Although many Michigan hunters cut their hunting teeth on small game, most advanced quickly to big game hunting. In the rush to make the whitetail deer the undisputed king of Michigan hunting, the most abundant game animal, the squirrel, has been nearly forgotten. I know a lot of “deer hunters” but I don’t know anyone who admits to being a “squirrel hunter”. That’s a shame because squirrels are a joy to hunt. When it comes to keen eyesight, acute hearing, and a quick sense for detecting danger, a squirrel has it all.
Michigan allows hunters a long, September 15 to March 1, squirrel season and a generous, five per day, limit. To me, a squirrel hunt is a relaxing, quiet time spent in the woods with no pressure, and basically no competition from other hunters. In addition, the meat from the game harvested is excellent eating. I really enjoy the slower pace of stalking through the woods, eyes on the treetops, all senses alert, searching for the telltale movement or sound of a squirrel.
To make my hunt even more fun and satisfying, I like to hunt with a small bore, flintlock “squirrel rifle.” The American Longrifle wasn’t called a squirrel rifle for nothing. Hunting squirrels is one of the oldest small game pursuits, going all the way back to pioneer days. The original forests were thick with mast producing oak, hickory, walnut, and chestnut trees. For straight shooting early settlers, squirrels were a major source of meat. I strive for head shots with my .40 caliber rifle because it’s a little hard on meat when a shot goes awry. Carefully loading each shot in my rifle from a powder horn and shot pouch seems to make a historic connection to our early pioneer past.
There was a wonderful October feel to the clear, chilly air as I eased into a small woodlot near home one day last fall. A light breeze rustled the fallen leaves and helped to cover any noise I made as I moved slowly along. A lot of acorns had fallen and the squirrels were active on the ground that afternoon. Soon I saw one sitting on a low limb. Using a large tree for cover, I approached to within shooting range of my rifle’s open sights. Leaning around the tree, I took careful aim and gently squeezed the trigger. Through the resulting black powder smoke I thought I saw the squirrel fall straight down and as the smoke cleared I could see it lying motionless in the fallen leaves under the oak tree.
It’s a good practice to reload before moving because you never know when another shot opportunity might develop. I quickly ran through the process of loading a flintlock; pour powder from horn to measure, pour it down the barrel, check on the dead squirrel, place a patch on the muzzle and a ball on top, start it with the short starter, glance at the squirrel, use the ramrod to seat the ball firmly down on the powder charge, finally, prime the pan, close the frizzen, and put the hammer on half-cock. Yep, squirrel hasn’t moved. I walked over to claim my prize.
Stalking carefully along, I was surprised by another squirrel as it jumped up on a fallen log at close range. Most of my shots are taken at from 10 to 30 yards, some of the dumber squirrels are taken even closer. A clean head shot collected my second squirrel of the day from atop the log. He must have been one of the dumber ones.
I made a clean miss on my next opportunity, but connected on another squirrel which was picked cleanly off a stump at 20 yards. With three squirrels in my game bag, taken with only four shots, I was starting to feel a little cocky. Although I don’t try to “limit out” there was still plenty of time to enjoy hunting and the woodlot was full of squirrels. I admit the thought of a five squirrel limit did enter my mind.
Maybe just the thought put pressure on me because I missed an easy shot on my next opportunity. The squirrel didn’t even flinch at the shot, so I stepped behind a tree to quickly reload my rifle. As I was pouring black powder from the horn to my measure, I heard the squirrel coming toward me. I was amused to notice my hands shaking from excitement as I poured the measured powder down the bore of the muzzleloader. The squirrel hopped by me and stopped less than ten paces away as I quickly seated the patched round ball onto the powder charge with the ramrod. As I primed the pan of the flintlock the squirrel sat up and looked at me as if he had just seen me for the first time. I slowly raised the rifle, set the hair trigger, and promptly missed him again. I had just missed the same squirrel twice with a flintlock rifle!
Calming down, I reminded myself not to try to force the shot. Just relax and let the rifle do its work. Don’t grip it too tight, torque the stock, or rush the shot. Just align the sights, hold steady, and concentrate on the front sight until the flintlock cracks, then continue to hold steady after the shot. It’s simple.
Not so cocky now, I went in search of another squirrel to try to redeem myself. After crossing a little creek, I spotted one feeding on the other side of a fallen tree. Anticipating a shot, I cocked the hammer, set the hair trigger, and waited. He was busy in the fallen leaves and wouldn’t sit up. My arms began to tire from holding the 8 ½ pound rifle up. Finally, a chance for a shot. Crack! Squirrel number four.
I refused to think about the limit thing and started back through the woods with a satisfyingly heavy game bag. Then I heard a squirrel scolding me. Moving toward the sound of his barking, I spotted him 35 feet up in a big tree. Approaching slowly, I positioned the tree trunk behind him and carefully made my shot. Through the black powder smoke I saw squirrel number five drop straight down into the leaves.
Although I’m satisfied with less, there is no need to feel guilty about taking a limit of squirrels. I’m confident there were plenty left for seed, and no one that I know of even hunts them. Squirrels are definitely Michigan’s most underrated game animal.
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a lot of squirrel hunts when the sky was blue, the air was cool, and the fall woods smelled intoxicatingly good. But, I’ll always fondly remember that one fine day when I went 5 for 8 shots on squirrels.