The Northern hardwood forest where I hunt.
A great time to watch non-game wildlife!
A den tree is a good ambush spot.
Dreys will tell you there are squirrel in the area
At this time of year I look up in the trees
As well as looking closer to and on the
My winter time squirrel gear
You can see the squirrels in the trees, but they can see you as well.
I found a tree with corn cobs lettering the ground
This fox squirrel was up in the branches gnawing on a bit of corn cob.
A gray squirrel at rest
Winter Squirrel Hunt!
By: Jim Chapman
It is interesting to note that while in the UK gray squirrels are an invasive pest, in the States it is arguably one of our most
popular small game animals. With the game species designation, our bushytailed friend gets a season and bag limit, and is
managed in the same fashion as pheasant, rabbit, turkey, deer or elk. While some states have an early season in spring, for
most squirrel season is a fall/winter affair before and after deer season. It is generally the last season to close in January, so
for die hard hunters it is the only game in town (pun intended, sorry).
Hunting squirrel in the winter is different because the change in environment results in a change in the animals habits. First off
the population becomes harder to hunt, because the young, the old, and the dumb of all ages are the first to go. As the
conditions get colder, the predators get hungrier; and when you have coyote, bobcat, fox, fisher, raccoon, not to mention winter
populations of raptors looking for a high calorie meal, well the dumb and complacent make it on the menu first!
Our primary squirrel species are the gray (your pest nemesis) and the much larger and more attractive fox squirrels. As a
general rule of thumb, fox squirrels spend more time on the ground and grays spend more treetop time, maybe 70% on the
ground and 30% in the trees for fox squirrels and you can flip that around for grays. But in winter, both are spending more time
on the ground visiting their buried stashes of food, because there is nothing in the trees to eat. In the spring and early fall I
spend hours staring up into the trees until my neck starts to ache, but when winter comes I’ll spend much more time scanning
the snow covered forest floor. Because the squirrels don’t feel comfortable on the ground and because they seem to intuit that
they stand out and are exposed, they are especially wary. With the leaves are off the trees you can see the squirrels a long ways
off, but conversely they can see you from a long ways off as well. The successful hunter has to blend in and be very still for long
periods, which is not easy to do if you are shivering on the verge of hypothermia!
"Tree squirrels are one of or most popular small game species"
When entering a wintertime woodlot I’ll look around for either a drey or a den tree, and investigate around the base of the trunk
for acorn shells, corn husk (around farming areas) and tracks on the snow to see if there has been recent activity. I also like to
find thick tangles of dead vines and blow downs (fallen logs), because when the snow starts to get deep squirrels use these
like highways across the forest floor. Once I have the location narrowed down, I find a place to sit comfortably and wait. On a
short hunt I’ll do 3-4 stands of about 15-25 minutes, and spend the rest of my time slowly still hunting the area. I carry
binoculars and use them to glass the area ahead as I stalk. I am fairly good at spotting game, but even so have been surprised
by how often I pick up partially hidden game with my binos that I’ve missed with the naked eye! Lower magnification with a wide
field of view will serve you well.
I think that for the serious squirrel hunter camouflage clothing is a must. And while I’ll sometimes settle for an earth colored
pair of trousers, at a minimum I want a camo jacket, hat, face cover and gloves. The face cover and gloves are key, as these are
the parts of the body moving the most, not to mention that an uncovered face staring up in a tree is like a big warning flag. But
winter offers a bit of a challenge with respect to selection of a camo pattern.
