I had just arrived at my pre-dawn location fully expecting the woods to soon awake. Pre-season scouting had revealed several hickory trees with freshly-cut nut fragments beneath them. It was just a matter of hiding beneath the thick woods canopy until the bushytails started moving towards their reliable food-source.
Since squirrel season usually begins in late summer, the foliage of the woods has peaked. This allows a hunter to hide quite easily, but also gives the tree-dweller dense cover above the canopy to hide. As I sat on a log listening, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of a squirrel traveling tree-to-tree — heading my way. Slowly I rose, watching the squirrel as it moved closer toward the hickories, waiting patiently for the sound of it gnawing on a nut.
Hickory nuts have very hard shells and bushytails make quite a ruckus cutting through the hull to get to the nut. It is always a plus to have a good mast of hickory available because it makes squirrel hunting easier. You notice, I didn’t say it makes it easy. It’s just less problematic. However, finding the bushytail is just the beginning. Stalking to within gun range will be the next major hurdle to clear.
Although they feed high up in a tree, bushytails always keep an eye out for approaching danger. (Photo by John and Vikki Trout)
Stalking The Bushytail
Now that you have found your quarry, getting within range is the next challenge. Whether hunting with rifle or shotgun, stalking and setup is crucial. Since the canopy is thick, oftentimes it is hard to see the squirrel. You may be on one side of the towering hickory and the bushytail could easily be on the opposite. I have found squirrels by seeing nothing more than small, fine fragments of the hickory hull falling from the tree.
Getting around the hickory without being detected requires diligence and silence. Footwear is very important for comfort as well as walking quietly. One wrong step and your presence can easily be detected. There is no doubt when a bushytail has detected you — it’s “Katie-bar-the-door,” it is out of there and you will have to find another squirrel! Most don’t stick around and ask questions.
The Perfect Setup
Setup for the rifle hunter is a little tougher than hunting with a shotgun because you only have one projectile. Shotgun shells provide numerous pellets and might not require a gun rest before shooting. However, it is imperative to brace your rifle, which requires additional steps during setup. You must keep your eye on the squirrel above you, and also look for a tree to steady the gun against. There have been many times I actually had to go away from a squirrel in order to circle around and get in position for the shooting opportunity.
I recall one occasion that I found it necessary to make a huge circle around a feeding bushytail. Even when circling the tree, I could hear the hickory shell being gnawed and falling to the ground. Unfortunately, what I did not realize was that the falling hickory hulls were now coming from the location I had just left. I found it necessary to circle again, but this time made a smaller circle, remaining hidden in a ditch to get to a perfect ambush location. Ditches and creeks provide excellent travel routes to keep you concealed and reach a tree dweller. This stalking strategy worked for that squirrel, and has provided opportunities for me to sneak up on other squirrels.
Other Food Sources
Nothing beats a plentiful mast of hickory nuts. Unfortunately, weather conditions greatly impact nut production and we cannot always count on the hickory trees to provide a food source for bushytails. There are other possibilities to discover during your pre-season scouting or even during the hunting season if hickories fail. They range from white and red oak acorns, to cherry, dogwood, and walnut trees. Of this variety, red oaks and walnuts produce their mast in late autumn.
I recall a particular squirrel hunt several years ago. We had a terrible drought two years in a row and nut trees were barren. However, dogwood berries were abundant. I was fortunate enough to spot limbs moving in a nearby dogwood. This tree is part of a hillside near a gently rolling woods. I was able to use that rolling woods to my advantage by staying on the low side and stalking to within range of the feeding bushytail.
Cornfields are another possibility to consider if there are no berries and the nut mast fails. Squirrels will not hesitate to visit standing corn. It is tough to hunt cornfields due to the thickness of the corn stalks, and you must stick to the fringes where the timber meets field. However, always make certain you have permission before hunting the fringes of a cornfield.
I am anticipating the upcoming squirrel season. Of course, I hope we will have a nut mast to make it a little easier, but I always consider hunting bushytails with a rifle a great way to learn woodsmanship. Squirrel hunting also provides additional opportunities, such as locating deer sign — and it’s just around the corner.
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