Hunting tree squirrels in the West has never hit the fever pitch seen
in Midwest and East Coast states. There are many reasons that could explain our lack of bushy tail hunting mania, but suffice it to say, if you have a versatile gun dog, it’s yet another great opportunity to get out and have fun.
Gray squirrels are excellent eating – some say even better than venison – and they can be found in many habitats. From the Coast Range to the valley floors, the Cascades to the high desert, from Canada down into Mexico, western grays are adaptive.
AT ABOUT A year of age gray squirrels begin to breed. The breeding season can run from December through June, and after just over a six-week gestation period, up to five kits are born. Western gray kits will remain in the nest for up to six months – sometimes longer – which equates to setbacks in the species’ ability to efficiently propagate in an area, especially when competing with squirrels that fledge sooner.
Due to the vulnerability of western gray populations, check local hunting regs for seasons and bag limits. Currently, westerns are protected in Washington and cannot be hunted there.
Acorns and pine seeds are primary food sources of these squirrels, though they’ll feed on fir and other seeds in the area. Populations are largely impacted by how much food there is each year, which is determined by weather conditions.
Western grays are diurnal, making them great to hunt with a dog. While
they often feed in and travel through treetops early in the morning and in the evening, they can also be found foraging for seeds on the ground
throughout the day.
I like to find good habitat and glass the trees early and late in the day, and cover ground with my dogs the rest of the time.
Gray squirrels leave a lot of scent on the ground, and dogs can easily track and tree them. Chases are usually short, so your dog won’t get winded, or run too far in some of the rugged lands these squirrels call home.
A GOOD BINOCULAR is essential when hunting western gray squirrels, as is a very accurate .22 rifle. I shoot a Browning lever-action .22 topped with a 3×9 Trijicon AccuPoint scope, with a green fiber optic illuminated dot reticle.
A quality scope helps pick out the squirrel’s small head, which is a good target so as not to ruin the meat. Because these squirrels can be
in shade, thick cover, heavy shadows and more, they take on multiple
shades of gray, white, and black, which is where a quality scope shines. There is some great .22 ammo available today, much more impressive than 40 years ago when I started squirrel hunting.
Be sure to test out a few brands to see which ones shoot best in your rifle. I like a scoped .22 versus an open sighted rifle because iron sights often cover the head of a squirrel. When danger is sensed, grays often climb high into trees, or lay flat on a fat branch or amid thick cover, making precise shot placement essential.
If hunting in an area where a .22 projectile is questionable, opt for a shotgun. Field loads of size 6 shot are a good choice, and the pellets won’t travel far. I also like taking a mono-pod into the squirrel woods. It not only makes for a great walking stick, it helps steady the gun for an accurate shot. Sometimes you may be waiting several minutes for a treed squirrel to present a shot, and holding a gun that long can result in shaky aim.
A VERSATILE GUN dog is also great at retrieving downed squirrels, which is a luxury when hunting forests with tall ferns and thick salal. Knock a squirrel out of a big Doug fir, on a steep, downward-facing slope, and the retrieve can be well over 100 yards, which makes having a dog very nice.
If you can’t hunt gray squirrels in your area, consider traveling to states that do. A quick call to a fish and game office should help reveal where squirrel numbers are good, even what other species there are to hunt, like fox or Douglas squirrels.
Yes, there’s plenty of birds to hunt with your gun dog this time of year, but don’t overlook squirrels such as western grays, which have a lot to offer on the chase and on the dinner table, and help make your four legged hunting partner that much more valuable in the field. AmSJ
Editor’s note: To see some of Scott Haugen’s puppy training video tips, visit scotthaugen.com. Follow Scott on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.