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Squirrel Hunting is Perfect Prep for Deer Season

Brow Tines and Backstrap

Squirrel Hunting is Perfect Prep for Deer Season

Posted 2023-09-29  by  Josh Honeycutt

Early-season bushytail hunts provide rimfire fun and get you ready for whitetails

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The author holds up a handful of squirrels. Image by Nathanial “Pot Roast” Pendley

“Silly guy, squirrels are for kids.”

That’s been said more than a few times.

But I love squirrel hunting. And although I might still act like a child, I’m not one. I’ve squirrel hunted for many years, but only in fall and winter. I’ve never hunted early-season squirrels in August or September. This year, thanks to a group hunt with some fellow outdoor writers, that changed.

Another change? Hunting them with rimfire rifles. I’d always been a shotgun guy, and the transition to rimfires was a welcome shift. I’ll continue to hunt cold-weather tree rats, but I’ll never again hunt bushytails with a scattergun. The rimfire is just too much fun. (And apparently, you aren’t a real squirrel hunter if you don’t carry one.)

Spending four days in the Kentucky hickory and oak flats helped prime me for deer season, too. Rather than knocking the spring and summer rust off on my first few archery outings, I did so while sniping squirrels out of the treetops. Several weeks later, I greatly benefited from that when I arrowed my biggest buck ever — but that’s a different story.

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Dialing in the Ruger at squirrel camp. Image by Josh Honeycutt

Squirrel Season Eve

I pulled into camp and was greeted by a flag proclaiming, “It’s Federal Season,” and a big-buck decal strapped across the front gate. In the distance, guys sent rounds of CCI downrange. It sure sounded like squirrel season eve.

I joined the festivities. When a shooting bench freed up, I plopped down and glanced around at all the spent brass on the ground. I was late to the party, but for good reason. I’d been hanging stands in preparation for the Kentucky archery whitetail opener. But again, that’s another story.

As I got ready, I shouldered my .17 HMR-calibered Ruger Precision, settled in, and started plinking. The thing ripped almost the same hole each time at 25, 50, and 75 yards. After I sighted in, a magazine of 20-grain small-game getters was ready for squirrel noggins.

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Here’s one of many fine meals by Michael Pendley.

That night, Realtree’s Michael Pendley rustled up some serious grub on the Camp Chef and fed us hillbilly heathens like kings. We ate steaks, fish, pork, and, of course, squirrels and plenty of other good stuff throughout the trip. A few hunting tales were told — mostly true with a garnish of embellishment.

That night, as I was prepping gear and thinking of the fun ahead, I unknowingly locked my keys in the truck. Of course, my gun, ammo, and most of my gear was inside. What a way to kick off the trip.

Bushytails Beware

The next morning, everyone else went afield with Rugers capped off with Silencer Central Banish 22s, but I was without. Even so, I managed to scrape together a few squirrels.

At lunchtime, we broke into my Chevy like true rednecks, recovered my keys, grabbed my gun, and went back to the woods. That afternoon, squirrels reacted noticeably less to the sound of the .17 humming through the timber, thanks to the screwed-on silencer. My guide and good friend Nathanial “Pot Roast” Pendley managed to knock a few more tree rats out of the canopy.

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The hunters kept finding squirrels in the hickory trees. Image by Josh Honeycutt

The next day, I kept after it. It remained unseasonably hot, and the squirrel action was less than optimal. Even so, we continued to find them cutting shagbark hickory and pignut hickory nuts. You’d see a squirrel dash into a clump of leaves, rip off a cluster of nuts, and run back to the dinner table limb. Eventually, if you were lucky, a clear shot opened, and you’d blast that bugger’s skull. I unintentionally made an occasional less-than-ideal shot, albeit still quickly lethal.

That’s how the week continued. Head out on boats. Find pockets of public land with hickory trees (and sometimes white oaks). Pull ashore. And start still-hunting through the promising Kentucky countryside. Our days consisted of sweating profusely, swatting spiders, cracking jokes, eating heartily, and watching squirrels tumble to the ground. It was a blast.

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Hickory nuts are squirrel food. Image by Josh Honeycutt

At one point, Silencer Central CEO Brandon Maddox and I knocked about six or seven gray squirrels out of one tree. (Don’t worry about the number we missed before finding our groove.) Without the silencers, the rascals would have sulked up and quit moving long before they did.

Of course, the week was filled with other great memories, too. Stumbling upon gravestones hundreds of years old. Federal’s J.J. Reich and I finally graduating from the shotgun to a rifle. Shooting more squirrels. Eating those squirrels. It was everything you might hope for in a small-game hunt in August.

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Capping off a day of hunting. Image by Nathanial “Pot Roast” Pendley

Knocking the Rust Off

Grandiose stories aside, how can a squirrel hunt knock the rust off? Glad you asked. Learning or remembering to:

  • Walk quietly in the woods.

  • Walk slowly in the field.

  • Be aware of surroundings and things on your person, especially items that might make noise or give you away.

  • Wait for an ethical shot opportunity.

  • Take the first good, clean shot you get.

  • Recover wounded game.

  • Practice wind direction awareness (not a factor for squirrels).

  • And much more.

Of course, those are things you already know. (And if you don’t, all the better.) But often, it can take one or two outings to completely iron out the off-season wrinkles. With a good early-season squirrel hunt like the one I experienced, you can be primed and ready for deer season. And like I said, it helped prep me for the best deer hunt of my life.


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