Small game hunting has severely declined over the decades of my hunting career, and I am part of that decline. When I was a kid, my dad bred beagles, and he, my brothers, and I would go out in the open every Saturday in the fall from the time I was 12 until I was 37. Then Mike, our best beagle: he could jump rabbits. and quickly chase them in a wide circle to our waiting shotguns and also the ringnecks cackling into the bright blue sky to open fire; Unfortunately, he died at the age of seven and Powser gave up breeding dogs.
So, during the 1980s, Billy, Skip, and I went squirrel hunting in the local woods of Mercer and Lawrence County, with some success. We then founded Camp F-Troop in 1986 and discovered “the great place” for ruffed grouse in the 1990s by searching the vast acreage of State Game Lands 86 in Warren County and looking for gaps with several years of regeneration of the foliage. We release 20 or 25 birds a day and kill only a couple a day, but we were amazed by their thunderous volleys and devious flight paths. This was an indigenous and uninhabited game bird worth pursuing. Our state bird.
But today, ruffed grouse populations have declined dramatically due to West Nile virus, habitat issues, and other issues, and many of us have given up hunting grouse altogether. Rabbits have also declined due to habitat problems, and wild pheasants have all but disappeared. So what should an avid small game hunter pursue before and after deer season? Squirrels, that is. Populations of these tasty animals have survived and thrived throughout the state of Pennsylvania, in small private forests, public parks, and State Game Lands where hunting is permitted and encouraged.
Squirrels are in season from October through February (before and after deer seasons) and are abundant wherever hardwood trees grow and produce food. Walnut trees attract them, as do oaks, maples, cherry trees, dogwoods, fruit trees, and many others. They are active in all seasons except the coldest days of winter, and if you hunt them with a single shot .22 rifle, it is good practice for deer season. Camp F-Troop regular Brad Isles led a hunting trip last month for the winter squirrels and had a lot of fun in the woods and in the kitchen. Brad says:
“My reasons for hunting squirrels are twofold: first, I had never eaten squirrels and wanted to try them. Second, he knew I’d be using Billy’s old .22, since he bought it from his widow Sandy some time ago. Knowing the history of the gun at Camp F-Troop and what the camp has meant to me over the last 15 years, it seemed about right. Small game hunting season is late and it gave us a reason to take a camping trip together in what would otherwise be a long, cold February.
“There were only four of us going on the hunt, and we chose Thompson Run Hollow for its good wildlife populations. We walked uphill from the creek through the pine and fir trees and then up the steep incline through the hardwood trees. We didn’t see much, so we changed our plan to a hunt behind the camp, where squirrels abound. I walked along the edge of Game Lands and then settled down to watch the squirrels. After a while, I shot a gray squirrel that was slithering through the felling, but missed. Not long after, I heard chattering about 40 meters up the hill. The squirrel ran and then stopped, and I dropped it.
“I skinned and quartered the squirrel and put the meat in a brine overnight. I chose a recipe Todd had tried last year, which involved making a light breading with salt, pepper, and a little Cajun seasoning, then air-frying the quarters. It turned out well, and I will definitely try again next year.”
DON FEIGERT is the location writer for The Herald and Allied News. His latest book, The F-Troop Camp Chronicles, and his earlier books are available by contacting Don at 724-931-1699 or [email protected]. Explore his website at www.donfeigert.com Or visit Leanna’s Books at the Shenango Valley Mall.