for the squirrel to stretch out but be hidden from avian predators.
Having access to a dog can also be a good tactic to get the squirrels moving in the late season. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a dog that knows how to hunt squirrels, it just needs to be a dog that listens relatively well. Having a dog that will go around the other side of a tree and push the squirrel to your side for a shot can be very helpful. The dog may not actually know what he is doing, but most will figure it out when they get the first couple squirrels on the ground.
I use my Brittany, which is primarily an upland bird dog, but like most dogs, he loves to chase squirrels. He will alert me by going to the base of a tree when he sees or smells a squirrel. This has proven to be very helpful. But I have had issues locating my Brittany a couple of times in the woods when he is sitting under a tree and I cannot see him. This is where the lack of noise that he makes compared to normal squirrel dogs can become frustrating. For the most part, he works closely and we can work together to put a few in the freezer.
I’m not sure why, but as I have progressed further into my hunting career, I have become just as excited about hunting squirrels as I am about most other game. Don’t get me wrong, nothing compares to hunting big bull elk or a bighorn, but those are experiences that you only get to have a handful of times in your life. Squirrels consistently offer a great and exciting hunting opportunity with a tasty payoff. I have used these tactics to chase these little critters around the woods with varying amounts of success. Hopefully, if you get the chance to try one or two of them, it will add to your hunting experience and bag limit.