Scattergunning for Squirrels
Squirrel hunters are usually an amiable, agreeable lot, at least until you ask them about the best way to harvest squirrels. Some hunt only with .22 caliber rifles. Others, for added challenge, opt for muzzle-loading rifles or .22 caliber pistols. Some even use bow and arrow. Hunters from these groups often claim there is no sport in using shotguns to hunt squirrels, and that squirrels riddled with shotgun pellets aren't fit to eat.
For years I held this view. My favorite firearm for squirrel hunting was a .54 caliber, flintlock, muzzle-loading rifle. Loaded with 50 grains of 2F black powder and aimed at a squirrel's head, the rifle did a superb job of fetching squirrels. It also infused hunts with a rich sense of history. In no way was I interested in shotgunning for squirrels.
Then, my friend Mark Haas invited me to join him on a squirrel hunt at his mother-in-law's farm. Mark had told me about this farm in the Bootheel. The ground includes a 60-acre patch of timber that has never been logged. Dominated by huge shellbark hickories, cherrybark oaks and towering pecans, the timber supports tremendous numbers of fox squirrels.
"What a place to hunt squirrels with my flintlock!" I thought. Then Mark added: "The only hitch is you will have to leave your muzzle-loading rifle at home. Rifles worry my mother in-law. For squirrel hunting, she only allows shotguns."
I had not hunted squirrels with a shotgun for more than 20 years, but I was not about to turn down a chance to hunt squirrels in virgin timber. When I hung up the phone, I started gathering gear for the next day's squirrel hunt. After all, purism has its limits.
I knew how to hunt squirrels with a shotgun. Use large shot, use full choke and limit shots to when only a squirrel's head is visible, or hold point of aim in front of a squirrel and hit it with the edge of the pattern. The principles were easy. I simply had little experience putting them into practice.
Mark and I talked about squirrel hunting with shotguns the following morning as we drove to his mother-in-law's farm.
"Done right, a squirrel bagged with a shotgun can be just as fine eating as one that's been cleanly shot with a .22," Mark said. "The key is limiting shots to the head and knowing your shotgun's pattern at different distances."
In the twilight of predawn, Mark dropped me off in a section of the 60-acre woods. I carried an old Hunter Arms, double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, Fulton Model. The left barrel was choked full, and the right barrel was choked modified. Both barrels were loaded with highbrass number 4s.
As Mark had assured, the woods teemed with fox squirrels. Shortly after first light, I spied eight squirrels shaking limbs as they foraged for ripening pecans and shellbark hickory nuts.
A young fox squirrel less than 20 yards away in a pecan tree to my right offered the first shot. I shook a small sapling and imitated the bark of a squirrel. The young squirrel spun around on its perch and, from behind a limb, peered down at me, with only its head visible. My old double spoke, and the squirrel tumbled. I stood still as squirrels scurried and barked.
Another young fox squirrel, curious over the commotion, jumped to the pecan tree where my first squirrel had been feeding. It, too, peeked at me over a limb, and I sent it tumbling. Thirty minutes later, not having moved from the pecan tree, I cleanly killed another young fox squirrel. I could have finished my limit from that spot, but I wanted to see more of the timber.
I gathered up the three young fox squirrels, strung their feet on a sharpened stick and moved about 100 yards. I sat at the base of a huge sweet gum tree, at least 4 feet in diameter at its base, and waited for other squirrels to appear.
I admired the three squirrels I had already taken. Each was in practically perfect condition. I felt the front legs. Maybe one or two had taken a piece of shot. Their backs and hind legs were unmarred--perfect for frying.
The woods held such an abundance of squirrels, I decided to use my pocket binoculars to study squirrels as they foraged for nuts. I would do my best to shoot only young ones. Within 90 minutes I finished my limit with five young squirrels and an old female that I would use for dumplings.
That evening, as I finished cleaning the squirrels, I thought about the merits of using a shotgun to hunt bushytails. It was still challenging. The challenge was simply different than that of using a rifle.
With a shotgun, the challenge involves selecting your shots to kill a squirrel cleanly without ruining the meat with pellets. This requires learning how your shot patterns at different ranges. I missed two squirrels that day because I misjudged the size of my shot pattern while attempting to "edge" the squirrels.
Overall, my squirrel hunting experience was very satisfying and, as a bonus, it provided me with a great excuse to buy another shotgun. After some looking, I purchased a 28-gauge, Remington 870 Wingmaster from a local gun dealer. The pump shotgun weighed a mere 6 pounds and balanced well in my hands.
My first interest was to pattern the gun carefully at different distances to see how far in front of a squirrel I should hold to edge it with the shot pattern.
At the range, I stapled butcher paper to the patterning boards. With full choke and shotshells holding an ounce of either 4, 5 or 6 shot, I shot at ranges of 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, and 30 yards. The shooting session revealed that in my shotgun, number 4 shot produced the most consistent patterns. I was ready to take my new gun squirrel hunting.
Waiting for the right shot takes patience. Often squirrels are in range but not in a position for a clear shot. A squirrel sitting on its haunches, directly facing you, does not offer a good shotgun target. When a squirrel sits sideways to you on its haunches, you have a shot, but you have to hold high and a little to the left or right to properly edge the squirrel with the pattern. When a squirrel is stretched out full length, you should aim directly in front of the squirrel.
My muzzleloader still sees plenty of time afield, but I now do a fair bit of my squirrel hunting with the 28-gauge. Shotgunning has its advantages. Frequently, squirrels pause only for a moment, with head exposed, before scurrying to the backside of the tree or into a den hole. There isn't enough time for a hunter to take careful aim with a rifle.
With a shotgun, you can shoot just as you would at flying game, quickly, by raising your shotgun, pointing and squeezing the trigger. It's almost like wingshooting.
With skill and proper lead, you can also shoot squirrels on the move. You are more likely to connect shooting freehanded, without a rest. Also, a shotgun allows you to hunt in more places, which increases your hunting opportunities. Some landowners only allow hunting with shotguns, particularly if livestock or homes are close by. On some public areas, rifles are not allowed for any type of hunting.
Shotgunning can provide many challenging and satisfying outings for squirrel hunters. The ultimate reward comes when you sit down to a meal of fried squirrels (without pellets), biscuits and gravy.