Snow depths have not left devoted squirrel hunters up a tree this season.
Chuck Godfrey of Cheektowaga, better known in outdoors circles as president of the WNY Chapter of Trout Unlimited, takes every chance possible to get into a good squirrel woods from opening day (Sept. 1) until the season ends Feb. 28.
Godfrey, a mild-speaking math teacher at Williamsville South, gets excited about opening day each September, which allows just a day or two before classes and his coaching duties take up precious squirrel hunting time.
"Most hunters wait until leaves begin dropping before getting out for squirrels," he said, "but an early September hunt can be relaxing and rewarding. Foliage can be a problem, but patience pays off here. I'll sometimes spend 20 to 25 minutes under one likely tree with heavy leaf growth at the start of the season."
This early squirrel season opener, switched from Oct. 1 to Sept. 1 six years ago, met with some opposition from animal rights advocates. Their reasoning was that late squirrel litters might still be in lactating stages in early September. Department of Environmental Conservation biologists, however, confirmed that young-of-the-year squirrels are self-sufficient by Sept. 1.
Godfrey first became serious about squirrel hunting while serving in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Fort Meade in Maryland. There he met and began hunting with Don Bailey from West Virginia on base property open to squirrel hunting.
"Bailey showed me location techniques (mainly around oaks in Maryland) and the necessity of getting into the woods early mornings," Godfrey said.
He believes Bailey and other good squirrel hunters and shooters develop their skills more from hours spent hunting than on the shooting range.
Godfrey goes out mainly with a shotgun in early fall when leaves are heavy. Then, he uses a .22 caliber rifle almost exclusively in winter when the foliage is gone.
"Each year I seem to use the .22 more and the shotgun less," he said. "The shotgun gets me more game but the .22 is more fun -- and there's less shot to pick out of (the) meat when the squirrel is hit with a good head shot."
While hunting with a .22, Godfrey avoids tree-top shots unless they're directly overhead.
"The .22 caliber has a range of at least a mile, and I don't want to create a problem with errant shots," he said. He prefers hollow-point bullets, which expand and do not travel as far as smooth-point bullets.
Recently, the holiday vacation was good around hickory and oaks mainly in northwest Allegany County, where Godfrey likes to hunt. He pointed out that in winter, squirrels get active during a warming trend, not necessarily above freezing. Like rabbits, squirrels will come out to forage when temperatures are in the low 20s and winds are mild.
He has seen a drop in oaks and hickory nut crop this fall, which can scatter squirrels to different feed sources. When pressured, gray squirrels will head into pines where red squirrels usually dominate.
"Right now, I look for pines and work edges where snow isn't deep," he says, "and I can usually find gray squirrel activity there." For winter camouflage, he simply wears white outer wear similar to winter goose garb.
His favorite recipe for squirrel preparation is basic: "We simply fry them up with garlic and onions and everyone in my family enjoys them." He averages 20 to 30 squirrels a season, and nothing is wasted. He saves the tails for fly tiers.
"Even a few hides can be used in some nymph patterns, although they're not as popular as rabbit fur used for steelhead flies," he said.
Heavy snows may blanket spirits of many small game hunters, but the savvy squirrel seekers such as Godfrey know every jump in midwinter temperatures spells possible successes on gray squirrels and their genetic cousins, black squirrels.