In the T.S. Elliott poem “The Wasteland,” April is called the cruelest month. For outdoorsmen, though, January may well be the hardest one to endure. Deer hunting seasons have ended. Spring gobbler season is months away and waterfowl have become wary from long months of hunting pressure.
For the active sportsman, however, there are actually plenty of things to do to make this long month pass faster. Outdoor shows are plentiful and offer a great way to meet fellow hunters and fishermen. Grouse season is still in and cottontail hunting can be productive with or without beagles. Try to find the thickest cover you can and you should be able to kick up a rabbit or two.
If you don’t mind the cold, fishing can also be worthwhile for some species such as stripers and pickerel right through winter, as we’ve seen in our recent series on winter fishing opportunities.
One of the most intriguing ways to spend part of a winter day, though, is hunting squirrels. If you’ve seen good activity in a particular area it can pay to take a stand there and wait for the game to come to you, like a classic deer hunt. Bring a seat and a thermos of hot coffee or chocolate and a few sandwiches to help pass the time waiting for squirrels to scamper into view.
But after the long days on stand waiting for whitetails, many hunters prefer using a more active approach. That typically means 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. Also listen intently when 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.
Firearms of choice include a .22 rifle or a scattergun. Depending on the habitat, game regulations and whether houses are nearby, I opt for one or the other. 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.
Of course squirrels are famous for their appetite for nuts. That makes oak and hickory forests prime spots to start your hunt. 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 you can 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 and those with strong wind. 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.
Give it a try and I think you’ll agree.