Swamp Squirrels Are Thick On Southern WMAs
The author provides tactics for February squirrels, while sharing how squirrel hunting molded his life.
Darkness was approaching fast. With 30 minutes of light, I had to make a change. I only killed one of the two squirrels I’d seen during an evening stalk on an Altamaha River water oak flat. With no wind, temperature near 50, and a cold windy front the next day, squirrel activity should have been high. I realized then where I needed to be. I’d gotten rusty from not squirrel hunting lately, chasing deer instead. The area was lacking den trees or thicker trees with lots of visible nests. There were too much openness and too many naked trees around.
I needed to find a den area. I hurried back toward the river, dropping off into a small finger slough. Sloughs will be filled with older trees such as tupelos and cypresses, which tend to have more hollows and holes.
I soon spotted a frantic squirrel scampering up the drooping limb of an old tupelo centered in the bottom of the dry slough. The main trunk and some large limbs had several holes, so maybe that was the ticket. Where there’s one squirrel holing up, there’s usually more.
Knowing I’d been spotted and needed to set up quickly, I circled around the presumed den tree, staying about 40 yards out. Fully camouflaged in a leafy suit and face mask, I glided non-stop to a tree I saw ahead. When you are detected, squirrels will run off or hide but may return sooner if you ease on in a nonchalant manner rather than when in predator mode.
Three minutes after setting up, the gray fur ball popped back out. Apparently he sensed there was no danger from the passing leafy blob and was just lingering on the back of the trunk. PAAP!
A minute later, from my periphery, I caught a blur heading to the den tree. Spring-boarding from a whippy cypress limb, he landed on a fat horizontal limb of the den tree, his runway which led straight to a dark hole where he would be safe for another acorn-digging day. Following him with the 3×9, I hoped he would take a pause between the spurts of speed. You can’t quick-draw from your lap; their pause is for catching movement. PAAP!
Five minutes later another squirrel appeared from behind the main trunk. There must have been a hole on the backside. PAAP!
Ten minutes later I saw movement in the grass along the slough’s rim 40 yards away — one digging up his stash. Taking a good prop, PAAP! The squirrel raised up looking around. A clean miss! Re-PAAP! That did it.
With one bullet left, I took one more quick scan. I caught another one coming down from a pin oak, heading home for the night. Deep breath, release it, squeeze, 50 yards of 40 grain CCI plummeted squirrel No. 6 among a nest of cypress knees.
Den areas can save the day, since the squirrels still around are survivors and will stay close to the retreats that have kept them safe all season. Also, they will not venture out as far during the colder and windier late season. Really windy days are your enemy. It’s best to stay at home those days and jump on any opportunity, morning or evening, when the wind lays.
The best strategy once you find a den area is to be set up on their front porch before dawn. Don’t shoot the first one that pops out. Let at least two or three get out. Once they’re all busy doing their thing, start by taking out the one nearest the hole. Don’t pick up any until you’re ready to leave, so mentally mark where they fall. Let everything get quiet again, giving the area a few more minutes for late-risers. After the action lulls, I’ll stalk the rest of the morning, trying to keep hollows and thicker areas of vine-laden trees with visible nests in my path.
As you progress, keep your eyes ahead on the forest floor as this is where the majority of feeding will take place. All their food has fallen or been buried, either by them or fallen leaves. When scanning the trees, I look for movement first. Then, I dissect each tree following the main trunk, checking the juncture of each limb, a favorite sitting and eating spot. Follow the bigger limbs out, especially on cold, sunny days, where they’ll be soaking up the warming rays. Pay special attention to possible den trees sporting hollows, or knotholes, and feed trees with a lot of nut crumbs under them.
Other than looking for the whole squirrel, look for parts, such as the head, tail or legs. Many times I have caught the cap of its head or its ears creating two small bumps along a slick limb. Focus on any brown or gray blurs in a wad of limbs or vines.
Hunt with a buddy a good distance away, so you can catch squirrels that’ll ratchet around to the opposite side of the tree. If you suspect a squirrel doing this when you’re solo, throw a limb to the opposite side. Hunt one squirrel at a time, each its own hunt and trophy.
Squrriel hunting is tougher now than in August, but it can still be an enjoyable and relaxing time because you’re not out competing or creating jealousy because your squirrel is bigger than mine.
Chasing small game is what made me the hunter I am today. This is where you need to start kids out today. Some kid’s memories of early hunting with Dad may only be that of sitting in a cold deer stand after a long scary walk in the deep dark woods an hour before daylight. Too much intensity and pressure can be placed on kids, causing many to get burned out. There’s a lot of factors decreasing hunter recruitment. Let’s not be one by advancing them straight to deer stands and not giving them a taste of small-game hunting.
