When most hunting seasons have ended and a serious case of hunting withdrawal begins to set in, don’t reach for the TV remote. Instead, grab your .22 or shotgun and head out for a day of rabbit and/or squirrel hunting. In many states, rabbit and squirrel seasons are open in January, February and even March.
Before the whitetail deer and wild turkey population explosions in the last half century, small game hunting was America’s most popular form of hunting, and no two critters were more sought after than cottontail rabbits and squirrels. Today, these great little game animals are all too often overlooked or simply ignored. Sadly, some hunters don’t see them as worthy of pursuing or, worse, they don’t see them as real game animals at all.
Whatever the reasons, many of today’s hunters are missing out by not taking advantage of the great hunting and long seasons offered by rabbits and squirrels. Hunting squirrels entails many of the same skills and techniques used when hunting deer and other big game from spotting and stalking, to still hunting, to sitting and waiting patiently. If you use a .22, you’ll sharpen your rifle shooting skills by choosing behind the shoulder or head shots to ensure clean kills and to minimize meat damage. There are few better wild game dishes than a plate full of fried rabbits or squirrels. Knock a fast running squirrel off a leaf-covered tree limb 60 feet above the ground with a small bore shotgun, and you’ll be sharpening your reflexes and “wing” shooting skills, too.
The same goes for rabbits. Spotting and stalking them on a winter afternoon as they sit outside their holes, and then shooting them with a .22, is a small-scale version of stalking and killing a buck or bull elk in his bed. Rolling a bouncing bunny over with a scattergun as it jumps from underfoot or is driven across in front of you by a pack of barking hounds will leave you feeling you as elated as making a good shot on an upland bird.
I’ve hunted both species with .22s and shotguns. My current .22 is mounted with a good quality variable scope. My favorite shotgun for bunnies and bushy tails is a .28 gauge, which coincidentally is also my favorite early season upland bird gun. I’ve shot squirrels with just about every .22 load from shorts to 40 grain long rifle hollow points, and all work just fine. Shot placement is the most important factor, just like when hunting big game. I like heavy field loads of 4’s, 5’s or 6’s for squirrels because they’re tough little critters. Field or target loads in size 6 is my favorites for rabbits.
Rabbits and squirrels are perfect for introducing youngsters to hunting, gun safety, woodsmanship, gutting and skinning. Small game animals don’t put nearly as much pressure on a kid as big critters like deer. Missing a shot isn’t the end of the world. However, a successfully executed one, accompanied by congratulations from an older family member and a bushy squirrel tail to pin on the wall, builds confidence and leaves a kid wanting more. I know because it’s where it all began for me.
A few years back, after a long hiatus from the squirrel woods, I hosted a squirrel hunting segment on Life in the Open TV. After we finished taping, I turned to the squirrel hunting fanatics I hunted with and said, “I’m going back to Montana to sell one of my elk rifles and buy a .22 for squirrel hunting; this is the most fun
I’ve had hunting in a long time.”
During those two days of squirrel hunting in the southern woods of Georgia, we became boys again, caught up in the sheer joy of hunting at its most elemental level. There is no Cottontails or Bushy Tails Unlimited, no record books, no eight point minimum, no special rabbit food plots or scent avoidance underwear. All you need is a .22 or a shotgun, a handful of shells and a few acres of squirrel woods or rabbit fields.
So don’t sit around moaning when deer season ends. Put away that TV remote, pull on your boots, slip on your coat and get out there. And take along a kid to help remember what hunting is really all about!