Summer Christmas came a week early this year in the Show-Me State with squirrel season opening on May 22nd as opposed to the traditional Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Of course, it poured rain that day at my house so I didn’t venture into the woods. My flintlock squirrel guns don’t work too well in those conditions but I did scratch the “itch” that had been building up over the past three months by slinging some arrows at the yard squirrels. No animals were harmed by my hand but, nevertheless, I went to sleep that night with smile just knowing that the season was finally open and there were lots of opportunities ahead of me.
Like most boys growing up in the Midwest, I honed my hunting skills by pursuing the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) and its somewhat dimwitted cousin, the fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Endless, enjoyable hours were spent roaming the hills and hollers of my Shannon County farm trying to add one more carcass to my belt and escape from “life” for just a little bit longer. My family was on the lower end of the socio-economic scale so I was also providing a valuable service by putting food on the table. When you’re a grown man of twelve years, you take a certain pride in being able to contribute.
As I got older, though, my love for squirrel hunting started to wane as flashier quarry of both the four-legged and two-legged variety consumed my interest. By the time I was in college studying aerospace engineering and alcohol consumption, that passion was nothing more than a pleasant memory from my idyllic past. It would take almost two decades, and an epiphany of sorts, to rekindle that fire for a sport I loved so much as a young man.
In my experience, there are two main reasons that folks quit chasing bushy tails as adults. One they will admit to and the other one, not so much. The first reason I hear is that squirrel hunting just got to be too easy. When you’re a kid starting out, you come home empty-handed a lot. But squirrels are plentiful enough, the bag limit is big enough, and the season is long enough that you eventually figure things out and start to pile the carcasses up with increasing regularity. You learn the ropes with a single shot 410 or 22 with open sights but as your skills progress so does your firepower and, pretty soon, killing a mess for supper is no big deal. The magic of accomplishment starts to fade and by the time you are married with little ones of your own, sitting in ambush by a hickory tree loaded with nuts doesn’t even cross your mind.
The other reason, which is never talked about, is that squirrel hunting just isn’t that sexy. The hunting media today has brainwashed an entire generation of hunters into thinking that everything has to be a measuring contest and if you are not bringing down the largest critter with the latest science fiction-type gear then you might as well go back to the house, break out the Barbies, and have a tea party. Nobody gets their name in a book by killing squirrels, so what’s the point?
While I have never suffered from the last reason, I did from the first and what got me back into pursuing squirrels was bow hunting. I took up traditional archery about 20 years ago and since I am not a natural athlete, I must practice all the time to stay proficient with a simple stick and string. However, I can only stand so much of shooting at bag targets and foam before I get bored and it was after one of these practice sessions many moons ago that the little 10-watt bulb went off over my head and I realized that the woods around my house were filled with little, live targets just waiting to be shot at. So I made up some specialized arrows and went after them. It was like being a kid all over again! The challenge was there, the excitement was there, and these targets tasted really good after being waded off into a hot skillet of grease.
So what kind of equipment does it take to bow hunt squirrels? Well, I guess you could use any bow you feel comfortable with. The arrows are what make the difference. I divide mine into two groups, tree arrows and ground arrows. Tree arrows have flu-flu fletching on them and are shot at squirrels in trees while ground arrows have regular fletching on them and are shot at squirrels on the ground. Flu-Flu fletching is where you take great big feathers and add a lot of them to the arrow. The point is to slow your arrow down so it doesn’t travel too far if you miss and it can be easily found. They make a lot of noise while flying so you need to be close to the squirrel before shooting one. Otherwise, your target will hear what’s coming and get out of the way before the arrow gets there.
Both of my arrow groups are tipped with small game heads. There are a lot of different kinds on the market but most of those do not work well on squirrels because, pound-for-pound, a squirrel is the toughest mammal on the planet! You know how much it hurts when someone pokes you in the ribs with a stiff finger? Now imagine that finger traveling 200 feet per second before contact. Squirrels don’t even flinch! I cannot count the number of times I’ve knocked one out of a tree, watched it fall 30 feet, and then watched it get up and run off. The only sure kill shot on a bushytail is to hit it in the head and even then, you might have to do a follow-up shot. Hit it anywhere else and, more than likely, it will get away from you. My point of preference is the 200 grain Ace Hex Head. Judo points are a close second. I have used small bodkin points on squirrels but I think they tend to tear up too much meat. Definitely DO NOT use rubber blunts. You need something heavy that packs a wallop. Most friends of mine who are serious small game hunters have invented their own heads which are usually a combination of a dull tip like a field point with two blades behind it. The blades aren’t for cutting so much as for wedging in the body cavity making it harder for the squirrel to get away. Whatever you use, aim for the head to increase your chances of retrieval.
Now while I really do enjoy hunting squirrels with a bow, that method still takes second place to me hunting them with my traditional muzzleloaders. I have two long guns that are dedicated squirrel killers and they really get a workout during the first part of the season. Miss Daisy is a 32-caliber flintlock rifle I had especially made for the activity and Ole Betsy is a 12-gauge smoothbore flintlock that is my go-to weapon when I want to put squirrels in the freezer. Like a bow, the nature of these guns definitely puts a challenge back into hunting. First off, you are back to a single shot, and if you can’t reload any faster than I can then you better make that one count. Secondly, the guns will most likely have open sights and for my 56-year-old eyes that means I need to be close to my target. So once again, I’m relying on my skills as a woodsman as opposed to the performance of high-powered weapon. That’s just the way I like it! I earn every squirrel I put in the stew pot and, in the process, I can better appreciate what my ancestors did on a day-to-day basis just to survive.
All my flintlocks were made by my dear friend, John Pruitt, but you can buy them ready-made or get kits that you can assemble yourself. I am not able to hammer a nail straight, and John is a master gun builder, so we worked out a pretty sweet deal. I pick out all the parts I need, have them sent to John, he works his magic, and in a month or so he sends me a perfectly good shootin’ iron. All it costs me is the price of the parts plus a few dozen homemade cookies. Mr. Pruitt made Ole Betsy for me originally to hunt turkeys with. I killed a few longbeards with her but she has a cylinder bore which makes it tough to get a tight turkey pattern like you want but it is ideal for small game. With an ounce and half of #6 shot, I can easily kill a squirrel as far away as I want to shoot at one.
The small caliber squirrel rifle was an essential tool of Midwestern white settlers but I delayed adding one to my arsenal for a long time because I was afraid that a .31” ball of lead would damage too much meat on small game. I finally broke down and commissioned John to make Miss Daisy and, after getting her, I couldn’t believe I put off ownership for so long. Man, is she fun to shoot! I’ve got her dialed in such that I can smack a squirrel’s head at 25 yards if he’s sitting still. I avoid shooting them in the body unless I’m sure I can put the round ball through the rib cage. If I hit anywhere else, I’m liable to waste good meat. I usually press Miss Daisy into service when the mast crop is ripening and the squirrels are too busy eating to notice me putting a bead on their noggin.
Well, I suppose I’ve borrowed your eyes long enough what with me going on about how much fun I’m having, and how much fun you’re probably missing out on, hunting tree rats using more primitive weapons. These methods put the childlike delight back in the sport again for me and they can for you too, if you just give them a try. You’ll gain some new skills, sharpen some others, and you get to eat all the fruit of your labors. In my book, it just doesn’t get much better than that!