By Aaron Farley:

Our small game season opens a full month before archery deer season. Personally, I love this time. The woods are still full and green, and a guy can really sneak around without making a huge commotion. I find that most of my friends who hunt deer do not take advantage of small game. I, on the other hand, plan to be slipping across a distant ridge come opening weekend of our furbearer season.

Maybe you haven’t tasted a good Rabbit Hasenpfeffer or haven’t developed a palate for Squirrel Stew. Even if you prefer your wild game to be of the larger-than-house-pets variety, there are still many good reasons to get out during small game season. Here are a few reasons I look forward to our, pre-deer, small game season…

Squirrels eat deer food

Chances are, if I can find the big oaks where the squirrels like to eat, deer are not far away. As the deer season opens and summer mast is dwindling, these oaks and acorns that gather squirrels will become deer feeding zones.

Two years ago, I was walking some property where I gained permission to hunt. As I topped a ridge, I saw at least a dozen squirrels hopping around the next bottom. This small bottom was covered with acorns and the squirrels were having a feast. Figuring that deer were not far, I scouted around the adjoining area and was able to locate two heavy deer trails. Later in the year, sitting on one of these trails I was able to kill my second largest buck to date. Squirrel density is a great way of identifying food sources, use this pre-deer season scouting time to your advantage.

Hunting with family & friends

I get asked every year by acquaintances to take them hunting. Little Billy says he wants to go hunting, will you take him? I’m sure you get the same thing. Since I started hunting later in life, and have committed to help anyone I can, I always try to accommodate. The best way I’ve found to introduce newcomers into hunting is through small game.

Squirrel hunting involves a lot of walking. We can hop from ridge to ridge, sit for a while and then move. When it comes time to shoot, the .22lr is not loud and has no re-coil. Squirrel and rabbit hunting is a simple, inexpensive, and active way to introduce family and friends to hunting. Jumping directly into deer hunting may expect too much of new hunters. The long hours and dedication can be exhausting for a first-timer. Rather than give them a bad taste from the experience, I prefer the fun and camaraderie of walking around for squirrels as a first-exposure. Usually, they do as well.

Practice stalking makes for better hunting

Squirrels are the natural danger alarm of the woods. How many times have you stood up to move or leaned around a tree for a view, and were met with the scalding barks of a tree-sheriff?  They are annoying and can foil otherwise excellent stalks. Spending time watching and hunting squirrels accomplishes two things for me. First, it allows me to see their general habits. When they bark, they usually hang off the side of the tree. If I can slip to the other side, and be very still, they will usually calm down. Second, I learn how much general interruption they can stand. A little movement will cause them to alert. A lot of movement will cause them to hide. In a pinch, I can throw a stick at them to cause them to simply hide.

If I can sneak around the woods without alerting squirrels, I will be that much closer to stalking in on a big mature whitetail in his bedding area.

Immediate results, easy clean up

One of the hardest things about deer hunting is the work involved after the shot. If we’re taking care of our own harvest, it’s a lot of work. Hunting and killing the deer is the easy part. It’s the hours of gutting, cutting, prepping, packaging, and cleaning that can wear me out. With small game like squirrels and rabbits, I can usually have one prepared for cooking quickly. I use a skinning method I learned from Steven Rinella. It makes quick work of the gutting and cleaning process, about as much time as it takes to filet a fish.

This quick clean gives an immediate gratification. I can hunt in the morning, clean the animals in a few minutes, and get on with my afternoon. Knowing I can take care of everything so swiftly helps push me out the door to the woods on those mornings when I know I have something to do in the afternoon. Quick hunts are better than not hunting every time.

Pushing limits

If anything has helped me along the way to becoming a better hunter, it has been pushing limits. I see stuff like this video of Tim Wells shooting doves with his bow and I realize how few of my limits I actually push. Edging out of my comfort zone always makes me better, hunting is no exception. For many, that could be something as simple as shooting a squirrel and eating it. Maybe it’s trying to shoot a rabbit from 50 yards with an arrow. Maybe it’s following trails to dens and burrows.

I can push my limits with small game and the stakes are much lower than with deer. If a squirrel runs away, never to be seen again, I have not lost much. This gives me confidence and courage to push the limits of my hunting skills without risking it on a large whitetail. Small game hunting could be considered the farm league of deer hunting? More time hunting anything will make me a better hunter of everything. Pushing my limits with small game will extend my effectiveness with big game. It’s all connected.

Do you normally hunt small game, or big game only? Why not? Who can you introduce to hunting this year with a squirrel hunt? What method have you wanted to try that could also be used on small game? Lets make the most of every opportunity we have this year – bushy tails beware!

– Aaron Farley,