Whether you’re hunting for meat, for fur, or just for the sheer thrill of being out in the field, squirrels are some of the most exciting game you can hunt. Their small size, unpredictable movements, and their ability to appear and disappear from tree canopies all combine to make them a challenging – and rewarding – target.
If you’re new to firearms, they’re also a great game animal to cut your teeth on without spending a lot of money. Unlike deer, you can hunt them with a .22 caliber rimfire, or even with an air rifle, which means your little starter plinking rifle is all you need to get out in the field.
Unlike a lot of other game, you can hunt squirrels in all 50 states. Sure, you’ll see more grey squirrels in the Northeast, and more red squirrels in the Midwest, but no matter where you are in the US, there’s some kind of squirrel just waiting to end up on your plate.
Many people dismiss squirrel hunting as not being worth the time, but we beg to differ. Not only is there more meat on a squirrel than some popular game birds – we’re looking at you, mourning doves and grouses – but there’s an active market for their fur.
Of course, to bag some squirrels, you’re going to need to know where and when to find them, what to shoot them with, and how to hunt them without falling afoul of the law. You’ll also need some gear. And that’s why we’ve put together this helpful guide.
Where Can You Hunt Squirrels?
Squirrels are tree-dwelling creatures, and can be found just about everywhere in the continental US. That said, it’s a waste of time to hunt a single tree in a large field. If there’s no squirrel nest, you’ll be wasting your time. Instead, hunt in a wooded area, or in a large stand of trees. This virtually guarantees that you’re going to see a squirrel.
How skittish they are will depend on whether they’ve already been hunted that year. If you’re hunting on public land during small game season, squirrels are going to avoid people, and will stay out of sight as much as possible. If you’ve made it out in the field on opening day, or if you’re on private land, they’ll be less fearful, and more likely to stop and eat out in the open.
A telltale sign of squirrel activity is the presence of broken nuts and acorns on the ground. Squirrels can leave a carpet of empty acorn shells that’s downright impressive. If you see this, you’re in an ideal hunting location.
There are two main techniques for hunting them.
Passive Squirrel Hunting
Passive hunting means finding a comfortable spot in the woods, and waiting for squirrels to show up. If you’re using this method, a squirrel call can be helpful for drawing them out of hiding. Even if they don’t come out, one of them may call back, helping you pinpoint their location.
As a general rule, you’ll use your ears a lot more for squirrel hunting than you do for hunting big game. Listen for the sound of chattering, or for the rustle of high branches. If you spot movement in that area, keep watching. Sooner or later, you’ll see a squirrel.
Active Squirrel Hunting
Active squirrel hunting means that instead of sitting in one place, you’re actively searching for them in the woods. The nice thing about this method is that squirrels are a lot less fearful than big game. You can make normal hiking noises without scaring them off, although you don’t want to be obnoxiously loud.
Keep your eyes and ears open while you’re walking, and be ready to take your shot when the opportunity presents itself.
When Can You Hunt Squirrels?
Squirrels are most active in the morning, but there’s some variation between species. Grey squirrels tend to get up before dawn, and are most active in the first and second hour of the day. There’s still some activity in the third hour, but by the fourth hour they’ll be keeping out of sight.
Red squirrels – sometimes called fox squirrels – are up with the sun, but some of them like to sleep in an extra hour. Generally, they’re most active in the second through the fourth hours of sunlight.
Both species become active again in the mid-afternoon. There’s no real afternoon peak, but expect to see them running around right up until dusk.
Weather is also an important factor. Squirrels prefer the same kind of weather we prefer. Clear, calm days are the best time to find them at their most active in the treetops.
When it’s drizzling or foggy, squirrels use the trees as shelter, and keep close to the ground. This is a prime opportunity for finding a squirrel foraging for nuts, with its tail held forward over its body like an umbrella.
The worst time for squirrel hunting is during heavy rain, or when a cold front is blowing in. They’ll be sheltering in their nests, and you’ll spend a lot of time in miserable weather only to come home empty-handed.
What is the Best Weapon for Hunting Squirrels?
Before we talk about the rest of your squirrel hunting kit, let’s take a look at the most important thing you’ll be taking into the field with you: your hunting weapon.
Like many game animals, squirrels can be taken with a wide variety of firearms, as well as bows. Here are some of the best options.
The Best Squirrel Hunting Guns
When it comes to using a gun, you have a few different options for squirrels: shotguns, .22 rimfire rifles, and .22 caliber air guns. If you’re tempted to use a regular hunting rifle, or a sporting rifle like an AR, don’t. Rounds of that size and force will turn your squirrel into squirrel paste. Not only that, but large centerfire rounds are illegal for small game hunting in most states.
