There is little doubt in my mind that a highly underutilized outdoor pastime is wintertime squirrel hunting. Personally I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity to go squirrel hunting and I have my favorite spots on both private and public land (actually the Thumb offers excellent squirrel hunting opportunities at the various State Game Areas found in all three counties).
I’ve heard complaints from some hunters about the new base license that forces them to basically purchase a small game license when in fact their only interest is in deer hunting. My response to that is for them to give small game hunting a try, because they don’t know what they are missing, and I personally don’t have a problem with the base license issue. The fact is I believe it is a good incentive to get more folks involved in small game hunting, a pastime that has seen numbers of hunter participation dropping in recent past years.
I was real pleased when squirrel season was extended all the way through the first day of March, and this allows me to pick and choose my days according to winter weather influences. I’ve found that cold and blustery days aren’t that conducive to good squirrel hunting, but when the wind calms down a bit and add some sunshine, I’ll be in the woods seeking “bushy-tails”, which are great to eat with a whole bunch of recipes to use.
Being a resident of the hardwoods, squirrels are tree rodents that live primarily on a wide variety of nuts, berries and buds. A key factor to know is that oak trees had an abundant acorn crop last fall, which means there are plenty of squirrels taking advantage of acorn caches they’ve made in the woods to see them through the winter. If you find oak trees, you should be able to locate plenty of squirrels.
With leaves gone and snow on the ground, winter squirrel hunting is a much different atmosphere than the early fall season, and has its own share of distinct challenges. While it is easier to see squirrels in the winter landscape, it is also easier by the same token for sharp-eyed squirrels to spot hunter movements. Being prey animals with a wide variety of predators after them, squirrels are quite alert and hunting them during the winter is usually not a slam-dunk affair.
An advantage to winter squirrel hunting however is due to the nut caches which are usually located on the ground. A majority of my shots at squirrels during the winter are actually on ground traveling/feeding squirrels. Because of this I more often than not prefer a .22 rifle that allows me a little more reach on wary winter squirrels, and I do appreciate the white, snowy backdrop for this type of shooting. When it comes to shotguns for this atmosphere I prefer the small bores such as .410 and 28 ga. stoked with number 4 lead shot (I dislike my squirrel meat being peppered with birdshot).
No matter what firearm I use, I prefer to focus on a headshot whenever possible, not only to prevent meat damage (and no, I’ve never had a hankering for squirrel brains – a Southern delectable), but also because squirrels are surprisingly tough and resilient despite their small stature. When you clean squirrels you have shot and remove the hide, you can readily see their very muscular and lean stature that allows them to scamper through the trees as fast and gracefully as they can do.
The two squirrel species hunted in Michigan are the fox squirrel (which is the largest specie) and the gray squirrel (which often features a black color phase). Here in the Thumb the most predominate specie is the fox squirrel due to our agriculture rich atmosphere it much prefers. There are however pockets of gray squirrels and one of my favorite local hunting spots features both species, and I don’t mind the variety at all and once in the pot they all taste the same, which is always very flavorful, and ultimately fat-free
A key I use in selecting my winter days for seeking squirrels is that if I notice a likely number are out and about in an urban environment, the chances are they are out and about in the woods where I can hunt them. My favorite wintertime method is usually “spot and stalk” and I don’t appreciate crusty and crunchy snow that renders this particular method practically useless. Like I said earlier, I do pick and choose my days.
Nothing beats a fine day spent in the squirrel woods (which are readily available on public land in the Thumb), and I’ll take that over being a “couch potato” anytime to shorten the winter months.