MeatEater’s Steven Rinella is used to putting the heat to wild game. So we’ve turned the tables, grilling him with questions on one of the pursuits nearest and dearest to his heart: small game hunting. In this first Q&A installment, we’ll explore Rinella’s longtime love of squirrel hunting—his answers will help you put more bushytails in the pot this fall.
Q: How did you get involved in squirrel hunting? What first got you excited about chasing them?
SR: I started hunting squirrels with my dad and my brothers when I was a kid, which is a pretty common story for a lot of folks for good reason. Squirrels were accessible and abundant in Michigan woods where I grew up hunting, much like they are in woodland habitat across most of the county. Bag limits are generous, and seasons are long. But it’s the challenge, the skills you need, and the interesting ways to hunt squirrels that makes hunters first get excited about chasing them. The shame is that a lot of hunters, when they get more experience and hunt bigger game, move on and forget about squirrels. I never have. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner hunter or and a seasoned expert, squirrels are worthy quarry.
Q: It seems there’s much more to squirrel hunting than meets the eye. Give us a few tips and tactics that will help the first-time squirrel hunter.
SR: There’s a lot to it, and that’s what makes it so fun. You need a full arsenal of a hunter’s skills: woodsmanship, the ability to read sign, stalking skills, patience, an eye for spotting game, the ability to shoot accurately.
My favorite way to hunt squirrels uses a combination of tactics and hunting styles, including spot-and-stalk, still-hunting, and ambush hunting. Like most hunting, mornings and evenings are usually best, however, later in the season when cold temperatures hit in early winter, squirrels tend to sleep in, staying cozy in their dens, until the sun has had a chance to warm things up.
But it’s often best to be in the woods at first light, and my first move is just to sit against a tree in a likely area, looking and listening. Squirrels are gregarious and make a lot of noise—hopping from limb to limb, cutting nuts from mast trees, running through the duff on the forest floor, chasing each other around, or barking and growling loudly to alert other squirrels of potential danger, so you’ll often hear squirrels before you see them. If you’re in a good spot and give yourself at least an hour, chances are you’ll pick up squirrel or two. Then I’ll move on and do some still-hunting.
If you see squirrel activity in the distance, put on a stalk, using cover to get closer. Whether you’re stalking a squirrel you’ve seen or spot one while stillhunting slowly through likely areas, chances are that the squirrel will see you too, make a break for it up a tree, and disappear. If you see it disappear into a cavity, you might as well go find another. But often the squirrel is just pressed flat against a high limb or crouched deep in shadowy crotch. Circle the tree, looking from different angles. As you move, the squirrel will sometimes move to keep the tree between you and itself. Lots of people give up too easily and move on, but if you look hard and long enough, use binoculars, and have some patience, there’s a good chance the squirrel will eventually reveal itself.
Q: Give us a few tactics that will help the veteran crowd.
SR: Later in the season, when all the leaves are down and predators and hunters have picked off some of the younger or less cautious squirrels, it gets a lot tougher to get close enough for a shot. You can see squirrels at a distance, but these cagier animals will see you too and take off without giving you a chance to pinpoint their location. This time of year, it pays to do a lot more sitting and a lot less moving. If there’s snow, look for tracks, and when you find an area with signs of a lot of activity, have a seat and hold tight. Squirrels will eventually forget the disturbance you’ve made and come out again. When there is no snow, one of my tricks is to scout for squirrels just by walking through the woods the day before the hunt. Once I’ve bumped three or four squirrels, I’ll figure out the most central location to all the activity, and that is where I’ll set up the next day.
Q: Can squirrels be scouted on digital mapping apps like OnX? If so, how?
SR: Tools like OnX can give you a great start in finding likely squirrel habitat and land open for hunting. What makes a good squirrel spot in one part of the country can be a lot different in another, but squirrels always require mixed forests, usually with a lot of nut-bearing trees. Electronic scouting can help you identify areas like this, as well as timbered river bottoms, small woodlots next to cornfields, and other good squirrel habitat. But eventually you need to put boots on the ground and find some sign: nests of leaves in treetops, evidence of cut branches and gnawed nuts, small divots and diggings in the ground where they’ve cached some food.
Q: Any must-have gear? If so, why do hunters need it?
SR: One of the great things about squirrel hunting is that it can be so simple: a rifle or shotgun and ammo, some good hunting clothes and boots, something to eat stuffed in your pocket, and you’re good to go. That said, I never hunt squirrels without a pair of binoculars. They can be handy for spotting squirrel activity a ways off, but they are invaluable when a treed squirrel simply vanishes. I can’t tell you how many times that by using binoculars to pick apart the branches and crevices of the tree I’ve spotted a squirrel I would’ve never seen without them.
An adjustable set of shooting sticks comes in handy as well, since shooting squirrels requires some serious marksmanship. You should know how to brace off of tree trunks and limbs, your knees, and from other field positions, but shooting sticks that can adjust for both sitting and standing positions make it quick and easy to get a solid rest.
Q: What kind of table fare do they make? How many squirrels does it take to make a meal for a family of four or five?
SR: Squirrels are delicious. The meat is kind of like a darker chicken thigh, but it has way more flavor. Squirrel can be fried, baked, and stewed. Squirrel legs can be grilled if tenderized by a strong marinade. The meat can also be braised and pulled and used as filling in things like dumplings. One of my favorite ways to cook squirrel is buffalo hot legs, just like wings at the bar, but better. It depends on your preparation, but three or four squirrels will provide a good meal for a family of four or five.