‘Travel light’ says Jim Chapman, and advises on how to do just that
As I’ve mentioned to Air Gunner readers in the past, that grey squirrel pest in the UK is a small game animal in most of the USA. Squirrel hunting on this side of the pond was historically the gateway to hunting, for young outdoorsmen on their way to bigger quarry. Moreover, until the ‘60s and ‘70s, deer and turkey populations were relatively low across the country, and squirrels offered an opportunity to hunters at a time when not too many options were available, but with the abundance of deer and turkey today, many hunters leapfrog directly into big- game hunting. With each successive year, fewer squirrel hunters hit the field in the more deer- rich states. In Minnesota where I live, the number of squirrel hunters has dropped from an average of 60,000 to 40,000 per year. At the same time, there has been an exponential increase in the number of big- game hunters after deer, turkey, bear, and predators. In my view, this is a tremendous waste of hunting opportunity.
Even though I spend many days in the field after big game every year, I look forward to the opening of squirrel season with keen anticipation! I find the time in the woods chasing bushytails with an air rifle just as rewarding and challenging as when out for big game because there are advantages with small game species; generous daily limits, long seasons, and virtually
“the state forest I’m hunting next week is 49,000 acres of woods and marshes”
unlimited places to hunt. I often hunt on private properties these days, having cultivated many permissions over the years. This allows me to hunt in unpressured areas to which a lot of hunters don’t have access . One of the most common questions I’m asked is where and how to hunt when one does not have access to private properties. This year, I’ve decided to hunt public lands as much as possible, and along the way explain how I use Internet access, state wildlife resources, and Google maps for virtual exploration of new hunting areas before I put boots on the ground. I found an isolated place up north using these techniques, and last week, I took the threehour drive to a remote State Forest to scout the woods in advance of opening day.
Moving from smaller private properties to these large tracts of public land has required adaptation, not only in technique, but also in the gear that goes into my backpack. When hunting on a local farm, I pack light – in an area of a couple hundred acres of forest, dotted with trails and fences, the truck or a farmhouse is never too far away, but the state forest I’m hunting next week is 49,000 acres of woods and marshes. It would be possible to get lost for an extended period of time in these dense woods, and with changeable early fall weather, that could end up being quite uncomfortable. Another factor to consider is that hiking these large areas means I won’t get back to the vehicle at frequent intervals, so whatever equipment might be needed must be packed in. On the other hand, this is only a day hunt for squirrels, so you don’t want to be loaded down like you’re heading off on a week- long elk hunt, either. It’s a balance to anticipate what might be needed without carrying a back- breaking load. So, let’s look at the contents of my pack. Some of it is ubiquitous and always carried regardless of what, when and where I’m hunting, but some of it is more specific for more remote hunts.
I opted for a larger 2200 cu inch Field and Stream camo backpack, rather than the much smaller messenger bags I usually carry when squirrel hunting. This pack has several accessible pockets, external pouches, and strategically position straps and tie- downs. I found specific pockets for each bit of gear based on fit, weight distribution and how often and quickly I might need to access it. My binoculars went into a front pocket that can be reached without dismounting the pack, although I also have a strap that can be used when on the move. The rangefinder is in a small side pocket that is a bit less easily reached, my rationale being that I will generally be stationary when it comes into use. Shooting sticks ride in an open side pouch on the side of the pack, strapped in place, and can be accessed and deployed quite quickly as I drop the pack and get ready to shoot.
A quality sheath knife can go on a belt, but I don’t use it all that often and prefer to leave it in a side pocket. A small sharpening rod is also carried so that I can hone the edge when it comes time to process the kill. My preferred means of carrying squirrels is using a slip- noose game carrier originally
designed for bird hunters, but I find it’s great for small mammalian game as well. The carrier is clipped to a tie- down strap with a carabineer when on the move.
A squirrel call often goes into the pack, but not always. Calling is one of those techniques: often it’s of no demonstrable use, but at other times it is a game changer. Early in the season, when there is an abundance of young squirrels, calling can bring squirrels into range or bring them out of hiding. I use a bellows- style call that can be made to chatter or bark, or if blown into, generates a baby squirrel distress call. Using the distress squeal whilst brushing the ground with a leafy branch can drive adult squirrels wild at times.
I don’t typically carry a sidearm with me when small- game hunting, but timber wolves and bears inhabit this particular forest; these animals are most often no threat, but both can be, and since I am on my own, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I take my four- inch .38 loaded with + P ammunition. If nothing else I can use it for a two- shot distress call if things head south. I keep this little revolver loaded and holstered on my belt for fast access – it will probably never be needed, but if it is, the situation will probably be time- sensitive.
Another bit of gear not frequently carried is a Garmin Etrex 20x GPS. When you hike deep into these Midwest woods, the landscape is flat and the foliage thick. After hiking a couple miles in and having been focused on following the sounds of squirrels cutting high up in the trees, it’s always a bit disheartening to discover that every direction looks the same and you can’t see the sky, or 40 feet ahead. I’ve never been lost, but have been seriously confused for a few hours at a time. This little electronic gizmo is a great back- up to my compass. In all my years of hunting, fishing, and backpacking I’ve only been stuck out overnight a handful of times, but it’s never fun when forced on you, and if this eventuality should arise, I’m prepared with both a down jacket and emergency kit deep in the main compartment of the pack. The jacket is featherweight and crushes down to almost nothing in size, but it keeps me warm even when it’s snowing. The emergency kit is a gallon zip- lock bag with three smaller zip- lock bags inside; one contains food, one has fire- starters, weatherproof matches, a space blanket, plastic tarp’, and one has toiletries. A couple of water bottles slip into a side pocket, but there are streams here and I have a purifier straw in the kit.
I figure that this load- out contains all that is required to be successful on the hunt, and support me if/ when things go wrong. I didn’t mention it previously, but to access this forest area and maximise time for both hunting and scouting, I’ll be camping out for the weekend. In next month’s article, I’ll tell you how it all worked out.
“I’ve only been stuck out overnight a handful of times, but it’s never fun when forced on you”
Carrying a light compact rifle like the Brocock Compatto, helps to offset the added weight in my hunting pack
BELOW: Every item has a pocket and goes into the same pocket everytime. This allows me to access gear quickly, even in the dark
ABOVE: I like a headlamp when on the move but a high intensity flashlight gives more range
ABOVE: An emergency kit will keep me fed, hydrated, warm, and clean if I get stuck out longer than anticipated
BELOW: Shooting sticks, a call, and a game carrier help me get the game back to camp