Don’t wait too long be­fore you hit the squir­rel woods, or you might miss out on one of fall’s big­gest thrills

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

Be­cause hunt­ing squir­rels isn’t just for be­gin­ners. By T. Ed­ward Nick­ens

I’M NOT SURE what sent me over the edge. Could have been the jock­ey­ing for stands on my hunt club’s sign-up sheet. Or the grow­ing weight of my hunt­ing pack stuffed with three knives, two flash­lights, sur­veyor’s tape, GPS, scent-killing spray, wind-checker pow­der, doe pee, and a care­fully marked wa­ter bot­tle in case I wanted to take a whiz of my own with­out scent-foul­ing my blind. Might have been the trail cam­era whose all-see­ing eye caught my at­ten­tion as it cap­tured my move up the ridge. Know­ing that I would wind up on some­body’s lap­top sucked some of the fun out of be­ing in the woods in the first place. So I walked back to the truck, drove out to a friend’s place where I knew there were no trail cams but plenty of squir­rels, and slipped be­hind the horse pas­ture to the small creek that runs through the hard­woods. I had lit­tle more than a pocket half full of .22 hol­low­points and a flash­light. There wasn’t an inch of p-cord on my body, much less a com­pass. If I got lost in the 30-acre woods and had to bivvy with­out a bushcraft knife, I was toast, but the light­ness in my pock­ets seemed to work its way into my soul.

I moved down through pines on a south-fac­ing slope and leaned against a big short­leaf, 5 feet from the edge of the tan­gled oaks and thicket along the creek. Fif­teen min­utes of noth­ing passed, and then a tree­top started shak­ing far off through the woods. I found the squir­rel in my binoc­u­lars. (Yes, binoc­u­lars. Some old habits die hard.) I took a few mo­ments to sketch out an ap­proach route that kept me mostly in the shad­ows and the quiet pines un­til the last 50 yards. I put a foot down, slowly, feel­ing for twigs, and then the next.


It’s a bit of a shame that this was my backup plan. When the acorns are still on the ground, squir­rels race back and forth, cheeks and paws full of nuts, stash­ing them in tree hol­lows and along fallen branches and right out in the mid­dle of the woods. You’ve been there, like I have, sit­ting in your deer stand. You can’t keep them straight: You know a squir­rel scam­pered past on your right, but now you hear more scratch­ing in the leaves to the left. Squir­rel or deer? You can de­ci­pher the pat­tern six ways till Sun­day and tell your­self that a deer doesn’t sound like that. But maybe it could. Then there are scratch­ings in the leaves all around. You give your­self a headache try­ing to keep up with what you know is a squir­rel and what might be a squir­rel and what you know isn’t a deer un­less it turns out that it is.

That’s when you vow to come back af­ter deer sea­son closes—but the prob­lem

is, you can’t put squir­rel hunt­ing on the back burner, some­thing to do when that’s all that’s left to do. The acorns will be gone. The squir­rels will be spread out through the woods. You’ll wind up sit­ting there in Jan­uary with a rim­fire ri­fle, ask­ing your­self, Where’d they go? What hap­pened? No, you need to get on them when the get­ting’s good.

The first squir­rel that morn­ing was text­book. Pick­ing my way through the woods, I needed a half hour to close the dis­tance to within ri­fle range. The squir­rel fed on black gum fruits plucked from the twig, and there was no dash­ing about to stash the goods. The squir­rel gath­ered a fruit, held still while it stuffed its gul­let, and grabbed an­other. Re­peat, re­peat, re­peat, un­til I pulled the trig­ger.

There was a re­as­sur­ing thump as the squir­rel hit the ground, so I kept still. I heard the sec­ond squir­rel long be­fore I saw him. This one sent out a quaa alarm call that meant he was peeved at some­thing but couldn’t fig­ure out what had ticked him off. I didn’t move for a solid 10 min­utes, other than swivel­ing my head slowly from side to side, scan­ning each tree in the fore­ground, then the mid­dle dis­tance, then way-the-heck-out-there. That’s how I saw the lit­tle joker, tucked tight into the right an­gle of a branch and a tree trunk, tail flat­tened over its body. In fact, all I re­ally saw was a fuzzy, in­dis­tinct knob, some­thing that didn’t look quite right on the tree. Only when I eased up the ri­fle to peer through the scope did I know for sure it was a squir­rel. He’d set­tled down but was tak­ing no chances. I had to hold off shoot­ing un­til he moved his head my way.

Two squir­rels down, and that felt good. No feed­ers. No bal­lis­tic ret­i­cles. No cam­eras or scent bombs or climb­ing stands. It’s not that I’m against all that stuff; I

have all that stuff. But I was be­gin­ning to feel like I felt when squir­rels were the only thing my mom would let me hunt, when squir­rels were all I wanted to hunt. Back then, squir­rels were more than enough.

With all the com­mo­tion, I thought a change of lo­ca­tion made sense. I picked up the two squir­rels and slipped into the creek bed to walk qui­etly through the wa­ter. Half­way back to the truck I jumped an­other squir­rel. It raced to a holly tree and skit­tered to the far side—the old­est squir­rel trick in the book. I scrunched down be­low the creek bank. I waited two min­utes, then threw a rock into the creek on the far side of the tree where the squir­rel was hid­ing. The sec­ond old­est squir­rel trick.

Three shots, three squir­rels, a twohour romp in the woods, and I made my way back to the truck. The squir­rels were warm and knotty-feel­ing against the small of my back. I stuck a hand in a pocket and fin­gered the bul­lets. I caught my­self whistling.

Feel like a kid again?

No. I felt like a hunter.

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