Once you’ve outfitted yourself with the proper tackle for a day afield, it’s time to start putting some game in the bag. On the hunts eve, anticipation builds as gear is stowed away. The sights, sounds, and smells of a crisp fall morning enter the mind. A trace of wood smoke from a distant cabin hangs in the autumn air, while songbirds salute the appearance of the sun, breaking the morning’s silence. The leaves of the hardwoods lit ablaze, as the forest prepares for its long slumber. Flocks of Canada geese fly overhead, making their journey to the warm southern wetlands as you walk the fields and hedgerows.
This sounds a hell of a lot better than a trip to the grocery store, doesn’t it? Now before we proceed, I hope everyone has heeded my recent advice, and spent a bit of time getting familiar with their new shotgun, and looked over regulations books thoroughly. Safety in the field is extremely important, so I will continue to harp on you like a portly, bearded, overprotective mother. Now we can get started.
In part one, I talked a little about potential places to hunt, like farms and state game lands. But what parts to hunt, you ask? Fortunately, rabbits and squirrels can live in close proximity, and are easily found if you know what to look for. Ideally, you want a farm with several fields separated by hedgerows and surrounded by hardwood trees. Hedgerows along fields provide shelter for rabbits, and allow them to forage close to cover if they need to make a quick escape from predators. They will normally be found in the hedgerows, or close by eating grass or crops. Squirrels also use hedgerows with trees, and often make their nests in them. They are opportunists, and will collect crops that have fallen, especially corn. Hardwoods surrounding a field are excellent for squirrels too, because they provide two different types of food, acorns being a staple. Also, don’t overlook brush piles in the surrounding woods for rabbits.
When hunting an area like this by yourself, you will want to walk slowly along the tree lines, edges of fields, and hedgerows, gun at the ready with the safety on, keeping an eye out for game. You are trying to flush the animals from where they are eating or resting. More often than not, this means not only walking along the edge of the rows, but getting into those stickers, vines and tall grasses. There are many rabbits you don’t see, and this where most of them are. I will be honest, you’re going to get scratched, tripped up and string together all sorts of profanities. It’s worth it, I promise. Just keep control of your gun, safety on. If you’re passing through some particularly nasty stuff, just unload your gun until you get through.
You may spot rabbits in the hedgerows, but they will be reluctant to leave the cover if they haven’t already. Shooting rabbits standing still is considered unbecoming of a seasoned shot gunner, but personally, I don’t have a problem with it when someone is just starting out. For one, you can take a clean shot, and it’s also nice for a first timer to bring home some game and build confidence. How you handle that is entirely up to you. If you prefer to give the rabbit a sporting chance, walk towards it and get as close as you can. If it doesn’t flush, stand there for a moment. They will usually get nervous and make a run for it.
When Old Brer Rabbit does make his hasty exit, you will only have a few seconds to mount your shotgun, lead, and fire. A few seconds may not seem like much time, but don’t rush the shot. If you miss, don’t get discouraged. The best way to become a better hunter is actually getting out there and hunting. It may take time, but you will quickly learn when to be ready, when to shoot, and where to expect rabbits to be. Even great shots like myself miss, or are caught off guard on occasion… actually a lot, but don’t tell anyone.
Squirrels, on the other hand, are a different game. Walking the hedgerows may yield flushing rabbits that give you only a few seconds to get a shot off, but squirrels give you a bit more time. They will more often than not climb up the nearest tree and try to wait you out. They are masters at this, and can be hard very hard to spot. He’s most likely pressed himself down on a limb, his gray color now blending in with the bark. To be successful at killing a treed squirrel, you must play the waiting game, too. Scan every branch and limb, he’s up there. Walking around the tree a few times may get him to move, although when by yourself, it’s usually to opposite side of the tree from you. If not, sit and wait him out for a few minutes. This isn’t the best way to hunt squirrels, but when an opportunity presents itself to add some meat to the stew pot, I take it.
To me, the best way to hunt squirrels is to find a spot where you have seen squirrels or their nests, and sit. I find a nice thick tree, and sit at the base, trying to conceal myself a bit. Camouflage works very well in this case. Sitting still and quiet is most important though, and I find dark colored clothing serves just as well. The waiting game again, but this time you’ll have more of an advantage. Squirrels in the fall are focused on finding food to stash for the winter, and if you’re quiet, they won’t notice you. Soon you’ll hear the crunching of leaves and see bushy tails running from tree to tree. If not, don’t be afraid to move to another spot and get set up again.
Once you have a squirrel in your bead, quietly raise your gun, aim for the head and shoot. If you made a good shot, collect your game and sit back down. Where there’s one, there’s usually more. This is quite a fun way to spend a morning or an afternoon, and also teaches you a few disciplines involved with deer hunting.
Now there are a few squirrel calls out there, and I’m not going get too in depth with them. I will say that more than a few old timers have mentioned clicking a pair of quarters together to mimic a squirrel’s chatter. I have tried it and can’t say whether it’s actually effective or not, but I’ve known old woodsman who swear by it. A few outdoor companies make squirrel calls, and if you want to try one out, go for it.
I have talked about hunting a in a farm setting, but there are certainly other good places to hunt squirrels and rabbits. For squirrels, just about any wooded area will do. Look for food sources and nests, and you’ll be in business. In my experience, rabbits aren’t quite as abundant as squirrels, so it may take a bit more looking. I’ve had success in old and new orchards, and even found an occasional rabbit on the mountainside, and more than a few down in the swamp. The best way to find animals you intend to hunt, is to get out before the season and scout. Take walks in places where you would expect these animals to be, and take note. That way, when the season comes, you have a damn good idea of where to start.
With hunting comes responsibility, and you become a steward of the land. Wild game is most certainly a sustainable food source, but it won’t take many weekends of killing limits of rabbits in the same area to reduce the population down to nothing. Keep in mind that if the breeding stock is killed off, there won’t be any for next year. Also, no matter how much I believe it, I am most certainly not the most efficient meat eater out there. Foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and hawks all compete for food with you, and are better at it.
I set boundaries for myself. I’ll only take one from a certain hedgerow, maybe one from the opposite wood line. Then I pick up and move somewhere else. Other points to consider are the fact that rabbits are cyclical, meaning their populations may be greater in some years and very low in others. Hard winters and wet springs can also create differences in populations from year to year. Squirrels… yea, not so much. I won’t go into detail, but I know a man who had squirrels on his property who had become a problem. By the end of fall, he had shot enough squirrels to feed an army. The next year, there was still a huge amount of squirrels.
Again, this is not a be all, end all of small game hunting. It’s just a basic guide to get started with putting some meat in the pot. As always, there will be more to come, including more in depth articles, and the final segment in this series. Next up will be processing and cooking. I enjoy cooking game as much as hunting, and I have some basic recipes to share that I hope you will enjoy. Thanks again for reading, and please feel free to ask any questions.