November 21, 2023
At writing, Fall archery season for whitetail deer recently opened in my home state of Ohio, and there are pickup trucks parked on all the surrounding farms around my home, day and night, as hunters keep a lookout for their target deer. Big whitetails are big business, and available private hunting land has largely been gobbled up by eager deer hunters looking to hang a big buck on their wall. Avid pursuit of a trophy buck can be fun, but it can also be taxing.
I’m a deer hunter, but frankly the single-minded pursuit of one whitetail sometimes leaves me longing for something else. That’s why my recent trip to a squirrel-hunting camp with CCI/Federal Ammunition, Ruger, Leupold, and Silencer Central was such a breath of fresh air. In squirrel camp I could enjoy my time in the big woods without worrying about seeking out a specific target buck. There was no pressure, no fear of blowing the one opportunity I would have for the year or opening my social media feed to see the deer I was chasing lying dead on the neighbor’s tailgate. In squirrel camp, I simply headed to the woods with friends, set up in the misty pre-dawn light with my .22 rifle against a hickory tree, and waited for the magic to happen. I was not disappointed.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dedicated deer hunter, but you don’t have to do it to the exclusion of all other hunting. If you’re missing some of the enjoyment that hunting once brought to you maybe it’s time to pack up the pickup, bring along a box or two of rimfire ammunition, and set your sights on squirrels.
Hunting The Hickories
Will Brantley has been a friend of mine for years, and he’s a very accomplished outdoor writer. He also happens to run Brantley Outdoors in southern Kentucky with his wife Michelle. A few years ago, Brantley came up with the idea of doing a guided squirrel hunt, which might seem surprising to some. But what developed from that original idea was a gathering of hunting friends who came together to bag bushytails, test new outdoor products, and enjoy time spent outdoors in the days leading up to the mad rush of deer season.
The beauty of squirrel camp is that it doesn’t require much effort to piece together. There are no stands to hang, no feeders to fill, no trail camera pictures to pour over. You need a good rimfire rifle or pistol, an optic, and quality rimfire ammunition.
We had those requirements met. While many of the other hunters opted for Ruger’s new Precision Rimfire in .22 WMR or .17 HMR, I hunted with Ruger’s American Rimfire bolt-action .22 Long Rifle. We all used CCI and Federal rimfire ammunition (CCI’s new Hyper Velocity Clean-22 for me), and we topped our rifles with Leupold variable power scopes. In my case I chose a Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10x40, a lightweight precision optic that offers excellent light transmission and, perhaps more importantly, great light management. It’s sometimes tough to discern a squirrel’s grey coat from a hickory’s grey bark, and sending your well-placed shot into the latter can be very disappointing — especially in front of friends.
Silencer Central’s Brandon Maddox joined us as well, and even though suppressors aren’t required for squirrel hunting they are beneficial. Deadening the sound of a shot doesn’t alert other nearby squirrels to your presence, and it also doesn’t alert other hunters. We were hunting public land and while I didn’t run into anyone else, it doesn’t take long for neighbors to catch on when you’re cracking off shot after shot. Perhaps most importantly, suppressors reduce noise to non-dangerous levels. The Silencer Central Banish I used is my personal suppressor, and I’ve got a can for every rifle I shoot, rimfire or centerfire.
Our base of operations was Brantley’s “office,” a building set upon several acres where we could sight-in rifles and gather for dinner and conversation after the hunt. Each morning we dispersed across the public land forests, arriving at some areas by boat across flooded waterways, before setting up and waiting for the woods to awaken.
On my first morning, Federal’s JJ Reich and I waded into shore from the boat and followed a game trail to a ridge where Brantley promised we would find squirrels feeding on hickories. He wasn’t wrong. We hadn’t walked more than twenty yards from the beach when I heard the unmistakable rattle of shaking leaves and bending branches, a sound which quickens the heart of a squirrel hunter. I turned and saw a grey squirrel clambering along a finger-thick branch and fired a quick shot but did not connect. Less than five minutes into the hunt I was 0-1.
Things improved quickly. Orange sunlight was beginning to bleed through the trunks of the oaks and hickories when I heard the raspy sound of a squirrel gnawing on a hickory nut in the canopy above me. During my youth I was pretty adept at matching the location of the sound to the squirrel’s location, but age and the associated dulling of my eyesight and auditory skills left me searching for long minutes for the squirrel. Where was it?
Eventually a discarded hickory husk fell down from the treetops, slapping leaves as it plummeted and allowing me to trace its path back to the squirrel who had consumed it. There was a grey lump on a limb that, when viewed through the Leupold, proved to be the squirrel I was after. I squeezed the trigger and the Ruger’s report was muffled by the Banish suppressor so that I could clearly hear the bullet strike. The squirrel fell from the treetops.
It turned out that the grey squirrel littering hickory nuts was not the one that I had heard. When I shot, and the squirrel fell, I saw movement in the next tree, but one of the blessings of hunting suppressed is that the sound doesn’t immediately register to game as gunfire. I was surprised to see the fox squirrel begin feeding again and made the shot. In short order my hunting partner JJ had another squirrel down under a nearby tree.
Squirrel season begins in late August in Kentucky, and that happened to be the hottest week of the year. Temperatures climbed to over 100 degrees, cloaking the country with oppressive heat that kept animal movements to a minimum. By midmorning it was simply too hot to hunt, so we met our guides at the boat. The total haul for the morning was around two-dozen squirrels, all of which we needed to get promptly cleaned and returned to camp since they would supply the meat for our forthcoming squirrel fry.
As I stated, packing for squirrel camp isn’t much of a chore, but I do suggest you have a good cook along. We were fortunate enough to have the services of renowned wild game chef Michael Pendley in camp while his son Potroast (not his given name, but his handle since shortly after birth) was serving as one of the guides. No good squirrel camp is complete without quality grub, and squirrel meat is, when properly prepared, a delicious protein. Be sure to add plenty of seasoning and flour to your camp kit.
Day two of squirrel camp started out very hot (or, perhaps more accurately, it never cooled down after day one), but squirrels were moving in the morning and evening and we managed to add more meat to the freezer. That evening I found a hickory tree that was loaded with bushytails busily cutting on mast, and I managed to take five — just one short of the limit. By the time the three-day hunt was over we’d harvested — and mostly eaten — over 70 squirrels. But perhaps more importantly hunting season was off to a fun, low-key, start, and I was reminded how much joy something as simple as gathering for a squirrel hunt can be.
I have no illusions that squirrels will ever replace whitetails as America’s favorite game animal, but we are only gifted a limited number of autumns in our lives and it’s important to make the most of them. Sitting around the fire at Brantley’s place, full on squirrel appetizers and fresh pork from the pig roast Michael Pendley arranged on the final night, I remembered that it’s not just trophies that make a hunt worthwhile. Sometimes it’s the experience itself that brings the most joy, and that’s why I hope squirrel camp continues forever.
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