How To Hunt Squirrels

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Squirrel hunting is part pastime, part training exercise, part religion, and sometimes a full-time addiction. Knowing how to hunt squirrels effectively will reward hunters who spend time in the woods looking for this savvy small game. With these squirrel hunting tips from Meateater’s Steven Rinella and others, you’ll know the top tricks to outsmarting these bushy-tailed rodents.

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There are over 200 species of Sciuridae (the scientific name for squirrels) in the world. Only 10 species are commonly found in North America, and just five of those are native. Among these are the red squirrel, fox squirrel, black squirrel, and the Western and Eastern gray squirrels. Not all squirrels live in trees, nor do they all hibernate. The Eastern fox squirrel prefers running along the ground from tree to tree, but the Eastern gray squirrel loves traveling among the treetops and sometimes swimming across rivers. 

Though most squirrels don’t hibernate all winter, they do stash stores of food and spend more time in their nests during the coldest months. The classic food associated with squirrels is nuts, and we’ll soon dive into using that food source to our advantage, but squirrels will also eat fruits, seeds, fungi, insects, tree bark, nectar, leaves, buds, flowers, and occasionally bird eggs, nestlings, and carrion. 

How to Hunt Squirrels - onX - Meateater Steven Rinella

Why You Should Hunt Squirrels

Some of us were raised hunting squirrels as if squirrel hunting was part of an evolutionary track we needed to follow, especially southern and midwestern hunters who have multiple huntable species of squirrels. It’s how we learned to properly handle a firearm, hunt in groups, or hunt with dogs. It’s likely the first game animal we ever shot and ate. 

Whether you’re a squirrel-hunting “nut” or just want to see what all the fun’s about, the pursuit of squirrels will help us all become better hunters. It does this because the seasons are long, the bag limits are ample, we get to take multiple shots per outing (if we’re lucky), it requires patience, skill, and strategy, you must know how to read sign, and we can use squirrel hunting as a means to teach our children how to hunt anything else.

“What makes squirrel hunting different? The long-assed seasons. In some states, you can hunt squirrels year-round. And even in states that have designated seasons, they are exceedingly generous. In my home state of Michigan, for instance, you can hunt squirrels for half the year. Puts a whole new meaning to ‘hunting season.’” – Meateater’s Steven Rinella

Relative to nearly any other quarry hunters can pursue, squirrel hunting is arguably the most affordable. Using any weapon among a single-shot rifle, shotgun or air rifle hunters can spend a day in the woods. Hunting squirrels also doesn’t have to be an all-day affair like going after whitetails. A few hours in the morning or evening can produce a bag limit’s worth (aka. “a mess”) of edible game. 

How to Hunt Squirrels - onX Hunt - Cooking Squirrels

Squirrel Hunting 101

Food, shelter, and water: like any other living thing, especially animals we hunt, these are the things hunters should look for when hunting squirrels. Once you’ve identified some spots that have one or more of these to offer, you’ve got yourself a place to hunt. 

Squirrels are opportunistic eaters, but they will follow food sources as those sources change throughout the season. In the South, you’ll likely find squirrels feeding on pin oaks, live oaks, hickory, or pine nuts from pine cones. As you still hunt or scout, you will find the most squirrels where you find “cut” acorns or stripped pine cones around the trees the squirrels are using. With onX Hunt, you can mark these different types of trees with customized Waypoints, or even Photo Waypoints, plotting out a variety of feed trees to check on during the season. It’s also perfectly acceptable to hunt the same trees where you’ve shot squirrels before, as new squirrels will fill in the vacancies created if the food is good and the cover is great. 

Squirrels can be high in the trees or running along the ground, especially depending on the species you’re after. This means you’ll need to be hyper-vigilant about knowing what’s beyond your target every time you shoot. Whereas with deer hunting when we’re mostly looking across the same horizon, squirrel hunting is more similar to hunting grouse, which can be roosting in trees or flushing from the ground. 

Since we’re talking about shot placement, let’s consider the types of squirrel guns most commonly used. A .22 caliber is for those who like to practice sharp-shooting skills (think Annie Oakley’s lever-action Marlin 39A), but hunters might miss opportunities to hit squirrels running from treetop to treetop. For squirrels on the move, or simply to increase the odds of hitting your target, some hunters prefer a shotgun, and a .410 is just about perfect. Mossberg’s .510 Mini Youth Super Bantam is an excellent “first-timer” shotgun for young shooters. If you like to sit and wait for the perfect shot, or for a quieter weapon, many squirrels have fallen to a high-power air rifle that has been sighted with a scope. There’s nothing like the thrill of having a perched squirrel in the crosshairs, whether you’re a kid or a seasoned hunter. 

I’m a shotgun man. I shoot a 12-gauge shotgun, usually with a full choke and #8s. When hunting with dogs, the squirrels are often high up and running. You’re not going to hit that squirrel with a .22. However, we usually have one man with a scoped .22 for the odd time we spot the squirrel sitting still, but they don’t hire me for that job – I’m the shotgun man.” – Meateater’s Clay Newcomb

Knowing the best time to hunt squirrels is simple: it’s either early or late in the day when leaves are on the trees. As it gets colder, squirrels tend to “sleep in” a bit before getting active and foraging. Be prepared to get to a food source (aka. a tree) about 15 minutes before the sun rises. Then spend about a half-hour waiting and watching for movement. If you bag one, then get up and start your stalk for others. Many squirrel hunters have found with fox squirrels they are most active between two and four hours after the sun rises, but gray squirrels can start foraging before dawn. 

