Twenty years ago, Minnesota’s nearly four-month long deer archery season was shorter: It closed on November 30, a full month earlier than current seasons.
There are times when I look forward to that closing date because, back in those days, when the archery gear was put away, the small game hunting gear would spring into action chasing squirrels and cottontail rabbits. Squirrel and rabbit season spans even longer than bowhunting. This season started on September 14 and continues until February 29.
My primary focus was hunting squirrels and rabbits with an accurate, nearsighted, proficiency-grade .22 caliber Remington semi-automatic rifle. Less safe than a shotgun, the .22 was much quieter and added to the challenge, as accurate shots were required to bring down tiny tree-dwelling prey and cottontail rabbits hiding in thick undergrowth. .
My usual hunting tactic was to sneak into the squirrel-filled oak forests in the pre-dawn darkness and wait for the animals to emerge from tree burrows to feed. When the forest floor was wet, I would give up sitting and carefully sneak through a forest, constantly looking for squirrel and rabbit activity.
After harvesting a limit of squirrels, I’d turn my eyes to the rabbits as we plied the edges of weedy fields and carefully scanned the burrows of the weed piles. Many times a rabbit will freeze in that type of heavy covering, and the only thing that will give it away is its large dark eyes.
While eastern gray squirrels make up the bulk of Minnesota’s squirrel harvest, extra-large fox squirrels are a favorite of most southern Minnesota farm hunters. Fox squirrels prefer to inhabit forests directly adjacent to grain fields, most often cornfields where they can carry whole ears of corn to a tree for consumption. Not to be confused with the much smaller red squirrels, these aptly named red-orange squirrels are much larger than the gray ones, which aren’t always gray, by the way.
In the Mankato area, black phase gray squirrels are becoming more prevalent. Twenty years ago, seeing a black phase squirrel was rare. Now dark squirrels are common. I am sure that this phase of black coloration is cyclical and, perhaps, in one or two decades, they will not be so numerous. In other words, this may be the best time in years for hunters looking to add a stylish black squirrel to their bags or trophy room.
Although smaller and more numerous red squirrels abound throughout the state, fox and eastern gray squirrels are the most popular targets for small gamers. Hunters can take seven grays or foxes combined per day in Minnesota. There is no limit for red squirrels in the DNR manual, which means hunters know that it is an unprotected animal.
Although reds are small, many hunters, especially those hunting in northern Minnesota, still reap thousands per year. Some of these harvests may come from revenge, as these vociferous and fearless squirrels will not hesitate to ruin the hunter’s chances when they bark their seemingly endless cries of alarm, often only a few feet from their hunting victim. Any hunter who has had to put up with this incessant chatter while waiting at a deer stand has made plans to go back and turn the little beasts into a meal.
Clearly, bravery like that is not a good defense against a hunter. Even when the hunter carries a longbow.
Many years ago a friend and I paddled deep into the BWCA wilderness for a week of survival camping during a cool week in October. Since we were staying in the national forest section and not in the park area, we were free to hunt whatever game we had licenses for.
High on our shopping list were red squirrels and grouse. They were vitally important as we packed only a few staples, no meals, and relied on our archery to secure food. The calories extracted from the squirrels and grouse were welcome because we had no tents or sleeping bags. Wool hunter blankets and pine bough sheds provided our primitive shelters.
Our arrows had blunt tips and large feathers, which is known as flu-flu, which helps slow down the arrows for easier recovery after shooting animals that are in the trees. Despite not targeting glamorous species like deer, bear, or elk, the hunt turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever been on. We feasted on pike plucked from the cold river water, and red squirrels were everywhere, providing us with a constant supply of squirrel stew.
The Red Stew, as we called it, was an excellent side dish when we were lucky enough to be grilling grouse. Like Pavlov’s dog, after a few days of hunting, he began to salivate at any appearance of a squirrel.
Squirrel and rabbit hunting is becoming a lost art. Their popularity has waned in favor of more flashy game animals, which can be good news for new small gamers. While public hunting lands can sometimes be encroached on by deer and pheasant hunters, many times squirrel and rabbit hunters will find themselves alone on these same properties. And, unlike other games, they are usually abundant.
Hunters don’t need to go to extremes of survival to secure a bag of squirrels or rabbits. All it takes is an inexpensive small game hunting license, an accurate .22 rifle, a little patience and an appetite for small game hunting fun.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoor writer and photographer for over 20 years. The Mankato resident since 1979 can be reached at email@example.com.