Gerald Almy: Two ways to hunt squirrels

Gerald Almy

The sound was unmistakable: nut shell fragments pitter-pattering onto the forest floor. Searching hard, I soon made out the salt-and-pepper gray coat of my quarry perched high in a mature hickory tree. Bracing my arm against a maple sapling, I aimed carefully and squeezed off. My first bushytail of the day was in the bag.

Squirrels are the most popular small game animal among Shenandoah Valley hunters. It’s hard to think of a better way to spend a fall winter day than pursuing this challenging quarry. Two of my favorite methods are still hunting and float hunting. Here’s a rundown on how to use these strategies successfully.

Still hunting

This tactic engages both the mind and body as you work your way through the woods, trying to match your wits against the keen senses of the squirrel on his home turf. While studying the layout of the ground to pick the quietest route to take, you are also watching for sign and peering into treetops for the flicker of a tail or the odd hump on a branch that might betray a fox or gray squirrel.

The best weather for this type of hunting is calm and crisp. If it has rained lightly and the ground is damp and quiet, that’s even better. A light wind is not a problem; if it’s blustery, wait for a calmer day.

Any hardwood stand with abundant acorns, hickories or walnuts holds potential for still hunting. Check out southern exposures in hilly terrain, since those receive lots of sunlight and often have the best mast crops. River bottoms are also hot spots.

Wearing camouflage clothing is a good idea so you remain inconspicuous. Walk slowly as you move through the woods. When you find fresh sign or see or hear squirrels, throttle down even further. Slink quietly along and stop often to thoroughly scrutinize the woods.

Quite often you’ll hear the game before you see it. Squirrels make many vocal sounds such as barking, chattering, and squealing. When they travel, you’ll sometimes hear rattling branches or claws scampering up tree trunks. And when they eat, you might detect the sound of sharp teeth gnawing through a nut shell or the pitter-patter of fragments landing on the forest floor.

If the squirrel is within range, slowly raise your .22 rimfire rifle or shotgun, aim and fire. If the quarry is too far away, slowly sneak into shooting range. As a safety precaution, make sure there are no houses or people anywhere behind where you are aiming.

Float hunting 

Drifting quietly downstream in a canoe or johnboat in autumn is a magical experience — and also one of the most productive ways I know to hunt squirrels. You’ll likely see ducks, deer, herons, maybe a mink, bear, or turkey along shore. Competition from other hunters will be largely avoided. And the stark beauty of rivers in fall lined with oaks, hickories, ash, and sycamores is worth the trip in itself.

Game is almost always plentiful. A friend and I once floated a 4-mile stretch of the Shenandoah River and bagged six squirrels between us in two hours. Then we switched to the abundant smallmouths and had a blast catching them. Before the trip was over, we’d counted a dozen more squirrels in the trees along shore.

The first step is to find out where a river flows through public land or property where you can obtain permission to hunt. Then select a 4- to 8-mile section with no dangerous rapids or dams to carry the boat around and good put in and take-out points for vehicle access.

Either a canoe or johnboat will work. I prefer to paint the craft flat gray or drab green and camouflage it with some brush on the bow. Bring paddles, life preservers and a change of clothes and emergency survival kit in a waterproof bag. I also throw in a landing net. Some squirrels float, others sink. Be ready for both.

If the stream is small, you can cover both sides. On larger rivers, concentrate on the side with the most hardwoods or where you see the most game. As with still hunting, make sure there are no houses or people behind where you are shooting.

Whether you choose still hunting or float a section of river, it’s hard to think of a better way to spend a fall or winter day that chasing our country’s most popular game animal, the humble squirrel.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.