As deer became more abundant, we left squirrel hunting by the wayside and hunted deer almost exclusively. But as of late, American hunters are remembering how fun and practical squirrel hunting can be and are realizing how good squirrel can taste when prepared correctly.
There are several subspecies of squirrels in North America, and we will look at the two most often hunted, the eastern gray squirrel and the eastern fox squirrel. Abundant small-game animals, they are found throughout North America and offer widely available hunting opportunities for both first-time and experienced sportsmen.
What’s more, squirrel hunting is relatively inexpensive compared to other game animals and requires minimal gear. As small targets, they can also provide great shooting practice for those interested in taking their hunting skills to the next level. The humble squirrel is the ideal quarry to teach beginners before they graduate to becoming effective big-game hunters.
While both the gray and the fox squirrels’ habits are much alike, fox squirrels can grow a tad larger than the gray. However, squirrels rarely reach their full potential in growth, as they are a popular source of food for a wide variety of predators such as hawks, weasels, bobcats, snakes, coyotes, and more.
Some squirrels have lived upwards of 15 years in captivity, but in the wild, a squirrel will live a much shorter life.
The colors of the gray squirrel are solid gray with hints of brown and a white underbelly, while the fox squirrel is mostly reddish-brown with a hint of gray on its back and an orange-red underbelly. Both subspecies also show an all-black (melanistic) tendency in certain areas. These individuals have a dark pigmentation in their skin due to a mutant pigment gene, which can actually aid in concealment in dense forests.
Squirrels usually produce two litters of young per year and will mate around January and again in June. These dates vary between the lower and upper latitudes of their range. A litter may consist of three young on average, but can vary due to food and other environmental conditions.
As squirrels find safety in trees, they naturally nest there, too. If available, squirrels prefer a den or hollow, but they seem to do just fine in nests. Their nest, or drey, is mostly made of twigs and leaves.
These nests are built in the forks of trees and are well camouflaged in the spring and summer, but when leaves begin to fall in the autumn, they become highly visible. Look high when you are trying to spot one as they’re never built low to the ground.
Squirrel range and habitat
Gray and fox squirrels inhabit most of North America. Their range extends from New Brunswick west to British Columbia, then south into California, and east to southern Florida. They have been transplanted into many of these areas and have thrived.
Squirrels avoid the desert areas of the Southwest, but they are abundant in the high forest ranges of Arizona and New Mexico. They prefer hardwood forests to conifer types because of the nuts produced by hardwoods, but they will also inhabit pine forests and feed on pinecones. Favored hardwoods include oak, hickory, beechnut, pecan, walnut, black walnut, and others. Squirrels also like to spend time around Osage trees.
Squirrels prefer to live in the canopy layer above the forest floor. They also prefer mature trees with an open understory, free from too much forest floor vegetation. This makes them feel safer from predators as they spend a good portion of their day on the ground searching for food and finding places to hide it.
Squirrels love to hoard food, and because they occasionally forget a few hiding spots, they have unwittingly become a mover of seeds, helping some trees and plants expand beyond their normal ranges.
Forests that have not experienced periodic burns or logging to clear out dense brush are not ideal habitat for squirrels. Trees near farmland are typically great locations because of the availability of food all year round.
Fox squirrels normally desire larger acreages of forest, but the gray squirrel is often content with calling a smaller area home.
Firearms and ammunition for squirrel hunting
Firearms used for hunting squirrels are usually shotguns or the trusty .22 rimfire. Shotguns are a good choice for hunting early in the season because trees will most likely be dense with leaves, making hunting difficult with a .22 caliber. But once the leaves begin to fall, the .22 Long Rifle (LR) is hard to beat.
Most squirrel hunters use rifles, but using pistols is a growing trend. Either way, make sure that your gun is accurate, and that goes for the hunter, too.
The most accurate gun is useless unless the shooter puts in the time to practice and finetune shot groups into a target the size of a golf ball, which is about the size of a squirrel’s head and the ideal place to aim on the animal in order to avoid damaging body meat.
Whether you shoot a single-shot, bolt-action, or semiautomatic rifle, make sure you practice and practice often. Accurate iron-sight shooting is an admirable skill, but for the most precise and humane dispatching of any animal, utilizing a scope is highly recommended, especially for beginners.
Comparatively speaking, .22 LR ammunition is not expensive when compared to centerfire cartridges. The same can be said for .17-caliber rimfires, which are high-velocity, flat-shooting rounds that are finding their way into the hands of more and more hunters.
A shotgun comes in handy when trees still have their leaves, which can make it almost impossible to catch a glimpse of a squirrel long enough to shoot it with a .22.