Early in the winter when snow is light, I’ll wear my usual brown forest pattern. Later in the season when the snow cover is
heavier on the ground but the branches are not fully covered, I’ll split the difference with white camo overalls and a brown
woodland jacket. In this configuration I keep my gloves and face cover brown based. When deep in winter, I go with a
predominantly white pattern, especially if hunting while it’s snowing. While wearing white in these conditions, you will be as
close to invisible as it’s possible to get. I’ve had squirrels literally walk over me, deer almost bump into me, and birds land on
Keeping warm is critical to enjoying your field time when hunting in the snow, your toes, fingers, and nose are especially
susceptible to freezing. As a matter of fact where I live in Minnesota the cold can kill you. First off, you want a base layer of thin
breathable underwear, followed by a layer of thermal long Johns, a set of fleece pants and shirt, followed by an insulated jacket
and overalls. I like overalls more than pants, as all the upper layers tuck into them and stay put. It is not good to be sitting with
your back against a tree and feel a cold stream of frigid air blowing up through a shirt that’s come untucked. I wear thick wool
socks, and my boots are heavily insulated and extra wide so I can wiggle my toes. I also wear a wool or fleece neck garter, a
face cover, and toboggan. I think one of the most underappreciated bits of cold weather clothing is the neck garter, and I’ll tell
you from experience this can be the difference between comfort and sitting about with your teeth chattering like castanets! My
gloves use a thinner material for the fingers allowing a fair amount of dexterity, and are covered by mittens when my fingers
aren’t being used. The mitten can be flipped back exposing the lightly gloved fingers allowing access to the trigger, and are
held open with magnets. One other excellent feature is that the mitten has a small pouch for a chemical warmer to be slipped
in, so when the fingers are covered there is an additional element of warmth.
My winter hunting gear for small game has evolved over fifteen years of squirrel hunting in the Midwestern winters. I think I’ve
mentioned that I was born and raised in Southern California, so some of my gear is for the hunt and some is to keep my thin
blooded California person warm. My daypack holds a headlamp and flashlight, range finder, binoculars, lens cleaning towel,
extra pellets, chemical warmers for my gloves, boots, and to stash in all my pockets if it really becomes frigid. A small insulated
flask of coffee, some chocolate bars, an extra fleece balaclava, camera and small tripod, an insulated foam pad to sit on, a
game carrier and an extra copy of my hunting license.
On a recent winter morning I hit the field at 6:30 am with the Modair P-12 for a short squirrel hunt before work. My hunt location
was a 10 acre stand of woods on a permission 8 minutes from my front door, which I’ve been hunting for three years. The
temperature was 24 degrees and there was snow on the ground, but not much white above ground level so I pulled on my
heavy camo jacket, insulated boots, and gloves then hit the woods. I’d been out about 20 minutes when I saw a bump on a
branch high up in an oak tree that didn’t stand out too much, but also didn’t look fully “tree like”. I pulled out my Leopold 6x30
binocular which I keep in an external pocket of my daypack, and found that the bump was a fox squirrel laying low and looking
straight at me. I ranged the tree at 34 yards, and estimated the bushytailed rodent to be about 30 feet up. I backed up in the
tangle of fallen branches and dead vines and used one of the thicker branches to rest my rifle. I laid the cross hair on the
squirrels head, just a tad lower than where I’d normally aim for a ground level shot at this distance, and squeezed the trigger.
The squirrel folded and dropped to the ground at the base of the tree without a twitch. I walked over and collected the large and
well fed female fox squirrel, slipped a noose from my game carrier over her head, and moved on.
The gun used on this hunt was the MRODAIR P-12 in .22, which is a moderately hard hitting (20 fpe) compact little bullpup. The
accuracy is quite good, and I can consistently get ½” 50 yard groups with a number of different pellets, though the gun has a
preference for the JSB Exacts. It is a single shot bolt action, which is fully shrouded and very quiet. You’ll see in the
accompanying photo that I did a camo finish on the stock, and put some camo wrap on the barrel and scope. I also have the .30
caliber version of the gun, and am putting a snow finish on its stock with plans for heavy usage later in the season!
I saw a couple more squirrels (grays this time) further away but couldn’t work my way in through a dense tangle of briars and
across a barbed wire fence to close the deal. I know because I tried. As I stood leaning against a tree examining the barbed
wire punctures in my arm, I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye. Turning very slowly, I found myself staring eye to eye
with a pure white ermine that was hunting one of the blow downs twenty feet from where I stood. The sharp eyed little predator
watched me as I slowly pulled the camera out of my daypack, removed the lens cover and switched it on, which was his signal
to take off before I could snap a picture. And with that it was time to call it a day, though I was enjoying my time outdoors on this
cold and clear morning, I had things to do. With a couple of dozen locations near my house to hunt, and with the deer season
almost over, there is a lot of squirrel hunting in my not too distant future. I’m anxious to try a new (to me) technique when the
snow gets deep in a few weeks, snowshoes! I think this is going to open up some new opportunities by getting me off the
beaten path, in much the same way using a kayak in spring did. If you haven’t tried it, I’d urge you to get out for some winter time
hunting. With the proper gear it is both productive and a great time to be in the woods!