The early small game seasons coincide with the best part of the archery deer season. So this upcoming week means skulking around the woods for squirrels and grouse scratches the hunter's itch. But archers seldom cheer when grouse and squirrel hunters chase their quarry noisily close to their carefully chosen deer stands.
Squirrel potpie and fried squirrel were staples of the early American settlers. Our forefathers were quite adept at "barking" squirrels, that is, shooting just underneath a squirrel sitting on a limb so that the concussion dispatched it. That method did not ruin the meat like a direct hit from the muzzleloader would. Few modern cooks would know where to start if presented with a half dozen squirrels to prepare for dinner.
Squirrels will be where acorns and corn are, that's for sure. And where you see squirrels, you'll generally see deer and turkeys since they all love the same foods. Squirrel populations may be reduced in areas where last year's mast crop failed or was extremely poor. Winter survival is largely determined by the available food supply cached by squirrels during the previous fall. If overwinter survival of females was poor and body condition of survivors weakened, squirrel numbers will likely be reduced this fall in those areas. Adult gray and fox squirrels older than 14 months can have two litters with two to three young each year under favorable food conditions. During food-stressed years, one litter is typical.
I learned how to sneak quietly around the woods by hunting squirrels. Bushytails, if they catch one glimpse of movement, will scramble for the safety of a tree. When I would hunt with a buddy, we used the old technique of the shooter staying still watching one side of the tree while the other hunter shuffled around to the other side of the tree. Squirrels can't count so of course, they would scramble around to the opposite side of the tree where the shooter was staked out, presenting a good target for the hunter.
If you hunted alone and saw a squirrel running through the woods you chased him until he treed, then you'd noisily take off your coat and hat and drape them over a bush, then sneak back to the other side of the tree and wait. If the squirrel wasn't spooked back to your side of the tree, you'd heave a couple rocks onto the leaves near your coat and the noise would usually propel the squirrel within your view. It was all a lot of fun.
As I got older and less able to chase around the woods after racing squirrels, I learned to position myself in the woods where squirrel food (oaks and beechnuts and cornfields) abundant. Then I'd wait. This is when I noticed that I saw not only squirrels, but deer and turkeys too, as I quietly waited. It didn't take long, as a rule, after I'd sit down, before squirrels would appear and offer me a variety of good shots.
The woods of Clinton County where I lived for some years were full of black squirrels. They were a challenge different from the grays. Black squirrels are simply a melanistic phase of gray squirrels but their unusual coloring caused them to be spookier than the grays. Or so I thought.
I found out early on that the black squirrels, if you chased them with the idea of treeing them, usually outsmarted me, or should I say, outran me. They didn't scramble up the first big tree, they would run and run and run in a straight line. They most always won that foot race. So I began to just post myself quietly and wait. After the woods quieted down, the blacks would appear. I've bagged quite a few black squirrels in my day but never had one mounted. I regret that now.