‘SQUIRREL-SCOUT’ FOR DEER
Like most kids growing up in rural Tennessee, I never needed a game plan to go squirrel hunting.
What could be simpler: grab my trusty .22 and head for the nearby hardwoods where bushytails frolicked in the oaks, hickories and blackgums, doing their early-morning grocery shopping. Bag a half-dozen dapper grays and an occasional big rusty fox squirrel the size of a tomcat, and be back home in time for a late breakfast.
Nowadays squirrel hunting, like everything else, isn’t as simple as it used to be.
Time and resources have to be budgeted, and for a lot of suburban-ized hunters it’s not practical to drive some distance and devote a day or even a half-day in pursuit of our smallest game mammal. Even a liberal 10-squirrel bag limit makes it hard to justify the investment of gas and time in many minds.
Maybe this will help: Combine mid-autumn squirrel hunting with pre-season deer scouting. Call it multi-tasking. Or squirrel-scouting.
The areas where I deer hunt are also prime squirrel habitat: stands of hardwoods bordering fields and meadows. Squirrels and deer share a taste for acorns and other fall mast, so it makes sense that where you find the former you’ll find the latter.
But trees don’t produce the same mast year after year. Last fall, for example, acorns were virtually non-existent on some white-oaks on which they’d been bountiful the previous year. That meant that the deer weren’t where they’d been in the past, which is why pre-season scouting is essential.
Muzzleloader season opens in early November and I prefer to do most of my scouting in October – preferably after a bug-killing frost. The deer are usually patterned by then. If you get a fix on them in October, odds are that’s where you’ll find them in November.
The best way to learn is by observing, and to observe you have to get out in the woods. Combining an October squirrel hunt with a deer scout is ideal not only because of the mutual food groups but also because of overlapping periods of peak activity. The prime time for squirrels is early morning and late afternoon – same as for deer.
If you’re in the woods at dawn and dusk you’ll not only observe more deer, but deer moving in specific patterns that they will duplicate when the season arrives.
For example, if you see deer moving along a ridge or hollow around 7:30 a.m. in October, chances are they’ll be moving along that same ridge or hollow around 7:30 a.m. in November. They don’t keep a precise schedule of course – especially bucks once the rut starts – but the October patterns at least provide a good early-November starting point.
I don’t believe squirrel hunting in an area where you plan to deer hunt later on disturbs the deer, although I allow the woods to settle down for a week or so before deer season. Remember, starting at dawn on opening day, the woods will no longer be pristine. Guns will be booming and human scent will be wafting.
A squirrel hunter slipping through the woods, accompanied by the occasional crack of a .22 or pop of a shotgun, is nothing compared to the cannonade of muzzleloaders on opening day of deer season.
Stalking squirrels helps you get your game face on for deer hunting. You can break in new boots and clothing, and climbing ridges gets your legs in condition that normal walking can’t.
Plus, plinking at the scurrying little critters sharpens your shooting eye.
On top of all that, it’s plain fun. For many of us, squirrel hunting provides a nostalgic return to our hunting roots, to a simpler time and place: a doves-breast dawn seeping into the golden autumn woods, the rustle of leaves heavy with dew, the trickle of acorn hulls betraying a feeding bushytail … the years melt away and you’re a kid again, tingling with anticipation.
At the same time, you can get in some deer scouting and pre-season conditioning. It’s a good excuse to get out and go squirrel hunting — in case you’re looking for one.