Squirrel Hunting Tips and Techniques
Where should I even start with squirrel hunting?
First, you might not even like squirrels all that much. They probably raid the bird feeders in your back yard or you might see them stealing food from people in parks. Let’s face it, city squirrels are bold creatures; they will mug you and leave you for dead if given the chance.
But chances are, you haven’t thought of actually eating them before.
The goal of this post is to offer a slightly different perspective and some squirrel hunting tips too.
Is Squirrel Hunting Even Worth It?
I think most people automatically dismiss squirrels as an animal to hunt because of their size. But that’s actually pretty unfair. As the late, great Yoda knew, there’s more to them than it seems.
Granted, a single squirrel doesn’t provide a huge meal, but it’s definitely enough for one person. And to dismiss the affectionate “tree rat” pseudonym and garbage can habitats of city squirrels, they are absolutely delicious when taken in the right places and prepared right. I’m talking fall-off-the-bone tender!
But that’s not the only reason you should hunt them. Squirrel populations are out of control in most areas. That means lots of animals to hunt, which increases your chance of having a delicious dinner.
As with most small game hunting, squirrels have extended hunting seasons and they are specifically one of the few species you can actually hunt through much of the winter. Since very few people actually hunt squirrels anymore, you probably won’t run into any other hunters either.
Squirrel Species and Habitats
There are lots of different squirrel species across the country, but I’ll focus on just two common ones that are usually hunted. We’ll also look at the best places to find squirrels.
You’re likely very familiar with the gray squirrel. Chances are this is the one that dines at your bird feeder and which you see in city parks. The various sub-species live across much of the U.S., making them one of the most common squirrels. They range in size from 1 to 2 pounds and have huge tails (earning them the nickname “bushy tails”). While they typically have gray fur, some areas have localized concentrations of a black fur variety.
The perfect squirrel habitat (especially for a gray squirrel) must include mature forest; if a mature forest also has nut-bearing trees (e.g., red or white oaks, walnut, hickory, pecan, chestnut, etc.), all the better. They den in hollow trees or make nests out of leaves in the forest canopy and spend their day foraging on the ground and through the tree tops.
This is the largest squirrel species that we have in the States. If you see one next to a common gray squirrel, you’ll realize just how big they can get. They can weigh up to 3 pounds but otherwise have the same general look as a gray squirrel. The exception is that their underside and tail are usually light brown, orange, or blonde colored. Since they have larger bodies and provide more meat per squirrel, fox squirrel hunting is often preferred by most people.
Fox squirrels overlap ranges with gray squirrels, using mature forests for the same reasons (i.e., food, nesting, denning, etc.). However, fox squirrels also live in smaller woodlots, semi-open farmlands, and shelterbelts. In addition to foraging on acorns or other seeds/nuts, they will readily chow leftover grain from corn cribs or along field edges.
Best Gun for Squirrel Hunting
Luckily, there’s not a lot of specific squirrel hunting equipment you need to get, but a gun is an obvious necessity. There are always personal opinions on the best hunting gear for any activity. But there are some solid gun options that most squirrel hunters agree on.
Some prefer to use a shotgun (in the .410 to 20 gauge range) in case they only get shots at running squirrels or if the early season leaves are too dense. This can also be good insurance because it spreads a pellet pattern out to hit the squirrel even if the shot isn’t perfectly aimed. The trade off is that close shots will usually pepper them with a lot of pellets, which effectively ruins the meat. The .410 shotgun is small enough to not ruin too much meat though.
Many hunters believe the best squirrel gun is a rimfire rifle. The .22 (said, twenty two) caliber rifle is capable of precision shooting from a good distance away. It also offers quick repeat shots should you miss the first (or second) time. Since it only fires a single projectile at a target so small, you have a better chance at either hitting the squirrel fatally or cleanly missing it. (I know most people would rather miss than only wound an animal.) The Ruger® 10/22® is a solid option to consider that has stood the test of time. Always make sure you have a solid tree or ground back stop behind the squirrel, even with a .22 rifle.
Air rifles are also really taking off these days in popularity for squirrel hunting. They are available in .177 (said, one seventy seven) or .22 caliber, and both are capable of killing a squirrel quickly. While you can’t fire multiple rounds as quickly with them (like with a .22 or shotgun), they are fairly silent. The added stealth may make up for any shortfalls. The best air rifle for hunting squirrels should be capable of very accurate and consistent shots. Some high-quality brands include Gamo®, Benjamin®, or Crosman®. I enjoy my Gamo® .177 caliber air rifle for squirrel hunting.
If you don’t already own a firearm, check out my post on buying your first gun.