It’s a similar strategy for evening hunts. Get in, sit tight, and when all the birds and animals seem to have settled you can start moving from tree to tree. 

How to Hunt Squirrels - onX - Meateater Hunting with Friends

Squirrel Hunting Tips

A large part of what makes squirrel hunting fun is that it’s also challenging, and squirrels aren’t simple-minded animals. For many, squirrel hunting is a lifelong passion. For others, they use squirrel hunts as a way to improve and refine their overall hunting skills. But it’s just plain fun to succeed at hunting squirrels. That’s why we’ve reached out to our friends at Meateater and Catman Outdoors to give us their favorite squirrel hunting tips. 

Bring a set of binoculars. Squirrels are experts at hiding. They often go up into the canopy of hardwoods and lay on top of the highest limb crotches. With a set of binos, you’ll find squirrels that you’d never in a million years find with your naked eyes. Oftentimes, it’s just a few wispy tail hairs blowing in the breeze that’ll give a squirrel away. Binos make it possible to see that kind of stuff.” – Meateater’s Steven Rinella

Binoculars are essential for squirrel hunting whether you’re stalking or still hunting. What’s part of the fun of squirrel hunting is you can effectively hunt while on the move or sitting and waiting. If you’re still hunting, quiet is the name of the game. It’s also true if you’re into stalking squirrels, use game trails, leaf washouts, or dry creek beds to get sneaky and eliminate unnecessary leaf-crunching. Also, take only a few steps and pause to listen and look for squirrels cutting acorns, limbs shaking, or a tail twitching. Damp days are often the best stalking days.

Here might be the right time to talk about when you can make noise in the woods, specifically with squirrel calls. Yes, there are squirrel calls. These calls do not bring squirrels to the hunter. Instead they make squirrels curious, even agitated, and they might chatter in reply to call, or they might move for a better look or twitch their tails. These are what hunters should be looking and listening for if using a squirrel call. Many hunters do not use squirrel calls, and those who do admit it’s best to use them sparingly. But if you think about how squirrel hunting is general hunting 101 it can get a hunter used to making noise in the woods, and getting a squirrel to reveal its location because of your call is a thrill. 

“I’ve never really messed with squirrel calls, I prefer to spot and stalk early in the morning. Early season I find the most squirrels on oaks, hickories, and black walnut trees. Walnuts love creek bottoms, but also grow up on ridges as well. Hickories and oaks grow anywhere from creek banks to dry rocky ridge tops, so it’s pretty easy to find some good woods for squirrels.” – Catman Outdoors’ Jonathan Boehme

If you have a perfect spot for squirrel hunts, there’s no shame in putting up a squirrel blind. Perhaps you have landowner permission to hunt private lands, which is often easier to obtain for pursuing squirrels than deer. It’s worth the ask to put up a small, temporary blind so you have a spot to get to, morning or evening, that’s surrounded by ample food sources. 

“If I was going to look for a new squirrel spot blind, I’d look for hardwoods in ridge and hollow terrain or creeks with mature hardwoods along the bank. Late-season (January-February) squirrels will still be around the same hardwoods but are much less active and spend a lot of time in their dens or catching sun on the tops of trees. In February, the silver maples and some other trees will have buds that the squirrels eat the crap out of, so creek bottoms can be productive in the late season with all the silver maples budding out.” – Catman Outdoors’ Jonathan Boehme

Squirrel hunting dogs are talented, and they deserve much more credit than will be given here. These dogs find squirrels, chase them up trees, and will bark to let you know where it is. Then you shoot the squirrel and it gets retrieved. But you don’t always need a good dog by your side to be successful. A good hunting partner can help you out. 

Use your hunting partner to flush hiding squirrels. When you tree a squirrel and can’t find it, one of you should sit down where you can get a good view of one of the trees, but stay within easy rifle range. Hold dead still. Then have your partner walk a slow circle around the tree as he or she makes a bunch of noise. With luck, the squirrel will try to keep the tree between itself and the noisemaker. As it moves around the trunk, it should give the sitter a good shot opportunity.” – Meateater’s Steven Rinella.

When it comes to weather and squirrel hunting, there is no perfect weather. When it’s sunny, they’ll be out sunning themselves in the treetops. When it’s cold and rainy squirrels will look for shelter from the elements and keep close to the base of trees, using them as protection against wind and rain. 

How to Use onX Hunt for Squirrel Hunting

The onX Hunt App is the perfect companion on a squirrel hunt, behind a good squirrel dog or your kids of course. The hunters who rely on the Hunt App the most tend to use these features and tools to guide them through the woods:

  • Hybrid Basemap – With this view, hunters can look for stands of trees, ridgelines, draws, and creek bottoms, all of which serve as excellent squirrel habitat. 
  • Visual Wind and Weather – With hour-by-hour forecasts, hunters will have an edge for watching upcoming weather changes so they can switch from watching the ground for squirrels in inclement weather to the trees when the weather’s going to break. 

Ryan Newhouse

Ryan Newhouse was raised hunting squirrels and whitetails in the deep South but has spent the last two decades chasing Western big game in Montana. He has written professionally about his travels and the craft beers he’s consumed along the way. He loves camping, fishing, boating, and teaching his two kids the art of building campfires and playing the ukulele. His great-great-uncle, Sewell Newhouse, invented the steel animal trap.