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Tree Squirrels to Big Game

Ramblings by John Higley, author badge,

rdinarily big game hunting is thought of as one thing and small game hunting as another. However, the two disciplines are not entirely separate. Many small game hunting skills also apply to whatever kind of big game you happen to be hunting.

When it comes to small game, I’ve always thought that hunting tree squirrels is the pastime that best sharpens the primary skills needed for hunting big game. That’s because of the wooded habitat in which squirrels are found and the methods used to hunt them. No one sits still for half an hour waiting for a cottontail rabbit to show itself in the sage country, but waiting is a major part of finding squirrels in places where visibility is often limited to a few yards.

John Higley holds up tree squirrel he shot. photo by John Higley
The limit on squirrels is four per day but I’m happy with just one or two. Here I display a squirrel I got last week in the woods of eastern Shasta County. All photos by the author

Hunting tree squirrels will teach you the value of patience, which is equally important when you’re waiting somewhere for deer to show up.

Another thing squirrel hunting will teach you is sound identification.

While you’re walking quietly through the woods, or waiting for a squirrel to move, there are countless noises that elicit “what’s that?” thoughts in your head. Is it a squirrel barking, jumping from limb to limb, or chewing on a pine cone. Could it be a bird scratching through duff looking for bugs, a deer stepping cautiously nearby, the wind rustling branches, a twig, leaf or acorn falling or simply your imagination?

Squirrel hunting will also sharpen your ability to spot game in a variety of circumstances. Occasionally you’ll see a squirrel sitting on a branch or moving about on the ground, true, but normally they are concealment experts. Even when you know a squirrel is in a particular tree it often takes considerable time and effort to locate it even with the help of binoculars. There’s not much difference between spotting the outline of a squirrel’s head or a fluff of tail in the canopy and spying some telltale part of a deer’s anatomy in the brush.

The more you use your binoculars in the field while hunting squirrels, or some other small game, the more competent you’ll be later on when you’re glassing for big game either near or far.

John Higley takes aim among the Ponderosa Pines at squirrel up in tree. Photo by John Higley
Accuracy is a big part of squirrel hunting with a .22 rifle. Here I take a rest to take a shot at a squirrel high in the branches of a ponderosa pine tree.

Accuracy is another essential skill for big game hunting which can be honed nicely in the squirrel woods, especially if you hunt bushytails with a scope equipped .22 rifle and not a shotgun. I have nothing against shotguns, by the way, and I have used them in a pinch. However, when I have the option I reach for a .22 first. True, the gun may not be as heavy as your favorite deer rifle, but the principles of shooting

straight are the same, no matter what the angle. You need to be steady, which usually requires a rest, and you need to pick a spot to shoot at which, in the case of tree squirrels, is a very small target often partly concealed by branches, pine needles and leaves.

Dead squirrel lying along the rifle that shot it. Photo by John Higley
To me fall and squirrel hunting fit together like apple pie and ice cream. It’s a perfect combination and the meals the pastime provides are exceptional.

I practice what I preach, at least sometimes. I’ve hunted squirrels in the foothills of Shasta County a couple times lately, and while I haven’t killed bunches a squirrel now and then is enough for me. I’ve been at it for quite awhile. In fact, I recall a hunt near Platina in the early 1970s when I stopped to see a friend of mine who was stationed at the Forest Service ranger station there. I was on my way from southern California to Oregon for a bear hunt of all things, and the results of the squirrel hunt became a story for Outdoor Life Magazine.

History aside, deer season is underway right now and my tag for the B zones still isn’t filled. For now, I will put deer first and small game second. Happily, the squirrel season runs for several more weeks so there’s plenty of time to acquire enough of them for a couple of memorable meals this coming winter. Squirrel and dumplings may seem like a strange choice, but to my family that’s one of the best wild game meals of all.

The general tree squirrel season starts on the second Saturday in September and closes on the last Sunday in January. The limit is four squirrels per day, four in possession. Be sure to consult the California Mammal Hunting Regulations for further details including closed areas. You can get the booklet wherever hunting licenses are sold or find the regulations online on the CDFW website.

Author and writer John Higley is a resident of Palo Cedro. His articles have appeared in outdoor magazines hundreds of times and his columns appear regularly at Higley has written four books the latest of which “Successful Turkey Hunting” was published in May, 2014 by Skyhorse Publishing in New York. This hard cover, full color book is being sold at Barnes and Noble Book Stores and on Amazon. Autographed copies are available direct from John Higley, P.O. Box 120, Palo Cedro, CA 96073. Cost is $28.95 postage paid.

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