When to Hunt Squirrels in Winter
Earlier in the squirrel hunting season (mainly September-October), the dense leaves still on the trees make it incredibly hard to find a squirrel once it retreats into them. As November comes, the increasingly bare trees aren’t much of a refuge anymore. You’ll often find squirrels foraging on the ground and running up into the trees for cover. This can be a great time to hunt squirrels.
But when the real winter arrives (December-February), things really change. Just like us, rock-bottom temperatures tend to make squirrels lazy and keep them tucked inside their leafy nests. When this happens, you probably won’t see many bushy tails. And let’s face it; it’s not much fun to be outside anyway.
But when you get an unseasonably warm day, it’s time to head out for winter squirrel hunting. Squirrels are still likely to stay “in bed” for a while in the mornings, so take advantage of the extra sleep yourself. About an hour after daylight, though, they will likely be on the move to forage for cached food. They hide nuts in tree cavities, under loose bark, or even in the snow and leaves. Mornings are usually the best time of day to squirrel hunt, though you can also find some active ones in the afternoon.
How to Hunt Squirrels
Taking a friend along is a great winter squirrel hunting strategy because you can tag team. Squirrels are notorious for being able to keep an obstacle between you and them. So when you spot one on a tree, you can try staying put while your friend slowly circles the tree. The squirrel will likely edge around the tree until it is within your sights again. As long as you hold still and know exactly where your friend is (do not shoot in that direction), you should be able to get a shot.
Solo Squirrel Hunting
There are also two common methods for hunting squirrels by yourself: sitting or stalking. Luckily, there’s a good way to combine the two. For the stationary approach, it may work best to scout a few areas just to find some promising places to hunker down. Look for the squirrel habitats mentioned above and keep an eye out for spots you can hide (e.g., brush piles, against wide tree trunks, etc.).
While you’re scouting, take a shotgun with you. Any squirrels you come across will likely be on the move, which makes the shotgun a better choice. Make sure you have some good boots, because you’ll probably have to do some walking to find a few good spots. The idea is to stalk along slowly in the habitats above, keeping a watchful eye on the trees. Hopefully you surprise a few squirrels and can have a nice dinner that night.
The next time you hunt, silently sneak out in the early morning hours into one of the spots you found on your first hike. Only this time take your rimfire or air rifle with, which are both quieter than a shotgun. Then either sit down or stand against a tree trunk to blend your body outline into the environment. Keep an eye on the forest canopy, especially keying in on noticeable nests or tree cavities. Watch for any twitching tails and quick scurrying, and listen for squirrels barking or rustling in their leafy nests. When you spot one, take the first available shot you can get. They may disappear into a tree and not come out for hours.
How to Shoot a Squirrel
Many new hunters wonder where to shoot a squirrel. Since squirrels are pretty small, the vital target is also very small. Similar to rabbit hunting, a head shot is considered the most ethical way of dispatching a squirrel. Plus, you won’t ruin any meat with a head shot. But that means you need to basically hit something the size of a quarter from at least 20 yards away.
The first thing you’ll notice about squirrels is that they rarely hold still for too long. When you’re looking through a scope and trying to settle on their heads, this will be very obvious to you. One way to get them to hold still is to call to them. When you’re absolutely ready and settled onto them, make a few loud chirping or barking noises with your lips or use a squirrel call from the store. In most cases, this will catch their attention and make them hold still to pinpoint the sound. This is when you should take a deep breath, settle the crosshairs behind the eye and under the ear, and squeeze the trigger.
Butchering and Cooking a Squirrel
First, congratulations on hunting your own dinner, however small it is!
Squirrel hunting can be surprisingly hard sometimes. But after actually getting one, I can’t help but feel admiration for these tenacious little critters. They are extremely adaptable animals.
The first time I hunted squirrels for food, I was lost on how to begin squirrel skinning or butchering. I found Hank Shaw’s article about How to Cut Up a Squirrel for Cooking incredibly useful. I’m hoping to do a video soon about the process, but check out Hank’s article above for a great tutorial in the meantime. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I also always save the heart and liver from animals I kill to make the most use of them. I tried saving the kidneys one time, but I just can’t appreciate the flavor.
Once you break down the squirrel into basic quarters, take some time to thoroughly wash them and pick away all the hairs stuck to the meat (there will probably be lots of them your first few times). After that, it’s time to either freeze them or get cooking.
Hank has plenty of amazing squirrel recipes, but I recently chose to simply brown the squirrel pieces and then slowly braise them in my own little oddball concoction of ingredients. After a few hours, I removed the bones from the mixture and piled it all on top of some toast.
Oh. My. Squirrel.
It was delicious! Not only that, one squirrel was definitely enough for my dinner.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of going squirrel hunting, now is a great time to do it. Even if you don’t see anything, it’s still a great way to get out and enjoy the outdoors.