Sunday, September 23, 2018
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Alabama Squirrel Hunting
Squirrel tactics are different during the early, mid and late seasons.
By Andrew Maxwell
Originally published in the September 2018 issue of AON
Squirrel hunting is more complex than many think. As the season creeps by, food sources, cover and even squirrel behavior changes drastically. Here’s Andrew Maxwell with some early season squirrels from last year. This year’s season begins Sept. 15, a time when squirrels are easier to kill as they focus on food in thick leaves.
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Squirrel hunting is an American pastime. Frontiersmen like Daniel Boone hunted squirrels by “barking” them, which is where they would shoot right next to a squirrel clinging to the side of a tree with their .50 caliber black-powder guns. The impact of the lead ball against the tree produced enough shock and shrapnel to kill the squirrel without completely destroying it.

The tradition of squirrel hunting lives on today. Here in Alabama, we get to hunt them from mid September to early March.

Many of us grew up squirrel hunting, but most hunters are now easily distracted by other game species, like deer, duck or fall turkey. They simply stop squirrel hunting all together. I can’t say how many times I’ve taken friends hunting who insisted squirrel was the easiest game to hunt, only to have them leave the woods empty-handed.

Squirrel hunting is more complex than many think. As the season creeps by, food sources, cover and even squirrel behavior changes drastically. Keeping up with these changes will not only make you a better squirrel hunter, but they will make you an all-around better woodsman.

For this article, we will break down the season into three stages to help increase your odds of bringing some home for the pot.

Early Season (Leaves On)

Early season is by far my favorite time to hunt squirrels because it is the most conducive to stalking. During this time, all the acorns, hickory nuts and pine cones are still up in the trees, and the leaves are still green. That means that the squirrels have to rummage around on the limbs and pull the food off. That is good for hunters for two reasons. One, squirrels create a lot of movement and noise when moving through the treetops and pulling nuts off the limbs. The leaves bounce around on the limb making it easy to hear, and the limb waving back and forth is like a big flag waving.

The second reason it’s good for us as hunters is because it’s hard for the squirrels to hear or see us as we make our approach. They can’t hear us walking because of all the noise they are making, and they can’t see us when they have their face buried in a big leaf bundle trying to yank that acorn off the limb.

While all that foliage may make it difficult for the squirrel to see you, it can also be somewhat difficult to see the squirrel, let alone get a shot. This is where patience comes in handy. Many times I have stalked to within 20 yards of a squirrel and had to wait 10 minutes or more for it to present a shot. Other times, I can hear a squirrel picking apart a hickory nut or pine cone but can’t seem to pinpoint their exact location. Looking for the small pieces of husk or pine cone scales falling from a tree is the best way to locate a squirrel when it’s eating and hidden from view.

For the area I hunt in central Alabama, I always seem to have the best luck in the early season around pine trees. Squirrels simply love pine nuts, which are in their prime this time of year. It’s very easy finding fresh sign when the squirrels are hitting the pine cones because they pull them apart, scale by scale. These scales are easy to spot from a distance when fresh, and they are a sure sign that squirrels are frequenting that particular tree. Whether it’s pines cones, hickory nuts, acorns or some other kind of food source, finding this fresh sign and setting up on it before daylight will give you the greatest advantage on your early season hunt.

I’ll conclude the early season section by addressing something that keeps many people away from early season squirrels, bot flies. These fly larvae are often called a warble or wolves. They live in the skin of small mammals. It basically looks like a big fat grub.

There are three common misconceptions about wolves, the first being that every single squirrel has them in the early season. That depends on your area. In some places, lots of squirrels will have them, while in others, almost none will have them. Last September, I killed a limit of eight squirrels, and only one of them had a wolf in it.

The second misconception is that you have to wait for a frost for all the wolves to fall out of the squirrels. While it is true that they will all be gone by the first frost, they usually fall out earlier than that.

The third big misconception is that the squirrels are inedible because of them. The fly lives in the skin, not the meat. Skin the squirrel as you normally would, and the wolf will come off with the hide, and you’ll be left with perfectly good meat.


Once the nuts and leaves begin falling off the trees, the game starts to change. There is less cover for you to use to your advantage, and the squirrels will start searching for food on the ground. Food sources like pine cones start becoming more scarce now, and squirrels will likely transition into other hard mast, like hickories and oaks.

Finding sign is no different than early season. Simply go out and locate some trees that produced nuts this year, and seek out the freshest husks and shells laying on the ground. Finding a good hickory tree with hundreds of husks and nut fragments beneath it is a jackpot in the squirrel woods. Trees like this can produce multiple squirrels in one morning if you sit on it long enough.

