Gerald Almy: Hunting winter squirrels
January is one of the hardest months for the outdoorsman. Deer hunting seasons have ended. Spring gobbler season is months away. Bears have hibernated and sometimes an outdoors person may feel like joining them and sleeping until spring.
But there are actually plenty of great things to do to make this long month pass faster. Outdoor shows are often going on. Grouse are still in season and rabbit hunting can be productive with or without beagles. If you don’t mind the cold, fishing can also be worthwhile for some species such as pickerel right through winter.
One of my favorite ways to spend part of a winter day, though, is hunting squirrels. If I’ve seen good activity in a particular area I may take a stand there and wait for the game to come to me, like a classic deer hunt.
But after the long days on a stand waiting for whitetails, I’m usually interested in pursuing a more active approach. This to me means two methods. The first is still hunting. The second tactic is float hunting. We’ll save float hunting for another column. Right now, let’s look at still hunting.
It’s hard to beat moving quietly along a hardwood ridge or bench just off from the top searching for the twitch of a tail, the odd oval form on a branch or the sight of a bushytail jumping dexterously from one tree to another. I also listen intently when I’m still hunting for the sounds a squirrel makes such as scurrying through fallen leaves, chewing on a nut shell or chattering and barking to his companions.
You can use a .22 rifle or scattergun for this approach. Depending on the habitat, game regulations, and whether houses are nearby, I opt for one or the other, but enjoy both immensely. Scatterguns can be equipped with improved cylinder or modified chokes, depending on how far your shots are. Use size 4, 5, or 6 pellets in high brass loads.
Besides oak and hickory forests, stalking near the edge of cornfields is another good option. Often you’ll find the slightly larger fox squirrels in these areas. The Shenandoah Valley has a fairly good population of these game animals that are sometimes gray but often have a more orange tint to their hair. The squirrels in these areas can use the cover of the adjoining woods, but also venture into the harvested crop field to forage for leftover corn.
Work slowly, pausing often to scan both the ground and tree branches and listen for telltale squirrel sounds. If nothing shows after a few minutes, move slowly and quietly ahead 20-50 yards and scan again. If an area looks particularly good I may even sit down for a 10 or 15 minute stretch in case a bushytail is present, but hiding on the opposite side of a tree.
Try to time your hunts for days with low wind and some sunshine. Avoid the very coldest bitter days. If you must hunt those, get out during the midday hours when the temperatures are at their warmest.
That midday hunting schedule suits me just fine, because as the years go by getting out in the woods at daylight on a bitter day for a small game hunt just doesn’t have the appeal it used to. But by 8 or 9 a.m., the thought of stalking a squirrel sounds like just the ticket to help pass a long January day.
• A long-lost essay by Theodore Roosevelt that was never published in his lifetime has been unearthed and released as an eBook by editor and writer Michael R. Shea. The essay is called “Sou’ Sou’ Southerly.” The title comes from the 19th century nickname for oldsquaw, or the long-tailed duck. The essay did come to light briefly 27 years ago when it was discovered by yachting historian John Rousmaniere in the Library of Congress and published in Gray’s Sporting Journal in 1988, but since then has been unavailable. Shea unearthed the original Roosevelt manuscript, transcribed it, and published it as an eBook that’s now offered by Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.