What do you do when deer season closes on Jan. 5 for bow and muzzleloader hunting? You can certainly spend time visiting the many outdoor shows. You can do some winter fishing. Or you can catch up on reading and repair gear for next season's deer hunting.
But for many of us, late season is the time to switch to small game, waterfowl and upland birds. The squirrel is a particular favorite among local Shenandoah Valley residents.
Fox and gray squirrels are found throughout the Valley, with fox squirrels more in pockets of abundance here and there, grays just about everywhere. The season is open through Jan. 31, with a generous limit of six per day.
Both squirrel species can be hunted with the same gear. You can use either a .22 rifle or a shotgun. Most hunters choose the latter, preferring 12, 16 or 20 gauge guns teamed up with loads of size 4, 5 or 6 high brass shot. Choke can vary from open for close shooting to modified for long range shots of 35-45 yards. But for all around squirrel hunting, it's hard to top an improved cylinder choke.
Action is a matter of choice. I like double side-by-sides, but most hunters go with automatics or pumps. Single shots will certainly do the trick, though, if you're careful with your shot placement.
A variety of hunting tactics can be used. I prefer still hunting best of all, but some hunters like to find an area with squirrel sign and park themselves under a hickory or oak tree and wait for the creatures to come to them.
Another exciting technique is float hunting. Use a canoe or johnboat and wear a floatation vest. Have one hunter do the boat handling from the rear while the hunter in front watches for squirrels along the bank or scurrying up and down the trees along the water's edge.
You need the landowner's permission, though, to hunt squirrels along the stream bank. Either obtain that in advance or float through land open for public hunting, such as the George Washington National Forest.
Sight is the sense most hunters use when squirrel hunting- -- watching for a twitching bushy tail, an odd hump in a branch, leaves shaking in a tree top. But sometimes the best way to find this quarry is by using your ears. Listen for these five sounds when on your next squirrel hunt.
• Squirrel vocalizations. Squirrels make a variety of sounds from cat-like meowing to muffled barking to angry scolding when they sense danger or an intruder.
• The sharp crunching sound of teeth cutting through shells as the quarry gnaws on nuts and other hard mast crops.
• The pitter patter of acorn, walnut or hickory shell fragments falling to the forest floor.
• Shaking leaves and rattling branches high in trees as squirrels jump from one limb to another.
• Rustling of leaf-litter as the gray quarry scampers through the woods searching for food.
Tune your ears to pick up these telltale sounds and you'll often find it's easier to detect the quarry with your hearing than your vision. If your ears are in less than perfect shape from years of shooting, too much rock and roll or too many hours behind the tractor making food plots, purchase one of the hearing amplifiers on the market specifically designed to aid hunters trying to detect the sounds of their quarry.
Walker's Game Ear and other companies make a variety of hearing aids for sportsmen that increase your ability to pick up sounds of squirrels and other game while also reducing the damaging noise that reaches your ears from gun blasts. Prices range from $100 to $500 from Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops or local retailers such as Shenandoah Sporting Goods near Toms Brook.
Make Your Own Sounds- -- Besides listening for the quarry, you can attract squirrels, or at least get them to move and betray their locations, by using one of the squirrel calls on the market. Tap, shake or squeeze them to produce alarm barks or mating squeals. Both sounds can elicit vocal responses or movement from squirrels, offering the chance for a shot. These can also be purchased from the retailers mentioned above.
If you forget your call, try this trick. Tap two hickory nuts together or rattle a couple of small pebbles in your palm. I've used both of those tactics to draw out unseen squirrels or those that I got a quick glimpse of before they scurried around a tree out of sight.
No, they're not as exciting to hunt as a trophy whitetail or bugling elk, but squirrels are abundant and fun to hunt, with the possibility of taking several virtually any day you venture out. And to top it off, they make a fine meal when pan-fried or cooked long and slow in a traditional Brunswick Stew.
-- Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.