In my opinion, the best kept secret of the squirrel woods, and deer woods for that matter, is the American beech tree. Beech trees typically grow in creek bottoms. Beech trees produce beech nuts, a small nut inside a prickly bur that proves to be like candy to squirrels, turkeys and whitetails. The reason you may not hear a lot about beech trees is because they are pretty unreliable when it comes to producing nuts every year.

You can expect a bumper crop of beech nuts every three to six years throughout Alabama. When the trees do produce, they are dotted with thousands of small, sweet beech nuts that stay on the limb well into the winter. Beech trees are also known for holding on to their leaves well into the winter. When all the oaks, hickories and sweetgums are barren, the beech tree is still covered with brown crunchy leaves. This offers a huge advantage in the mid season and especially in the late season when cover is scarce. A squirrel busy at work trying to collect beech nuts is the perfect squirrel to put a stalk on.

When hunting in the morning, it is very important to get to a good area before the squirrels come out of their nests. When you’re already there waiting on them, you have the upper hand, because it can get very difficult to get into an area if there are several squirrels out and already on the ground. In my neck of the woods, when the colder temperatures start moving in, I’ve noticed that most squirrels stay in their nests until the sunlight starts hitting the tops of the trees. It may be different where you are, so I suggest trying to find out the time that they usually come out in your area so you have a better idea of when you need to be in the woods ready to hunt.

Stalking gets harder this time of year because of the lack of leaves. While you can see the squirrels from a long ways off, they can also see you. Use whatever leaves are still hanging on to your advantage. You have to be more deliberate in your movements now as opposed to early season. The squirrel’s behavior will tell you when to move. When a squirrel is sitting on a limb eating, he is watching everything around him. This is when he will bust you, so it’s better to sit and watch them until he goes to get another nut. When they are scurrying up the tree, or working to pull a nut off a branch, they are not paying attention to anything except what they are doing, and that is the time to move. You’d be surprised at how much movement you can get away with when a squirrel is distracted.

Late Season (Leaves Off)

In my opinion, this is the most difficult time to get a limit of squirrels. Almost all food is on the ground, and the woods are wide open with no leaves left on the trees. Squirrels will be wary, the shots will be farther, and the stalks will take longer.

Throughout most of the year, we look for chewed husks, shells and pinecones, but that all changes as we enter the late season. Almost all hard mast has ether fallen to the ground or been picked off the limbs, so now most of the feeding takes place on the forest floor.

To scout, look for the small holes that squirrels dig looking for nuts they buried earlier in the year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go look in your backyard. There will probably be some holes with about the same diameter as a quarter going roughly an inch into the dirt—that’s squirrel sign. When you start finding those fresh holes, hunt them. Squirrels can be somewhat nomadic this time of year. Once they eat everything they can find in one area, they will move on.

A good tree to key on during this time of year is a water oak. Like beech trees, water oaks tend to hold on to their leaves and mast much longer into winter. Many times water oaks will still have acorns in them well into January. These can be some incredible spots when all the other acorns, hickory nuts and beech nuts have been eaten up. Water oaks, like beech trees, grow in lower areas close to water and can hold its leaves for most of the year throughout most of Alabama. 

Being that the squirrels are mostly on the ground this time of year, it can be extremely hard to stalk them. Without the cover of leaves, most of the woods are wide open, and it’s a lot easier for a squirrel to poke his head up out of the leaves and see you. Scouting and setting up on fresh sign before the squirrels come out is the key to success here. You will kill many more squirrels this time of year by sitting and waiting, rather than spotting and stalking. You will still have chances to stalk, but every movement you make must be calculated. The pattern of squirrels not paying attention when they are moving around still holds true, so use that to your advantage.

Also, try and refrain from stalking a squirrel while it is on the ground. They are very alert on the ground because it is when they are most vulnerable. Wait until they hop on a tree to make your move. Try and keep something between you and the squirrel, whether it be a bush, tree trunk or a small rise in a hill. Ideally, you don’t even want to be able to see the squirrel until he is in range.

One good thing about late season is that the squirrels are very vocal. The barking and chattering they do can be heard from more than 100 yards away in some cases. This is how I locate most of my late-season squirrels, by stopping and waiting for a bark, and then once I hear a bark, I wait until I’m sure of where he is before I make a move. Just like with turkey hunting, many times they are closer than you think.

Editor’s Note: Andrew Maxwell is the owner and co-host of the Southern Outdoorsmen Podcast, and a state captain for the Southeastern Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He grew up hunting and fishing in central Alabama, mostly on public lands. He now hunts public lands exclusively for any game species Alabama has to offer. He can be reached at
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