By Tyler Frantz, Natural Pursuit Outdoors
The muffled crunch of snow-covered leaves was barely audible as the hunter slowly crept along the oak-lined ridge. Flurries floated in the February breeze as he settled into a blow-down, his gloved hands cradling the wooden stock of a scoped Marlin .22 rifle.
As he drew in a breath of the chilled winter air, the familiar focus of deer season remained, though the magnitude of filling a tag, waking early and judicious scent control had diminished with January’s closing.
Today, there was no pressure – only simple enjoyment of a winter woodlot’s unmasked beauty. With a barren hardwood understory lined in a blanket of white, he could see forever, though he need not look far for entertainment. The hunter delighted in a pair of black-capped chickadees chattering away in their raspy yet elegant discourse. Flutter, land, sing, and repeat – with an occasional nod to his presence.
Within minutes, things settled down, and the telltale shuffle of little claws on brittle bark caught his ear. A distinct chewing sound, almost as if one were to rub the edges of two quarters together, soon followed.
His eyes intently scanned for the source.
There, in the crotch of a nearby tree, huddled a fine gray squirrel. Acknowledging this was his real intent for venturing forth on a cold winter morning, he readied for the shot. Easing his rifle into a rest position, he thumbed off the safety, carefully settled the scope’s crosshairs and squeezed the trigger. The sharp crack of the Marlin was followed by a thud on frozen soil, and another squirrel was added to the game bag.
Hunting plentiful late season gray squirrels with small-bore rifles can be a bit of a challenge compared to shotgun hunting, where the margin of error is vastly more forgiving. But it’s a lot of fun, offers ample opportunity, and does a better job of preserving a squirrel’s delicate meat.
It’s a perfect way to spend a Saturday morning or evening after work or school during a time when not a whole lot of other things are going on, and it hones a lot of skills (marksmanship, stealth, scouting) that can transfer over to big game pursuits as well.
Small game hunters have several options when selecting a firearm for the job. A smooth shooting .22 bolt-action rimfire is tough to beat, but some might enjoy the added challenge of hunting with an air rifle. According to the Pennsylvania Hunting & Trapping Digest, “Air-guns for small game in calibers from .177 to .22 that propel a single projectile or bullet” are fair game.
After hunting with both, one will note that the .22, a heavier option than the .177, is more reliable. However, don’t expect it to perform the exact same as a .22 rimfire rifle.
Air rifles use forced air instead of gunpowder to propel the bullet forward, often at a slower rate of speed than a typical .22 long-rifle cartridge. This means maximum effective range is reduced, and the likelihood of shooting through cover is non-existent.
It is advisable to wear eye protection whenever hunting with air rifles, as the lighter velocity also can result in more ricochets. However, air rifles can be effective, and the added contest of getting closer to target is appealing to many.
Regardless of bullet size, it is best to try for headshots, which often result in a quick humane kill and limited meat spoilage. There’s nothing worse than biting into meat that is bloodshot or has hair pulled into it. This is all avoided by targeting the brain rather than the body.
One need not be a ninja to successfully harvest squirrels, but it is helpful to limit movements and sound, as it’s much easier to shoot a relaxed, stationary target than one fleeing through the treetops.
Squirrels tend to be most active just after daybreak and late afternoon before the sun dips below the horizon, and obviously, they will be most prevalent where food sources are ample. Seek out areas with plenty of hard mast-producing trees, or simply pretend you’re deer hunting, and you’re nearly guaranteed to see bushy-tails.
If you can luck into a full bag limit of six squirrels, you’ve got your work cut out for you, as they’re not particularly a treat to clean. But once skin, entrails, head, tail and feet are removed, you’ve got the makings of a fine meal. Consider quartering out the limbs and frying to prepare like Buffalo wings, or slowly braise the entire body in chicken stock until easily separated from the bone for stew meat. Search out a recipe for Brunswick Stew or Squirrel Pot Pie and enjoy.
Squirrel hunting can be an outing shared by family and friends, or it simply can be a way to get outside and soak up the solace of the winter woods. Regardless, it is a worthy challenge that ultimately can lead to some tasty table fare. The season continues statewide through late February, so grab your favorite small-bore rifle and get after it.
Tyler Frantz, of Natural Pursuit Outdoors, is an award-winning outdoors freelancer from Annville, Pennsylvania. He is a regular columnist for Pennsylvania Game News magazine, among other publications. In addition to teaching full-time, Frantz operates a YouTube Channel, Facebook page, and weekly outdoors blog that thousands of hunters and anglers have enjoyed since 2013. Learn more by visiting www.naturalpursuitoutdoors.com.