Black Powder Bushytails

  • Made to order method for early-season squirrel hunting.
  • Muzzleloaders lend new excitement to the old game of squirrel hunting.
  • Where to go, What to do, How to call, Packing your game sack.

By Jim Low

There’s no need to wait until fall to enjoy the thrill of hunting squirrels with a rifle.

With turkey season in the rearview mirror and Memorial Day just around the corner, Missouri hunters’ thoughts naturally turn to squirrels.  Squirrel season opens on May 27.  Hunting is mostly done with shotguns during the early months of the season, because lush foliage makes bushytails hard to spot.  When you do spy one, it’s usually just a fleeting glimpse.  However, there is a way to hunt summer squirrels with a rifle that is, paradoxically, both easier and more challenging.  I’m talking about hunting with traditional black-powder rifles with iron sights.

Daniel Boone might have been able to shoot the eyes out of squirrels at 80 paces with old Tick-Licker, but most modern-day hunters find it much harder to head-shoot squirrels with iron sights.  For consistent success, we need to get within 25 yards of our quarry.  This puts a premium on woodsmanship that can pay dividends during later, big-game seasons.

Choice of muzzleloader is mostly a matter of personal preference.  Hard-core traditionalists will opt for flintlocks, but there’s no shame in opting for the more certain ignition offered by percussion models. Since you are aiming for squirrels’ heads, it makes little difference whether your smoke pole is spitting .32-cal pellets or .54-cal marbles.  Larger projectiles do provide a slight advantage, simply because their greater diameter increases the chances that some part of the ball will make contact with the target.  They also offer the possibility of “barking” squirrels – aiming at tree trunks or limbs adjacent to the squirrel’s head so death results from concussion.  A .535-cal round ball weighing 230 grains packs a serious wallop that a .31-cal ball, weighing a mere 45 grains, can’t match.

Do not, however, let anyone tell you that small-caliber muzzleloaders won’t kill squirrels outright.  The first squirrel I shot with my .32 CVA Varmint caplock was a full-grown gray squirrel.  I had 20 grains of FFFG black powder under the .31-cal ball.  When I went to pick up the deceased rodent, all that was left of the head were flaps of skin from the lower jaw and pate.  I have since decreased my squirrel load to 15 grains of FFFG.  The heavier load simply is unnecessary.

If you don’t already own a muzzleloader, look for one with a set trigger.  This second trigger – typically located behind the main trigger – is pulled just before taking a shot.  It “sets” the main trigger, dramatically reducing the amount of pressure needed to release the hammer.  This lessens the tendency to pull the rifle to one side as you squeeze the trigger.  Traditional muzzleloaders’ lock time – the time elapsed between the moment you release the trigger and when the projectile leaves the barrel – is much longer for smoke poles than it is for modern firearms.  So, the time during which you can drift off-target is much greater.  Reducing trigger-release pressure helps offset this inherent disadvantage.

Hunting with a muzzleloader is an excellent fit for summer squirrels.  The same factors that limit hunters’ vision apply to squirrels, so they are much less likely to notice your approach.  And because last year’s leaf fall has had seven months to weather, you can slip through the woods with greater stealth.

Summer squirrels are not concentrated around nut trees, as they are in the fall.  That doesn’t mean they are randomly distributed, however.  Early in the spring, I have seen as many as a dozen squirrels in a single elm tree, harvesting the fresh, green seeds.  Later, they consume the succulent flower and leaf buds of a succession of trees.  Later still, they focus on mulberries and other fruit, such as hackberries and wild cherries.  You don’t need to know which trees provide food each week throughout the summer.  It’s enough to know that where you find one squirrel, you are likely to find more.

Sound is more important than sight for finding summer squirrels.  Take a seat or lean against a tree when you enter the woods and spend five minutes listening for the telltale rustle of squirrels foraging in the treetops.  If you hear nothing, move 50 yards and listen again.  When you hear feeding activity, gradually move toward it until you make visual contact.  Then pay attention to the squirrel’s feeding cycle.  Typically, they will spend a few minutes gathering food from one branchlet, then move on to another.  Often, they pause to rest for a few moments between forays.  Move into shooting position during the active feeding phase, freezing when your quarry moves between branches.

The Mr. Squirrel distress call, sold by Haydel’s Game Calls, is an effective tool for harvesting summer squirrels.

Another advantage to hunting squirrels in the summer is the fact that they are more susceptible to calling than at any other time of year.  Male and female squirrels respond dramatically to young squirrels’ distress calls.  You can use this habit in two ways.  One is to blind call, which will cause any squirrels in earshot to reveal their location.  A better approach is to find actively feeding squirrels, sneak in and take a position in their midst, and hit a few licks on the distress call.  Thrash the ground violently with a small, leafy sapling while calling to mimic the sound of a baby squirrel caught by a predator.  Not only will squirrels leave the treetops to investigate, some will run toward you and perch on branches, barking and offering a shot.

My squirrel distress call is sold by Haydel’s Game Calls under the name Mr. Squirrel.  Flambeau offers a different version of the same thing, called Mr. B’s Distress Squirrel Whistle.  You also can make your own out of a plastic jug.

Because most of the activity occurs high in the tree tops, most of your shots will be at steep angles.  This makes a shooting stick invaluable.  You can use a store-bought rifle rest, but I prefer an actual stick – an ironwood sapling that I cut nearly 40 years ago.  I grasp the stick with my left hand and rest the barrel of my rifle on top of my hand.  This arrangement works for any elevation.

One problem unique to summer squirrel hunting is meat spoilage.  I carry a couple of frozen water bottles in my game pouch.  Gutting squirrels as soon as you shoot them hastens cooling, and keeping them inside the pouch avoids attracting flies.

You can do all the above with a modern rifle, too.  That’s the best bet if you are dead set on bringing home a limit of bushytails.   But if you are looking for a way to make squirrel hunting more challenging and interesting, nothing beats a muzzleloader.