My grandfather used to say, “Squirrels are smart, but they have a short memory.” What that means is that squirrels will spot you, evade you, and even sound the alarm to other squirrels, but if you give them a few minutes to calm down, be very still and quiet, they’ll reveal themselves again.
So, I’m lying on my back with just my head and shoulders propped up against the trunk of a huge maple tree near Spencer Lake. Yes, you read that right, I said maple tree. Everyone knows you hunt squirrels beneath nut trees like beech and oak or hickory, but there’s a method to what I’m doing. In the northern part of Ohio you have a lot of wild grape vines, sometimes growing high into the treetops where the dense canopy all but blocks out the sunlight down here on the forest floor. My eyes watch intently for leaves that move when there is no wind, for a shadow that’s out of place or the suggestion of furry color in a sea of chlorophyll. It’s hard to spot squirrels in early September, but it’s prime time for hunting them early in the season.
Sometimes they are as quiet as mice as they scamper along the vines to get the tart dark colored grapes. Sometimes they stand out on a branch and chatter in protest at your presence. As targets go, they often won’t even present a silhouette and as much skill as it takes to hunt them with a rifle in this foliage, it takes just as much luck to get a look at them. So, I use the twelve gauge, with large shot, number five or six. Although some readers might scoff at this and call it overkill, at these ranges, in dense cover amongst the leaves and vines, I am lucky to get two or three pellets on target. With each shot I watch as a large brown or grey bushy-tail falls from the high limbs, almost like a surprise. Moving from tree to tree they often nest in less trafficked trees like this maple, and will bring nuts, grapes and other foodstuffs back to a hollow to store for the slim, scarce, cold days to come.
I love this style of hunting, alone and waiting in ambush, plying my skills and woodsmanship to bag a few prized fox or grey squirrels. I spend a lot of time chasing big game like deer and turkey, and my pursuit of pheasants edges on the obsessive at times, but this is where I come from as a hunter. I am a squirrel hunter at heart, it’s what I learned first as a boy and I think I will always regard the first cool mornings of September as the welcome herald of autumn and a chance for me to come home to the squirrel woods.
Except, it’s not always in “the woods”. Over the years I’ve found that squirrels need only a few trees and a good source of food before they set up housekeeping. Those little lines of trees between corn fields will often hold as many corn-fed tree rats as a big stand of hickories. Also, there’s a lot less pressure from hunters in such places. With the return and flourishing of so many different birds of prey, squirrels are less likely to be predated by man than by, say, a Red Tailed Hawk.
Sometimes people ask me, “Why don’t you just wait for the leaves to fall off? Then you can get a clean shot!” Well, sometimes. Squirrel are busiest at this time of year, and it’s best to get at them before the fall storms start moving the trees too much. Also, it’s a great chance to do some deer scouting before archery season begins in a few short weeks. Bucks soon begin to make rubs and scrape lines begin to form. By being quiet and inconspicuous you might even set eyes on the one buck you’d like to take.
Most of all it’s just the fall homecoming of the woods after the long hot summer that draws me to the sport. It’s the memories of the Old Boy handing me the scoped .22 rifle and teaching me how to walk in the woods without making a sound. It’s the pride that I still hone my skills at a craft that’s been lost for generations in most families. It’s the feeling of being alone with the nature, the changing leaves, and the ghosts of memories that linger so long as I return to the squirrel woods each fall.