Your first kiss, your first car and your first dog are things you don’t forget. Although it is rumored that I may not remember some things as well as I used to, there is one thing that I will never forget.
My first squirrel.
I would have been about 8 or 9 years old and would be carrying my trusty Winchester .410 Model 37 shotgun (wow, I wish I still had that gun). We were on a late afternoon squirrel hunt close to home and as clear as day I can remember a gray squirrel running on a broken branch right above my head. The range was short, and as I look back my dad must have thought this was a perfect opportunity to catch my first squirrel with the little .410. I can see the shot, the squirrel falling and very jubilant, but after that the fog of time takes over and I lose the scene.
Not too long ago, most of the youngsters east of Big Muddy began hunting small game, and often that meant squirrels. They were relatively easy to find and were a very popular game animal. Most of us at Appalachian Chipmunk hunt like a crazed ferret, we take it seriously. We still have people hunting squirrels today, but nothing like the numbers we used to have. Why is that? Well, I’m going to tell you.
Deer and turkey populations have increased in most areas that your grandfather would not have thought possible. Fifty years ago, in much of the southeast, a deer was a rarity and much the same for turkeys, too. As these animals increased, hunters quickly turned their attention to these larger offerings and paid less attention to smaller game such as rabbits and squirrels.
In short, in the past we hunted small animals because we had many more of these creatures than deer and turkey. This, plus a 150-pound buck with an 8-point rack, or a large turkey strutting around with a 10-inch beard, draws more attention than a 2-pound squirrel. It’s just human nature. It is somewhat remarkable to me that we now have youngsters who have never hunted squirrels, but have hunted deer and turkey in their short hunting time.
There is another reason why I mention this in lamenting the fact that our number of squirrel hunters is very low. Squirrel hunting is a great way to learn the basics of hunting. A good population of squirrels will offer opportunities to learn stealth, stalking techniques, how to find play cues such as cutting when squirrels feed, and simply learning basic skills like patience and sitting quietly. Anyone who has started squirrel hunting will be a better deer and turkey hunter than those who haven’t. Whether you’re starting out as a youngster or introducing an adult to hunting, squirrels are the way to go.
Squirrel season in most states typically begins in early fall (West Virginia is September 8, Georgia August 15, Pennsylvania October 13, Tennessee August 26) and stays open late, often until the end of February. . This gives us many days of hunting opportunities in varied conditions, from warm September days with dense foliage to bare woods in January and February when it can get a little chilly.
Firearm options for squirrel hunting are usually simple: use the .22 rifle or shotgun of your choice. Hunting with the .22 rifle early in the season requires a lot of patience and skill; squirrels are hard to see in the thick foliage and this is where we practice our stalking skills and learn to be patient when waiting for an open shot. For ammo options, I’m a fan of solid .22 bullets, not hollow points, and low brass shot shells for the shotgun might work just fine. If you have a lightweight 20 gauge that you can carry, leave the 12 gauge at home.
As always, we are reminded to be more confident and positively identify our goal and what lies beyond it. Wearing a bright orange color isn’t a requirement for hunting squirrels in most states, but it’s always a good idea. The more another hunter can see you, the better, and wearing a bright orange vest won’t hinder you one bit with squirrels.
Those who have never hunted squirrels may look at them oddly when it comes to cooking and eating squirrels, but it has always been my favorite wild game. You can use just about any recipe you can use for chicken or any minor game, but for me there is only one way to cook a squirrel, and that is deep frying. After carefully cleaning and cutting the squirrel into pieces (front legs, hind legs, and rear end), par-boil the pieces or pressure cook them to ensure they are tender. The pieces are then rolled in your favorite seasoned flour and fried until golden brown; usually the sauce is made in the pan after removing the squirrel parts. I know I’m partial to this method because that’s how my mom fixed them (those were the days). Many squirrel hunters of yesteryear will say that there is only one way to serve squirrel and that is with crackers and gravy. This may be true. If you haven’t tried it (and I feel sorry for you if you haven’t), you’ll have to find out for yourself!
Whether you’ve never been squirrel hunting or haven’t in a long time, you must go. Take a child with you or an adult interested in hunting and rediscover the thrill of stalking a barking squirrel through a hickory ridge on a calm fall morning.