The nice thing about using a shotgun is that it gives you some leeway. Due to the spread of the pellets, you only have to get within a couple feet of your target to score a hit. Keep in mind that this only works if you’re using birdshot. Buckshot also spreads out, but there are only a few large pellets, rather than tens of smaller pellets, so you’re much less likely to actually hit something as small as a squirrel.
Shotguns are also safer than rifles in semi-populated areas, since they aren’t lethal at nearly as long of a distance.
For squirrel hunting, any birdshot load will do. A .410 will get the job done easily. While a 20-gauge or 12-gauge is serious overkill, there’s no real downside to using them if that’s what you’ve got. Just make sure to pick all the pellets out of the meat before you cook it.
.22 Rimfire Rifles
If you’re looking for more of a challenge, a .22 rimfire rifle is the perfect caliber for squirrel shooting. As a test of skill, try shooting beer cans while you’re target shooting. If you can shoot a beer can, you can shoot a squirrel from the same distance. The key is waiting for the darn thing to sit still for a second so you can take a clean shot.
The downside is that .22 caliber rounds carry a lot further than birdshot. You’ll need to be extra conscious of what’s behind your target.
No, you don’t want to go hunting with a Red Ryder – or with any air gun that only shoots a BB. You’re going to want to use a modern, high-powered air gun that shoots a .22 caliber pellet. A .20 caliber will also do the job, but it won’t have as much range or accuracy.
Some modern air rifles have muzzle velocities that are comparable to a rimfire rifle, and have just as much killing power. Throw a scope on one, take it to the range a few times, and you’ll be ready to take it out into the field.
Bow Hunting for Squirrels
Of course, you’re not limited to firearms for hunting squirrels. For an even tougher challenge, you can use a bow.
Much like with firearms, the main challenge of squirrel hunting with a bow is the fact that you’re shooting a small, twitchy target. There’s a second issue with bows, though; a standard broadhead will do so much damage to the flesh and hide that your kill is liable to be useless.
Your best bet is to use a broadhead that’s specifically designed for small game. These broadheads have relatively blunt tips, and many have metal flanges to prevent over-penetration. Crossbows are just fine, but be aware that hitting any small game with a 400 FPS bowshot is going to cause it to tumble, or possibly get pinned to a tree.
What Gear Do You Need for Squirrel Hunting?
So, besides your weapon of choice, what else should you take in the field with you? Here’s a quick list.
You can forget about this if there have already been a couple frosts, but squirrel season starts in September in most states. This means you’ll still have to worry about mosquitos. Since you want to take home a few animals, and not a whole bunch of mosquito bites, bug spray is a must.
A Field Bag
Once you’ve shot a squirrel, you’re going to need somewhere to keep it. Any field bag will do for this purpose, but make sure to bring one that’s comfortable to carry, and not so large that it makes it difficult to navigate rough terrain.
Nothing ruins a nice, expensive field bag like a bunch of bloodstains. The solution? Bring some plastic bags with you. When you shoot a squirrel, put it in plastic before you put it in your field bag.
Do You Need a License?
In the US, most hunting regulations are set at the state level. For this reason, it’s hard to give a solid, across-the-board guide to squirrel hunting licenses.
In some states, squirrel hunting requires a small game or furbearer hunting license. In other states, squirrels are “unprotected”, which means they can be hunted at any time of the year. States may even have different regulations for different types of squirrel. For example, in New York, red squirrels are unprotected, while hunting grey or black squirrels requires a license.
In most states, it’s legal to hunt small game on your own property without a license, as long as you’re otherwise compliant with state law – for example, using the right weapons. This isn’t always the case, though. As with most hunting regulations, the only way to be sure is to check your state laws.
Heres a short video with some tips and tricks for hunting squirrels.
We hope this guide has helped you gain an appreciation for squirrel hunting. This isn’t just something desperate people do when they’re hungry. Far from it!
Squirrel hunting is a challenging sport with a long history. People have been shooting these furry critters since the first hunting shotguns came into use, and anyone who grew up in the Appalachian mountains has at least one friend who shoots squirrels from their back porch.
For beginning hunters, hunting squirrels can be a great way to get practice with basic woodcraft. It requires stalking ability, basic camouflage, accuracy and trigger discipline. All of these skills translate directly to hunting larger game like deer or elk, and you won’t have to buy an expensive deer rifle to start learning them.
At the end of the day, your success in the field is going to depend on practice, both in the field and at the range. The more time you spend plinking, the more likely you’ll be able to draw a bead on a squirrel when it pops out of the tree canopy to chatter at you. What more reason do you need to take a trip to the range?
Best of all, squirrel hunting is an excuse to go out in the field with your friends, with your cell phones on silent. This kind of natural, technology-free experience is getting rarer and rarer in today’s interconnected world. So take advantage of the opportunity, and go hunt some squirrels!