We’re talking gray squirrels for now.
Cottontail rabbits next week, or maybe the week after.
Bushytails offer prime late-season hunting opportunities as winter teeters on the edge of sliding into the slightly moderating late period. Grays become more active as the first of a couple of mating periods is getting underway. In addition, the increased activity searching for sustenance has them, save for the few expected brief but brutal late January-early February cold snaps, out and about pretty much from mid-morning to dusk. A siesta here and there, but for the most part, they are on the prowl for belly fillers.
Mid-morning? Yep. We’ve done the sunrise legal shooting time wait many a time over the decades hoping for the scratching of early risers, many times being half-frozen by the time the first squirrels began stirring and then moving from tree hole or bulky nest sanctuaries to the ground below. We’ve found that the prime times are from 9 am through noon, then again from 2 pm into the half-hour after sunset cease-fire regulation. Sure, there are variations predicated on the weather (read: wind, snow, rain, warm spell), but suffice to say you can enjoy an extra hour of sleep and a leisurely breakfast before hitting the woods.
Squirrels are especially tough customers when it comes to giving up the ghost. Known as the Rasputins of small game, they can, because of their wiry hides and incredible dodging flight tactics, can be difficult to drop. Bunnies and pheasants are easy peasy targets compared to the scrambled, unpredictable fleeing trek of a spooked squirrel. Should the opportunity present itself, a head or mid-body rib shot with a load of Nos. 5 or 6 shot in either 12, 20 or 28 gauge (.410 bore if close) will result in a “thump” to the ground.
Air rifles are legal in the bushytail pursuit. As close to hunting with a .22 caliber rifle loaded with shorts as it gets. We prefer the .177 caliber load, while some opt for the .20 and .22 payloads. All are effective for headshots with the scope sights.
For the buckskin ‘n possibles bag crowd, there is a muzzleloader (.36 caliber and smaller) season in a huge swath of southern New Jersey. Check page 60 in the 2021-22 Hunting & Trapping Digest for the boundaries.
The ultimate bushytail challenge? The bow’ n arrow, either long, recurve or compound. The business end is a fixed broadhead that will short-circuit all movement via a mid-body connection or brain buster. Not easy. A crossbow, with its scope sight, is legal and lethal. A lot of weight to lug, though.
Speaking of meat: squirrels make a superb winter game repast, but, with the exception of young ones, parboiling for 10-15 minutes is recommended. How to tell? If the teeth are orange, parboil! Then, it’s a simple of matter of deep-frying, swirling a fricassee, simmering crockpot stew (de-bone the meat prior) with a cream of mushroom soup base or, our fave (no surprise) making a robust Squirrel Cacciatore.
The daily limit is four. The season ends half-hour after sunset, Saturday, February 26.