In Missouri, hunters may pursue two species of tree squirrels — fox squirrels, called “red squirrels” by many, and eastern gray squirrels. Fox squirrels are the larger of the two species. They tend to be found near the edges of timber stands, in isolated woodlots and open woods without much understory, along timbered ridges and uplands, and even in hedgerows. Grays are more likely to occur in extensive tracts of forest and bottomlands, but it’s not unusual to find both species using the same area.
Few game species are as widespread and underused across Missouri as squirrels. Several decades ago, squirrel hunting was very popular, but today it’s common to have the woods to yourself. Squirrel hunting is a great introduction to hunting for young hunters. No specialized gear is needed, opportunities are frequent, and stealth and silence are not as critical as for deer or turkey hunting. Hunting squirrels is a great sport for seasoned hunters too. It hones observation skills and marksmanship, and it offers a chance to scout for other game such as deer or turkey. And, of course, a successful hunt results in some wonderful table fare.
Gray squirrels are early risers and become active at sunrise, while fox squirrels tend to come out later in the morning and are active during mid-day. The activity of both species slows considerably in the mid-day hours on hot, humid summer days.
Hunters new to squirrel hunting should remember to move slowly through the woods, scanning the treetops for movement, and listening for the sounds of bushytails jumping from limb to limb or cutting and dropping nut hulls. Upon finding a lot of fresh cuttings on the ground, find a comfortable spot nearby and sit down awhile — you’ll usually have a shot or two shortly.
Lands are rarely managed specifically for squirrels, but some common management practices can be of benefit. Forest stand improvement (FSI) involves the removal of inferior or surplus trees to thin a stand and allow the remaining trees to experience better health and growth. An added bonus of FSI is that mast (acorns, nuts, or other fruiting bodies) production often increases, too, providing abundant food resources. Squirrels often nest in cavities and hollow trees, so some of these should be retained on your property. Squirrels will readily use nest boxes as well. Learn more in All About Squirrel Dens below.
Below are suggested areas that offer squirrel hunting opportunities. For more detailed information about an area, visit the Department’s Conservation Area Atlas.
Missouri’s squirrel season is long, running from late spring through late winter. Squirrel behavior and activity change throughout the year as they respond to differences in weather and food availability. For example, mid-day activity will often be different in winter than in summer, as squirrels forage or rest according to temperature. Likewise, a mulberry tree full of fruit could be a hotspot in June, but by October squirrels will be feeding on nuts and acorns. Be observant and adapt your hunting according to what the squirrels are doing or eating. Here are some common squirrel foods:
Gray and fox squirrels use both leaf nests and den cavities. Cavity nests are most often in the hollow trunk or large limb of a live tree, but squirrels will also use cavities in dead snags. Cavity nests are used more in the winter and during the spring reproductive period. These locations are warmer, more sheltered from weather and predators, and help keep the young protected. Leaf nests tend to receive more use in summer, perhaps because they’re cooler than den nests. Hunters should not shoot into leaf nests, and should avoid shooting squirrels peeking out of cavities where they are unlikely to be recovered.