Stalking Squirrels

At 74, Leonard Hampton still gets fired up about slipping through the woods hunting squirrels.

Brad Bailey | December 31, 2005

Just after daylight on December 14, Leonard Hampton and I were stalking squirrels on his Oglethorpe County hunting lease. We were following a small drain through big hardwoods hoping to see or hear a squirrel — and it didn’t take long. We heard the scrape of squirrel claws on bark and saw two gray squirrels chasing each other on a big tree. The two squirrels spiraling up and then down the side of a big pine tree were apparently oblivious to the two of us only 50 feet away.

Leonard braced his pump-action .22 against a tree and waited for a shot. And when one of the squirrels stopped momentarily to stare in our direction, the .22 fired and the squirrel tumbled.

Leonard Hampton, 74, lives in Watkinsville. He is both a self-employed forestry consultant and an accomplished squirrel hunter. After more than 65 years of hunting squirrels he still loves spending time chasing bushytails. He has been hunting squirrels ever since his father gave him a Remington single-shot .22 rifle with iron sights when he was a 9-year-old kid. During January he stalks for squirrels, trying to locate concentrations of squirrels near den trees. It is a technique that has proven very effective when the leaves are down and the weather is cold.

According to Leonard, the trick to hunting squirrels in January is to find an area with den trees. He did just that and killed four squirrels while sitting against one tree.

Today most of Leonard’s hunting is done with a .22 rifle, and he has a unique squirrel gun. It is a Winchester Model 61 pump that he bought in 1954 while he was stationed in Korea during a stint with the Army. He shoots hollow point, long-rifle shells, and the gun is deadly accurate with a Weaver four-power scope.

“I sight it in at 30 yards,” he said. “And I don’t stop adjusting until I can put three bullet holes in the target that are all touching. I love hunting with a .22.”

Leonard’s favorite squirrel-hunting tactic during the latter part of the season is to slip quietly through likely looking hardwoods looking both for squirrels that might be out, or den trees where they congregate.

“Finding den trees is the main thing,” he said. “If you can’t locate a den tree, the hunting can be tough.”

If you can find a den tree, the hunting can be outstanding.

Leonard hunts regularly with his son Nathan. On one exceptional hunt last year they both located den trees on the Oglethorpe County club and during a morning’s hunt they killed 17 squirrels.

“Nathan killed all 10 of his from one tree,” said Leonard. “And I killed all of mine from one huge water oak that was full of holes.

“A lot of squirrel hunters will just plop down in a cleared spot at the base of a tree in a place that looks good. But you might sit there for two hours and not see anything. I like to move around until I see or hear a squirrel. When you see them this time of year, they will usually be close to a den tree. We have been very successful hunting den trees.”

This is hunting with your eyes and your ears; looking for big, gnarled old hardwood trees with den cavity holes in them, and listening for the clues of a squirrel’s presence: barking or whining squirrels, or the sound of a squirrel gnawing on a hickory nut.

I got to see just how successful the tactic can be at about 10 a.m. Leonard and I were stalking quietly through a magnificent stand of mature oaks and hickories that towered high overhead. Hickory-nut cuttings were scattered on the ground nearly everywhere.

“This is as pretty an area of squirrel country as you’ll ever see,” said Leonard.

As we came to a small ditch running down the slope toward a small creek, we heard a squirrel whine nearby. Leonard spotted the squirrel peering out of a hole 15 feet up the side of a hickory tree 30 yards away. He quietly sat down  against a big tree, and I did the same.

In a few minutes two gray squirrels emerged from the den hole and began to chase each other around and around the tree trunk. Leonard took aim, waiting for an opportunity. When the squirrels stopped, the .22 cracked, and the gunshot was followed by the thump of a fat squirrel hitting the forest floor.

The other squirrel ran, but not far enough, and the second shot dropped that bushytail, too.

We sat tight, and in about 10 minutes another squirrel came scampering up a fallen log, then jumped into the leaves to rummage for hickory nuts. Leonard tracked the moving squirrel with his .22, and when it stopped he squeezed the trigger.

His aim was perfect, and squirrel No. 3 was down in the dry leaves.

The crack of a .22 rifle apparently has little lasting affect on squirrels, and about 10 minutes later I watched Leonard shift his gun and followed his aim to a squirrel hopping across the forest floor. When the squirrel jumped up on the side of a tree, Leonard pulled the trigger and the squirrel dropped.

Four squirrels down from one spot.

We sat a few minutes longer, and shortly we heard the tell-tale sound of a squirrel jumping through the leaves. The squirrel ran along the same downed tree as the third squirrel had, but it wasn’t stopping often or long. Time after time Leonard was within a split second of a shot, and the busy squirrel would move. It would have been an easy shot with a load of No. 6s, but a shotgun hardly presents the challenge of hunting with a .22.

Finally the squirrel paused, and Leonard squeezed off a shot — just as the squirrel turned, and the shot missed. The surprised squirrel wasted no time beating a hasty retreat back the way it had come, and two more shots from Leonard’s rifle only made it scurry a little faster.

Leonard and I walked across the ditch to pick up squirrels.

“That last one, every time I would get on him, he would jump out of the scope,” said Leonard. “We walked into the middle of a party of them that time,” he said, grinning like a teenager on his first squirrel hunt.

Leonard pointed out six big, mature hardwoods within 50 yards that all had den-hole cavities in them.

“This is the kind of place you want to find,” he said, pointing out the den-tree holes. “There are a lot of squirrels right here.”

By  noon, the wind was up and we called it a day with five squirrels riding in Leonard’s vest.

“Squirrels don’t like the wind,” said Leonard. “They can’t hear in it, and you can’t hear them, either.”

A good morning will be like a good deer-hunting morning — clear and cold with no wind. Rainy days make for poor squirrel hunting.

“When it is raining, they will just stay in the rack all day,” said Leonard.

Leonard says his whole family hunted squirrels.

“My dad used to hunt and got me interested,” he said. “My mom used to love to squirrel hunt. I just never left it. A lot of hunters get up to hunting deer and leave squirrel hunting, but I still love it — and they are good to eat.”

Leonard says he kills 30 to 40 squirrels in a season, and he has perfected a skinning method that allows him to skin a squirrel quickly.

After cutting the head off, he ties the squirrel’s back legs to two nylon strings attached to two nails driven into a tree, with the squirrel’s belly toward the tree. He then cuts through the base of the squirrel’s tail, but taking care not to cut the tail completely off.

With his knife he then skins the back of the squirrel’s legs down an inch or so, and all the way across the width of the back until he can grip the hide. Then it is simply a matter of pushing the hide downward, peeling both the backside and front shoulders in one pull. The hide will tear across the squirrel’s belly, and about half the hide is removed.

That done, he removes the squirrel from the tree, and holding it belly up in his hand, peels what is left of the fur on the belly toward the tail. It comes off like pulling off socks. But before the hide pulls off the back feet, he hangs the squirrel upside down on the nails by the fur and cuts the squirrel open to removes the innards. Snip off the feet, and you are done.

I watched Leonard complete this process in about four minutes, and it usually goes even faster.

Leonard and his wife enjoy squirrel dinners. Usually to cook pieces of quartered squirrel meat, he covers the parts in salted water and boils them. When they get so tender that the meat is coming off the bone, he takes the parts out of the broth, dusts them in flour and salt and pepper and fries them — but only briefly, because they can quickly become overcooked.

Bits of meat are pulled off other boiled pieces and mixed in the broth that is used to make gravy. The gravy is then poured over hot biscuits and served with fried squirrel on the side.

“It is out of this world,” said Leonard.

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