The first rays of sunlight illuminated the spoor. My quarry had likely been feeding in the area only moments ago. I knew that I would only have a few precious hours while the beasts were content before the heat drove them into impossible cover for the day. Unslinging my rifle, I confirmed that there was a round in the chamber. There could be no mistakes. As I turned toward a likely area of cover, every fiber of my being was focused on moving silently and watching. Any shaking branch or fluttering leaf might give away his position in the dense bush. With each step I gingerly tested the ground beneath by boot for sticks, leaves, and other noisemakers and moved within the shadows of the canopy above.
Not 50 yards later, I saw it. The faintest twitch snapped my attention first to a tail. Then appeared a back, ear, and head. Carefully side-stepping to the closest tree, I took a solid standing rest. I had succeeded in remaining undetected thus far. The front sight of the magazine rifle settled on its target while I waited for a shot. “Be a good hunter.” There could be no mistakes. He finally turned and, at the report of the rifle, dropped instantly. Reflexes took over and the rifle’s chamber had a fresh round before the shot’s echo had even died. But a follow-up shot was unnecessary. A satisfactorily anticlimactic end to an otherwise tense few moments. Exactly how it is supposed to go.
His ivory teeth glinted in the sunlight and the dappled shadows played on his bushy tail. I thanked him and placed him on the hanger off my belt with three others of his kin before continuing my path to find more gray squirrels in this Central Florida oak hammock.
Deer, elk, and other animals of the bigger, meaner, or more exotic sort might get all the glory. I certainly love an adventure in a faraway place and, to date, have hunted big game in four US states, Croatia, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. But small game can provide most, if not all, of the fun at a tiny percentage of the cost. In fact, if squirrels were triple their size, I likely would not hunt anything else.
As my account of a January morning probably indicates, still hunting is my favorite method. This strategy remains largely unchanged whether stalking squirrels or buffalo. Place yourself in likely habitat and look for sign. Move slowly and deliberately. Stop periodically to watch and listen. Binoculars can be a great tool. The best part? You can do it again and again over the course of a day. Spook an animal or miss. No worries. Collect your thoughts, assess what went wrong, and press on. No danger of being gored and there will likely be another not far off. If hunting with friends, space yourselves apart to cover a greater area and increase the likelihood of spotting a well-hidden squirrel or jumping a bonus rabbit.
An iron-sighted .22LR or a full choked 16 gauge loaded with 1 1/8 oz #7.5s is my preferred medicine. I have also used scoped rifles, pistols, other shotguns, and even archery gear. It really all depends on your preference and what is currently in the safe. I have found the shotgun setup described above to be extremely effective even at ranges normally reserved for rifles. Though short distances sometimes necessitate aiming just off the nose to utilize only the outside edge of the pattern, I have yet to mangle a squirrel or wound one with this setup. I have been told northern squirrels are hardier and more often require a #6 shot but do not go too large with a tight choke. Additionally, a new hunter just starting to build their battery would probably be better served by a 12 or 20 gauge due to the availability of ammunition. If you are in an area where a mixed bag of squirrels and upland birds is possible, it might be prudent to use a more open choke. There really is no one single solution.
Squirrel hunting is not only a great way to teach hunting and game shooting skills but can keep them sharp outside of big game hunting. It will have to suffice while I wait an extra year for my trip to South Africa to hunt cape buffalo (thanks COVID). But you can bet that when the time comes, I will be settling the express sights on the .375 H&H just like I do on the rimfire. Maybe I can just pretend bushytails have a nasty temper while I enjoy Buffalo hot legs or classic squirrel and dumplings.