GRAYLING, Mich. -- Have you noticed that squirrels are unusually active lately, chasing each other around yards and up and down trees in what looks like a manic game of tag? That frantic activity is anything but play.
It's the squirrel rut, when males chase off rivals and pursue females in a competition as old as life itself--to be a winner in the game of evolution by passing their genes on to the next generation. We'll see the results late March or early April in the form of little squirrels.
If your state's season is open, hunters can take advantage of all that activity, and one of the most enjoyable and challenging ways to do it is with a black-powder rifle.
About 20 years ago, I decided that the black-powder hunting season was so much fun I didn't want it to end. So for a couple of years I hunted small game with my .45 caliber, percussion cap deer rifle. I backed off on the powder charge and used .40 caliber bullets in sabots to be able to use the larger barrel.
It worked pretty well, but the .45 was still overkill and I soon picked up a long-barreled, .32 caliber smoothbore that also has been a great small game gun for rabbits, woodchuck and even a couple of coyotes.
You can still hunt squirrels with a big caliber black-powder gun. Just back off on the powder charge to find a load that kills them without damaging too much meat.
In the .32, I like 20 grains of FFFg or an equivalent amount of Pyrodex. It shoots a .31-inch lead round ball with nearly the accuracy of a modern .22 caliber rifle at 50 yards. A friend is able to shoot 3-inch groups with his .32 at 100 yards, but he uses a telescopic sight, something I don't like to do with muzzleloaders. So I'm content to limit my shots to 50 yards or less.
Other hunters I know use 40 grains of black powder with a .45 caliber gun and 60 grains with a .50 caliber (the ball weight increases dramatically with the diameter.)
One hunter who owns a .54 caliber smoothbore uses it like a shotgun. He puts a shotcup over the powder charge with No. 6 shot. Then he puts an overshot wad in place to keep the shot from falling out as he walks. It works pretty well, and he figures his gun shoots about the same at 40 yards as a modern 28-gauge shotgun.
Something I do recommend for squirrel hunters is aiming for head shots. It's not easy, because a squirrel's head is about the size of a golf ball. But it results in quick kills with no loss of meat, and most hunters find that by following the age-old premise of "aim small, miss small," they can improve their accuracy considerably.
A Southern friend who hunts squirrels 75 days a year taught me the trick of trying to pick out one of the squirrel's ears in the gunsight and then move down the head. He said that concentrating on that tiny point helps the eye focus and reduces the amount by which the gun barrel wavers.
As in summer, squirrels tend to get active well after daylight when it's easier for them to spot predators, especially hawks that can swoop down from above. And my experience is that in winter they are much more active at midday than in summer, when they tend to disappear during the hottest hours.
Although the oak and beech trees no longer have nuts on them, squirrels will still be found around them in winter, digging through the snow for anything they missed earlier in the year. Once they find a nut, the squirrels often will carry it up a tree to a branch where they can eat with their backs protected by the tree trunk.
When they're foraging on the ground, squirrels usually don't keep their heads down in the snow for more than a few seconds without popping up for a quick look and listen. But if they find a rich trove of nuts they often stay on the ground to eat and seem to lose some of their caution.
And the males often seem to be less cautious when their chasing each other in rutting fights. The other day I spotted three squirrels about 80 yards away, running back and forth between three trees and scampering up and down the trunks as they bit at each other's hindquarters.
One squirrel seemed to be dominant, with the others starting to run if he so much as moved in their direction.
I was able to get within 40 yards by moving very slowly and keeping tree trunks between us. I moved only when covered by a tree or when none of the squirrels were looking in my direction.
Every now and then one would look in my direction and let out a bark, at which the others would freeze. But if I froze for a few seconds, they soon lost interest in me and went back to battling each other.
It took about 10 minutes to cover those 40 yards, much like the cautious stalk while still-hunting deer. The ensuing miss when one of the squirrels climbed five feet up on a tree trunk and gave me a perfect broadside shot was entirely my own doing.