By Don Mallicoat- October 17th is only a couple of weeks away, but if you are a bushytail hunter it’s time to start scouting your favorite hunting grounds. For decades squirrel hunting was 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. Hunting squirrel is how many of my generation got started in the sport, and I encourage any adult who is starting a young hunter to do it. There are so many skills a future hunter needs that can be learned squirrel hunting: stalking, listening to sounds, and signs of animal activity are just a few. The lack of popularity is definitely not for a shortage 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. 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, you still have to do some pre-season work to locate their stomping grounds. 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. 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.
There are two common methods in the mountains to hunt squirrels. Once you have found that prime feeding area you can stand hunt them by sitting still in the middle of the area. This is difficult to do during the early season while leaves are still on the trees because you can’t see movement. Many hunters prefer to still-hunt or stalk squirrels. But you can’t just go walking up to the trees. 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. It is best to approach from below.
The same debate that rages across the country about which gun is best for squirrels continues 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. It comes down to personal preference and what you grew up shooting.
You just don’t see that many people squirrel hunting any more. 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 introduce a young hunter to squirrels this season and keep a mountain tradition alive.
Don Mallicoat owns Wings & Clays Guns ‘N Gear and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.633.1806.