By Don Mallicoat-Every year in October I have fathers come in the store talking about taking their young son deer hunting. I always want to say, “Why don’t you take them squirrel hunting?” For decades squirrel hunting has been a rite of passage for young hunters. The first .22 or shotgun is proudly carried into the woods with dad for that first hunt. It doesn’t seem as popular as it once was; with more young hunters going directly to the deer stand. It is definitely not for lack of game to pursue, because Eastern gray squirrels are abundant in the heavily forested mountains of western North Carolina.
While many mountain hunters decry the loss of deer and grouse habitat, squirrel habitat continues to grow while the number of squirrel hunters dwindles. And with over one million acres of National Forest as part of the North Carolina Game Lands system there is plenty of public land for hunting them. Although bushytails are numerous, and public land plentiful, it is not just a matter of walking into the woods and shooting squirrels. In fact, those factors are the exact reasons that hunters need to focus their squirrel hunting efforts on specific areas and vary their tactics depending on the time of year. And food is the determining factor.
Like gray squirrels everywhere, the diet of mountain squirrels consists mainly of hickory nuts and white oak acorns. They also like beechnuts, although they are not as common in the mountains. At first glance a hunter would think that the expansive hardwood forests of the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests would provide a squirrel smorgasbord, but non-mast bearing trees like poplar and maple are predominant in some areas.
Squirrels also need water. Unlike the coastal and piedmont region where hunters can focus on oak bottoms along creeks, that doesn’t exist in the mountains. Small creeks and underground springs crisscross the vast areas of the mountains, many of them no more than six inches across. These creek bottoms are often choked by laurel and rhododendron. However, mast bearing hickory trees along the ridges bordering these small streams provide excellent squirrel habitat. White oak trees are more commonly found on dry south-facing ridges. So mountain squirrel hunters carefully scout an area to locate these two important ingredients.
Once they put these two together and find fresh “cuttings” where squirrels have been eating nuts, the hunter knows squirrels will be there. The same scouting skills required of a squirrel hunter also make a successful deer hunter. The best location to listen for squirrel activity may be from ridge tops or along National Forest service roads that usually parallel the ridgeline. Although this is a good place to listen for squirrels cutting and barking, coming down on squirrels from above is not the best approach. With the squirrels keen eyesight, that means the hunter will be approaching from eye level and possibly spook the squirrels.
After leaves are off the trees, squirrels spend more time on the ground, both to escape predators like hawks and also feeding on nuts and acorns they have stashed for the winter. The squirrel now has better vision of its surroundings. Also, with dry leaves on the ground the quiet approach becomes even more important. Sometimes the best thing to do is ease into a stand of hickory or oak trees and just sit down and wait. Squirrels start moving later in the morning when it is really cold in winter so you can get in there before they do.
The same debate that rages across the country about which gun is best for squirrels is sustained in the mountains. Early in the season when leaves are on the trees and they can get closer, many hunters prefer a small gauge shotgun with #6 shot. As winter descends on the mountains, some stick with the same load while others shift to a .22 caliber rifle to give them a little more distance.
Most local hunters agree that you just don’t see that many people out squirrel hunting anymore. With abundant numbers in the mountains, and ample public land, it is an excellent opportunity to introduce a young hunter to the tradition. It is simple, doesn’t require any high-tech equipment, and can be used as a learning experience. And it provides plenty of excitement. So dads, start ‘em on squirrels if you really want to make an outdoorsman, not just a deer hunter.