Nuts About Squirrels, Hunting Tennessee's bushytails is challenging, nostalgic

By Larry Woody
Friday, September 06, 2019 | 02:58pm

A trickle of hickory nut hulls through the leaves signaled a bushytail at breakfast high atop a craggy shagbark. A minute later the diner scampered out on a limb to collect a second helping, dislodging a shower of early-morning dew drops.

Hunting buddy Roy Denney eased up his rifle, sighted, and squeezed the trigger. The rifle cracked and a plump gray squirrel tumbled to the ground. It joined three others in Roy's game pouch, bound for the frying pan.

Tennessee's has a long squirrel season. That lengthy season, along with a liberal bag limit makes squirrels among the state's most sought-after small game.

"Like a lot of kids, I cut my eye-teeth on squirrels," says Roger Applegate, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's small-game specialist. "Squirrel hunting remains popular in Tennessee. Data indicates it ranks second only to dove hunting, with rabbit hunting third."

In recent years, however, there has been a steady shift toward big game, due in large part to the success of the TWRA's turkey and deer and elk programs. More and more hunters are opting for a gobbler or buck over a pint-sized, orange-toothed rodent.

"We don't have any specific data, but that's probably true," Applegate says of the shift, "particularly among younger hunters."

Another factor affecting squirrel hunting is increased urbanization. In the old days, most hunters could grab their .22, walk out the back door, and mosey into prime squirrel habitat. Those days are about gone.

Condos have replaced woodlots, more hunters live in suburbs, and going squirrel hunting is not as simple as it used to be. However, with a bit of effort, ample hunting opportunities are still available, including on TWRA Wildlife Management Areas.

There are advantages to starting youngsters out on squirrels rather than immediately going after bucks and gobblers. First of all, there's no pressure involved in squirrel hunting. If a nervous kid blows a shot at a big tom or a hat-rack buck, he or she is devastated. But if they miss a little bushy-tailed, no sweat; they'll get plenty more chances to correct their mistakes.

Squirrel hunting is also a great way to develop shooting skills. It teaches youngsters (and reminds oldsters) to take their time and make each shot count. Learning to be patient and wait for a clean shot can pay dividends later in a turkey blind or on a deer stand.

It also promotes woodcraft fundamentals. Squirrel hunters learn to look for signs, usually around stands of hickories and oaks. Identifying trees and looking for cuttings -- gnawed hulls and shells -- is a requisite to a successful hunt.

Gun safety and hunting ethics (clean kills, no wasted game) are as important as marksmanship and woodcraft, and squirrel hunting is a great starting point.

“There are plenty of squirrels, they’re a renewable resource, and we encourage hunters to get outdoors and enjoy a hunt,” Applegate says.

Three species of squirrels are hunted in Tennessee -- grey, fox and red -- and the 10-squirrel bag limit consists of any combination of the three. A fourth species, the tiny, reclusive flying squirrel, is protected.

The gray squirrel and its larger fox cousin are the most common species. Hunting is done by two basic methods: stalking and sitting, both of which require patience and/or stealth.

Stalking or still-hunting involves slipping through the woods listening for the trickle of nut hulls, a rustle of leaves, the sprinkle of dew from branches. Early morning is the optimum time to find feeding squirrels.

When a squirrel is located, the hunter eases within shooting distance and waits for an open shot through the overhead leaves. All that looking up during a long morning of hunting can put a serious crick in your neck.

A sitting or stand hunt is what the term implies: sit in an area where squirrels have been feeding and wait for a bushytail to show itself. Sometimes more than one can be bagged without moving from the spot.

Quietly sitting and watching for squirrels is akin to hunkering in a turkey blind or perching on a deer stand -- it lets the hunter absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the woods. It is a peaceful, relaxing way to hunt, as well as being productive.

Another way to hunt squirrels is with a dog, although it's not as common as it once was due to increasingly-restricted habitat. (An excited squirrel dog, hot on a trail, doesn't respect backyards and other property boundaries.) Nevertheless, an enduring group of breeders specializes in squirrel dogs, commonly known as feists.

"There's nothing more enjoyable than working a good squirrel dog," says aficionado Jim Goodall of Lebanon. "It's like coon hunting -- the thrill is the chase. Getting the squirrel is secondary."

Some squirrel hunters use calls that mimic the chatter of an excited busytail. Although such calls seldom lure in a squirrel in the manner of turkey and duck calls, they sometimes cause a hiding squirrel to scamper out to see what's going on.

Since Tennessee's squirrel season(s) run virtually year-round -- from the searing heat of August to the bone-numbing cold of February, with some balmy spring days tossed in -- hunting during the various seasons is vastly different.

In the early season squirrels feed in the leafy, mast-laden treetops. In winter the mast has fallen, the trees are bare, and squirrels are forging primarily on the ground. During the spring season they are somewhere in-between, feeding on buds and sprouts.

Late autumn is a prime time to hunt squirrels. The woods are crisp and golden, the mast is ripe and abundant, and a slight chill braces the air. The tangy smell of frost-tinged leaves mixes with a whiff of distant woodsmoke.

For some of us, a squirrel hunt is a trip down memory lane, a nostalgic tramp through the woods in remembrance of a bygone boyhood when hunting -- and life -- was simpler. The bushytails are just a bonus.