Squirrel and other small game seasons happen throughout the country, giving hunters a chance to enjoy some of the finest opportunities for woodsmanship, fellowship and shooting skills.
From the days of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett with their flintlocks to our souped-up ammunition and quality rifles available now, squirrel hunters have taken up the challenge for many years. Sometimes quiet, sometimes noisy but always looking for food, squirrels offer a fantastic test of a hunter's shooting skills no matter what age or time of year.
The Trusty .22 Rifle?
Hunters have their favorite firearms, usually a .22 rifle with a pocket full of cartridges, to get the job done. Whether you top off that single-shot, lever action or semi-auto rifle with a rifle scope is up to you. Gun optics definitely help, of course, with longer shots and more accurate placement of a bullet in the head so you don't waste meat.
However, late summer and early autumn are not the time of the season for the trusty .22 rifle. Why? Because your bushytails aren't flitting around the oaks, beeches and other mast-producing trees in open view. Leaves still cling to the limbs and won't fall for several weeks or months, depending on where you live. In the Southeast, the leaf drop may not happen until November — several months after most of the region's seasons have opened.
Take out your rifle in the early part of the season and you very well could be using the right gun at the wrong time of the year. Even with a quality smaller, lightweight 8x32 or 10x32 binocular and possibly a feist or cur to help track the scent, a wily squirrel can get high into an oak or beech, hunker down or hop several limbs and be invisible.
Time for the Shotgun
So this is when a two-gun approach works best. I learned this many years ago while hunting with Tim Cosby, the former chief of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Law Enforcement section and a diehard squirrel hunter. He had a very cool customized Ruge10/22 semi-auto rifle with an overmolded Hogue stock, scope and good binoculars. Cosby had eagle eyes when his dogs treed, but even in the early season with leaves still hanging those squirrels were sometimes hard to find.
More recently, my raccoon hunting pals John Meares of Tennessee and Matt Balch of Alabama reinforced this early-late gun swap for squirrels.
"I love my rifle," Meares said, and he shoots a well-worn Henry lever-action, "but in the early season I'll have a 12-gauge Remington 870 and plenty of shotshells. It's definitely fun to get on a good hunt and knock 'em out with a well-placed shot from a rifle. When the leaves are thick and you can't see them well, though, the shotgun absolutely is the way to go."
Last season we got on a good early-season squirrel hunt on one of Alabama's wildlife management areas. Leaves and limbs were flying, and squirrels were dropping. We missed some, of course — thus the need for plenty of ammo — but it only proved the point. Use the right gun at the right time, and you'll put more squirrels in your game vest.