With deer hunters largely out of the woods, it’s time for Mississippi hunters to get in on some great small-game hunting.
Is there anything new about squirrel hunting? It was the most-popular hunting sport at a time not too long ago. It requires simple equipment and is an inexpensive means of outdoor entertainment. If you wish it to be, it’s a great way to introduce a new hunter to the sport, especially children.
Squirrels are easy to clean and can be very good table fare. At a time when woodsmanship is a dying art, the lowly squirrel hunt opens a beautiful classroom for several months a year. All these are good reasons to hunt squirrels, but there is one more good reason: it’s fun!
With most deer seasons closed, it is commonly said that February belongs to small-game hunters and trappers. That may be true in a sense, but squirrel season opens in October for a five-month run, then reopens again in May for a season finale.
Where to hunt
Squirrels are where you find them, but they flourish in hardwood forests and creek bottoms, where ample moisture allows mast-producing trees to thrive. Stream set-asides, as a part of timber and land management, have led to mast-producing trees being abundant, and Mississippi has an abundance of public land in the form of wildlife management areas, national forests, and land found along the Pearl River and Tenn-Tom Waterway. To mention every location would be challenging.
Both fox and grey squirrels can be found in these areas. Along the Mississippi River, a color-phase of the fox squirrel that is almost black is also found. Some of the state and federal lands in the Mississippi Delta, including Twin Oaks WMA, Hillside NWR and Leroy Percy State Park, may have all three. This leads to a challenging hunt if the hunter wishes to complete a trifecta of tree dwellers. All squirrels, no matter the color, are counted in the daily bag limit of eight.
“Mississippi is fortunate to have many good public-land squirrel hunting options available around the state,” said Rick Hamrick, a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “These include lands managed by the (MDWPF), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. However, hunters should become familiar with the regulations and any permits that may be required. For example, in addition to basic hunting licenses, WMAs require a WMA user permit, and national wildlife refuges require different federal permits.
“If you are unfamiliar with hunting public lands, definitely spend some time learning about the areas before you go. Practically all agencies that manage public hunting lands provide information online, or hunters can call agency offices during business hours for information.”
The Caney Creek WMA comprises 28,000 acres of the Bienville National Forest. Big Caney Creek and the Strong River can offer the creek bottom hunter many hours of fun and quality hunting. Carry a compass or GPS with you as these woods are easy to become lost in.
“(WMA) users are required to check in and out each time they use a WMA,” Hamrick said. “This used to be done with daily use permit cards, but users can now check in and out of WMAs with a mobile application or from a home computer by an online application. More information on these new features can be found at (www.mdwfp.com/license/wma-check-in-app/).”
Methods of hunting depend on a lot of factors: the number of hunters in the party, whether a dog is being used and/or how the land is laid out. One hunter will find his time is better spent stalking. This method works well in the fall when leaves are still on the trees. The same leaves that prevent hunters from seeing squirrels also prevent the bushytails from seeing hunters.
A squirrel’s weakness
Armed with excellent vision and equally good hearing, a squirrel’s only weakness is having the attention span of a ninth-grade boy in English class. The patient hunter will always win.
“When I see a squirrel run, I just lean against a tree and wait,” said hunter Daniel Golden. “Eventually, its curiosity will take over. The squirrel thinks it has the advantage by being in the tree, which works with most predators, most of the time. It has run from the hunter to the far side of the tree, where it listens for the hunter to move. Hearing nothing for a couple of minutes, it feels the coast is clear and makes his move. That is a fatal mistake.”
For two hunters working together, the pace can be a little faster. Spread out by a few yards, one hunter moves while the other stands still. Then, roles are reversed. Squirrels will run from the most-recent movement. This tandem method of stalking will work every time, especially when a small ditch is involved with one hunter on either side. Wear orange and beware of low squirrels to avoid accidents.
“Squirrel nests and vines go together like peas and carrots,” Golden said. “The nest is a place for squirrels to sleep in the absence of a hollow tree. Vines help hold the cluster of sticks and leaves together, allowing it to have some resilience in the wind. My daddy once whipped me good for shooting a nest when I could have pulled a vine. He said there was no need in killing a squirrel you may not recover.”
Raccoons and possums will spend the day in a squirrel nest; shaking a vine will generally dislodge them from their beds, making them a larger target. On rare occasions, a flying squirrel will settle in such a nest. These cute little critters are more fun to watch than shoot.
One word of caution: allow one hunter to pull the vine while the other shooter is in ready mode. That way, the vine puller can turn his or her head aside quickly to avoid a face full of trash that may fall.
Hunting with a good squirrel dog is a pure delight, so much so that squirrel dog field trials have endured for decades. While most any dog can show some promise, a trained squirrel dog is like any other sporting canine: a pleasure to watch and a delight to behold. A field trial-level dog may easily sell for $3,000 or more. A started puppy — one that has been in the woods but is not fully trained — will fetch $500.
“For me, it’s all about the dog,”said hunter Kenny Latham of Ludlow. “A well-trained dog hunts with all its senses. Squirrels feed on the ground in winter months. Believe it or not, squirrels can remember where they have hidden nuts for future use. A good dog can discern how fresh the scent is, and which tree the squirrel escaped to. They may also see the prey on the ground and in the tree. They alert the hunter by barking, or treeing.”
Once the dog has treed, hunters surround the tree and try to spot the squirrel. Often, the hunter who sees the squirrel first gets the first shot. Children and ladies often get the first shot as well. One point of dog-hunting etiquette; never try to command the dog or otherwise interfere with its work; that should be left strictly to the handler.
Any non-centerfire rifle capable of hitting a golf ball at 33 yards is good for squirrel hunting. Far and away the .22 Long Rifle is the go-to choice for rifle shooters, but it is far from an exclusive choice. The .22 WRM is typically just called the .22 Magnum. It adds another 20 yards to the range of the common .22 and packs a bigger punch.
Other rimfires include the diminutive .17s which are the whiz-bangs of the rifle world. The .17 Hornady is a necked-down .22 WRM, and the Winchester .17 is a struggler trying to get a hold in the hyper-speed rimfire market. The Winchester version has just never caught on, and few rifles are made in that chambering. The .17 HMR is going to be around for at least a few more years, and the .22 rimfires are definitely here to stay.
But going a step further, rifles are not the only game in town. Handguns, both semi-auto and revolvers, have a following with creek bottom bushytail hunters. Smith & Wesson has introduced a new Model 628 K-frame revolver in .22 WRM. By all accounts, this is as good a small-game handgun as can be had. Bill Ruger’s original .22 auto pistol has seen many modifications since its introduction, with scope-mounted versions often found in the squirrel woods.
For the traditionalist, muzzle-loading rifles in .31 and .36 caliber can still be bought and add a whole new element to the hunting sport. Thompson Center made the System One for several years, and one stock and action would accept a .50-caliber or .36-caliber barrel or a 12-gauge shotgun.
Shotguns can’t be beat for taking a tree-hopping bushytail right out of action. Modified chokes are good, but some hunters prefer full chokes in the smaller .410 bore. No. 6 shot is probably the top choice, but No. 71/2 runs a close second.
For times when noise or recoil is a factor, modern air-rifles in .22 caliber are accurate and can produce fatal head shots. With hunting pellets being launched at in excess of 900 feet per second, clean kills are possible, making the quiet rifles perfect for urban or suburban areas where squirrel hunting is allowed.
Squirrel hunting is great fun and a bowl of squirrel stew served with hot biscuits is a perfect meal for a cold February night. Good luck and be safe.