You might hear them bark and chirp up above you and see tails popping up here and there behind thick foliage, but for the most part, squirrels are difficult to spot during the early season.
Shotguns will do the trick, allowing you to stalk close and spray pellets that will hopefully hit and drop one. Shotguns can also be safer to use than .22s, their stray pellets traveling nowhere near as far as a .22 bullet shot up into tree branches without a backstop – a .22 bullet can travel up to 1½ miles.
As for the correct shotgun gauge, anything from a 12 gauge all the way down to a .410 will do the job.
Many hunters started out hunting squirrels with grandpa’s old break-action .410 single shot, but of course, the larger the shell, the more pellets available to hit your target. First, check with state laws for legal shot size, which can vary from state to state.
Usually, a midsize number 4, 5, or 6 shot will work, and in states where it’s legal, shot size as large as 2 is acceptable. Keep in mind that a larger shot size will give you fewer pellets to hit your target, while a smaller shot size may spray too many small pellets into the meat.
Squirrels have excellent hearing and eyesight. They are social animals and communicate with each other frequently. Sneaking into the woods without being noticed is practically impossible, but learning to sneak in and use the squirrel’s curious nature to your advantage is key.
Camouflage clothing is not required when hunting squirrels, but it helps to wear drab colors that blend in with the forest, like browns and greens. If you have camo and feel more comfortable using it, go for it.
Still-hunting may be the most popular way of hunting squirrels – but it takes quite a bit of patience.
When scouting the woods or entering for the first time, seek out oak or nut trees. These are some of their favorite foods. Also, look for their nests. Do not walk at an even, steady pace like you would normally. Most animals know that sound differs between two-legged and four-legged creatures.
The sound of your normal pace is unnatural and will quickly stand out in the forest. Instead, take two or three steps and then stop. Then take two or three more steps after the last pause. Walk in different directions as you cruise the forest, never moving in a direct line.
Use your eyes to look for squirrels or nests, and also keep an eye out for signs of squirrel activity like empty nutshells under a tree. Always listen for activity in the woods. Squirrels are noisy animals, whether they are moving from tree to tree or chasing one another as they often do.
Their chewing on the hard shells of nuts makes a fair amount of noise, as well as empty hulls falling to the ground. Running along the leaf-covered forest floor, they make a noisy go at it, fooling many a deer hunter whose hopes ran high expecting to see a deer – only to find that it was a squirrel.
Pay attention to the sounds you hear and try to blend in. Listen intently and always look ahead to scan for activity. Once the squirrels discover you are there, all activity will stop. They will immediately put the tree between you and themselves.
If that should happen, stop. Squat down or lean against a tree and remain still. You might have to wait as long as 10 minutes, maybe more. Be patient – their curiosity will give them away sooner or later.
After a reasonable amount of silence, they will reappear to look around the tree to check if all is safe and resume their activities, which should give you an opportunity for a shot. It’s also a good idea to wait a little longer for the possibility that other squirrels may emerge.
If you take your first shot and are successful, don’t run up and claim your prize immediately. Instead, remember where that squirrel fell to the ground and wait for activity in the woods to resume. You may soon claim a second prize.
Field to table
As with other game animals, do not leave your squirrels in a hot, wet place, which promotes the growth of bacteria. Do your best to store your game in a cool, dry place, and clean them as soon as you get the chance.
Squirrels tend to be more difficult to skin than rabbits due to their thick, tough skin that does not give so easily. There are many hunters who don’t like to shoot squirrels simply because they don’t like to clean them.
Breaking down a squirrel
To break down a squirrel, you will need a fillet knife and a heavier knife to cut through joints. Because rabbits and squirrels are similarly built, these instructions will work for rabbits, too.
To separate the front legs, feel for the shoulder blade and cut behind it. Rabbits’ and squirrels’ front legs are not connected to their bodies with bone – they are only attached and held together by muscle. Next, separate the hind legs.
Cut where the thigh meets the body until you hit bone. Then give the leg a twist, and you will feel a slight crack or pop, indicating the hip joint where the thigh and pelvis connect. Separate the legs by cutting through this joint.
Next, you can choose to keep the back whole or cut it in two. We prefer to cut the spine between where the ribs end and where the inside straps start.
Finally, remove as much silver skin as you can without sacrificing too much meat. Silver skin contracts when cooked and creates the illusion that the meat is tougher than it really is. This is the key to cooking tender squirrels.
Squirrels taste like a cross between lean white meat such as chicken or rabbit and a more flavorful dark meat like dove. They are a viable, practical food source, being abundant and widely available in many parts of the United States.
They can be braised, fried, grilled, and roasted. Cooking methods and recipes between squirrels and rabbits are often interchangeable.
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