Wednesday, January 15, 2014


The woods seem dead, dark and growing colder, with a slight breeze filtering through the woodlot over frost-covered oak leaves.  In minutes, the morning sun breaks the horizon, casting warm shadows as it graces towering hardwoods.  The woods come alive, freed from the nocturnal wind and chill.
A Bushytail suns on a branch before beginning the morning's activities.  Photo by Matthew Reilly
        Deer begin to move, without worry—the deer season in Virginia has been closed for two weeks.  One trots to within view, shaking off the wintry night in the woods with every sprightly step.

        When the sun emerges from the rolling ridges in its entirety, another woodland creature is awakened by the warming of the tree trunks.  A gray squirrel scrambles out of his den in an ancient oak and suns for a spell on a branch soaked in sunlight.  Before long, the bushytail abandons his perch, and scuttles to the ground to feed.

        But his descent is intercepted by the tapering bark of a .22 rifle.  He tumbles from the tree and lands with a thump on the forest floor.  I left my bed earlier than even the whitetail to begin my vigil, tucked in a grove of oaks and hickories, and now recoil back, behind cover, memorizing the location of my first squirrel of the morning.

        Deer season may be over, but squirrel season is in full swing.

A New Season

        Historically, the rabbit season has outlasted the squirrel season just as the squirrel season does deer season.  But this year, biologists have discovered reason to extend the season on red and gray squirrels to match the rabbit season’s close on February 28, while the close of the season on fox squirrels remains January 31.  This allots small game hunters three months (September, January, and February) to chase their bushy-tailed quarry without being considerate of the meticulous activities of those hunting bigger game.

        The reason for this change, as stated by Marc Puckett, State Small Game Biologist, is “more [hunting] opportunity without negative impact.”  All of Virginia’s border states set squirrel seasons ending in late February.  Virginia is a regional holdout.

A Different Game

        Early in the squirrel season, food supplies are abundant, allowing squirrels to be easily patterned by the location and presence of hardwood trees.  Foliage still clings to tree branches, shielding the still-hunting hunter from the vision of game feeding in the treetops.
        In the late season, hunting is not quite so easy.  Most of the mast has fallen from the trees, as have the leaves, making stalking, and sometimes locating, squirrels a difficult game.

The author with a stocky Bushytail.
Photo by Matthew Reilly
        Squirrels feed primarily on the ground during this time, rooting up acorns squirreled away in the ground in the fall, and eating up the last of those gone unclaimed.  For this reason, I’ve found creekbottoms to be particularly profitable places to hunt in the winter.  Gravity naturally concentrates acorns in hilly country in creekbottoms, where squirrels produce much racket perusing the forest floor for them.  The soft earth and often-wet leaves that are characteristic of creekbottoms permit me to stalk a noisy squirrel while minimizing my own noise.

        I have also observed squirrels feeding on ferns in the winter, which grow predominantly in damp soil, making creekbottoms a prime late season squirrel magnet.

        However, even if you know where to search, squirrels can be reclusive in harsh weather.  Schedule hunts for warm or seasonal days without precipitation or wind.  On days forecast as windy, hunting the morning may allow you a few hours of calm woods.

        If you must hunt windy or exceptionally cold days, hunt protected areas.  In such cases, squirrels will readily assume perches amid the lush, evergreen canopy of pine stands.  Pines are excellent protection from the elements.  Especially when insulated with snow, the thick crowns of white pines retain more heat than skeletal hardwoods, and also serve as a wind block, allowing squirrels to feel more secure at a time when they would have to sacrifice their sense of hearing elsewhere.

        Still, the hunter’s best chance at bagging squirrels may exist in the morning as squirrels rise from their dens.  Scout your woodlot for hardwoods with holes—dens—in the trunks, or bunched, leaf nests in the forks.  Take a stand in an area dense with such trees at daybreak and wait for squirrels to awaken.  Because morning temperatures often recede into the teens and 20s this time of year, squirrels will emerge later in the morning, after the sun has warmed the woods significantly; so being in place well before light is unnecessary.  Squirrels often peer out of their den holes for threats before emerging, so wear camouflaged clothing, and remain still and observant.  If you kill a squirrel, retain your cover, mark its location, and wait for another opportunity.

Originally published in the Rural Virginian                                                         

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