What really catapulted me into hunting was that I had an uncle who took the time. He just doesn’t know how important and precious those outdoor memories were and still are. I remember my first bona-fide squirrel hunt to the river. There was only one squirrel shot that evening, and I miraculously hit on the run with his .22 rifle. I was so proud of that trophy, as if it had been a 10-point buck. It’s just as vivid today as it was in my lap on the drive back home that evening.
My uncle and I spent less than a couple dozen trips together in those early years, but it was enough to instill some important knowledge I learned to expand upon later, through hundreds of my own adventures. Most importantly, the ignition of a yearning in my soul that always needs to be quenched. His unselfish time ensured the gift of an outdoor heritage and the chance for another to pass it on. He also created a monster, lol! Thank you, Uncle James!
Small game taught me patience, sitting still as a rock with my back up against a large live oak intently waiting for the squirrel on the backside of a high limb to appear, other than the tip of its tail sticking out. Or, waiting by a hollow cypress for the first feeders of the evening to emerge. It taught me woodsmanship. I learned how to get in and out of the woods, remembering landmarks and paying attention to my surroundings, ultimately going deeper each trip, as there were always greener pastures. It taught me how to pick out game in thick cover, staring upward in the thick foliage, following raining hickory crumbs or tupelo berry bits back to their origin with No. 6s.
It taught me how to clean and care for my own game. Small targets taught me marksmanship and to make that first shot count knowing a fleeing or wounded squirrel would burn more hard-to-get ammo. I learned pride, knowing I provided delicious table fare from God’s own replenishing bounty in nature. It created a love for the outdoors and everything it had to offer, learning from each trip. This is what small game means to me.
Solomon’s WMA Squirrel Picks
Need somewhere to hunt? No problem. I hunt public land, and my favorite places are along the Altamaha River corridor. From Hazlehurst to Darien there are nine WMAs encompassing 96,000 acres with an endless supply of great small-game habitat. I’ve been hunting WMAs on the fly for 28 years. Here are some favorite picks and routes if an area is new to you. Pull up in the dark, and be prepared at dawn. A starting point will surely help if you have limited time.
Obtain a topo map off <www.gohuntgeorgia.com> to aid you for the below listings. Don’t forget your compass or GPS. The regs booklet will give you directions to the areas.
Altamaha: On the Buffalo Swamp Tract, a quarter mile down the main road you will cross a swamp with large gravel in the road. Park at the next access trail to the right, which will end at a food plot. Go out the back heading south across the swamp. You’ll come across a water oak ridge which angles toward the boundary. Come back across the swamp northwest until you hit where the live oak sand ridges meet the swamp. Follow the perimeter back to where you entered.
Big Hammock: Hunt along Upper Outside Road. Park at the first access path to the left. Head north out the back of a prehistoric DNR food plot, entering into Mud Swamp. Hunt north until you come to the Natural Area, which should be good because it just opened Jan. 16, being closed the entire deer season. Weave back and forth from the live oak ridges and the water oaks bordering the swamp.
Bullard Creek: The Ocmulgee Tract is a deer archery-only tract at the west end of the WMA that opens only for small game after deer season. There should be more and less pressured squirrels here as no firearms were allowed before Jan. 15. The entire river swamp north of the gas line is squirrel paradise.
Clayhole Swamp: Park at the end of Lemmond Road on the northwest corner. Take the left fork, hunting along Clayhole Creek until you get where the north end of the road parallels the river. Hunt the strip between the road and river. It’s a long walk but easy access.
Griffin Ridge: Follow Low Road until you arrive at a right 90-degree turn 1/2 mile from the boundary. Hunt west for a 1/4 mile, and then veer northwest hitting all the big sloughs. The more sloughs with water you can cross or get around the better.
Coming in by boat from Jaycee’s Landing, hitting the upper half is another good option because of the water barriers people won’t cross coming from the road side. The sweet spot between the interior sloughs and the river is where you’ll find uneducated squirrels.
Penholoway Swamp: On the north end of Hinson Road, the road’s end will drop right off into a deep slough. Work your way around any water and head northwest, ultimately arriving a mile away at the tip of a peninsula created by the winding river. You are very apt to limit out where you started. This is a beautiful ancient swamp full of huge trees that create some awesome scenery.
Sansavilla: Follow Howard Road, which will turn into dirt. Past Canal Road, the main road will make a hard left. Keep going straight onto a small road that’ll end in 100 yards. Hunt slightly northeast until you hit the river. Stay near the river working downstream a half mile before circling back. This route will offer you a full menu of what Sansavilla has to offer.
Note: All areas have good habitat at the starting point, and those places may be enough for a good hunt. I usually work the spot-and-stalk pattern, identifying den trees along the way. I’ll mark them with my GPS and return that evening or before dawn on a fresh morning. Squirrel populations tend to cycle so when a certain WMA is hot, hunt it hard.
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