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Orion, the celestial hunter, rises low in the east this brisk October morning. He is absent from spring and summer morning skies, but shows himself again when the season of the hunt draws near. He's my spiritual guide as I head into the fields each autumn seeking the animals that will provide meat for the coming year. Most people can spot the three stars that form his belt. Off to the south, an arc of stars forms Orion's bow. He used simple equipment compared to the tube-fed, lever-action Marlin, the bolt-action Remington .410, the boxes of #6 shot and the .22-long bullets I load into the trunk.
This morning, I'm readying myself for a special hunt. My companions, nephew Keith (age 13) and niece Carissa (16) will accompany me into the wooded hill country in Buffalo County. Both are hunter education graduates and both are relatively new to hunting. Keith shot his first squirrel last year, and his folks sent it to the taxidermist. He's very proud of that mount. Carissa and I tried our hand at hunting squirrels two years ago in the woods along the Mississippi backwaters. It was a cold, frosty morning. The swamp white oak woods, normally filled with squirrels, were disappointingly silent. But we enjoyed our autumn hike anyway. Today, we've come to hunt down dinner and enjoy watching squirrels.
Wisconsin is home to a number of tree-dwelling squirrels. The small, feisty red squirrel, (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is out during the day, generally in the northern pinewoods. Locals often refer to it as a pine squirrel. It's a little larger than a chipmunk, has a reddish-brown back with a light tan to white belly.
At night, flying squirrels swoop by to visit our feeders. Two distinct species call our state home – the northern (Glaucomys sabrinus) is a bit bigger (10-12 inches) and the southern variety (G. volans) is between red squirrel and chipmunk size. Here in Buffalo County, we might see either one. When dusk fades to night, I enjoy sitting outside in mid-summer to see them glide silently and swiftly into the feeders from higher tree limbs and hearing the quiet chip, chip, chip as they bite apart sunflower seeds.
But these species are strictly "looking" squirrels, because all three are too small to be hunted.
For table fare, most hunters select either fox or gray squirrels. The Eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) has a rusty orange-tinged coat with a light yellow ochre to buff-colored belly. The Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) has a dawn-gray back with a white underbelly, and a white eye ring. In my woods, the much-larger fox squirrel is not as common as the gray; I may spot one for every 20 or 30 gray squirrels I see.
Their genus name, Sciurus, is Latin for "one who wears his tail above his head." Red and fox squirrels have beautiful bushy plumes for tails that they use for balance, as blankets to keep warm in winter dens, and as umbrellas during light spring showers. Gray squirrels have white-tipped guard hairs on their tails, while fox squirrels have rusty red-tipped guard hairs.
Fall and winter whereabouts
Squirrels nest in basketball-sized leafy nests (called dreys) in treetops and in tree cavities. Look for an entrance where wood is freshly chewed to keep back the growing bark. Also check the ground for squirrel sign – empty black walnut shells with two holes chewed in them, corn kernels in which only the germ end has been gnawed off, half-inch-long, dark pellet-like scat, and tracks. In winter, the novice wildlife watcher may have difficulty distinguishing squirrel tracks from rabbit tracks. The smaller front paws of a squirrel track are in parallel alignment, whereas a rabbit's front paws are usually skewed at an angle. Also, the rabbit's hind feet are larger than the hind feet of a squirrel. Finally, if the track begins or ends at a tree, it's a dead give away that they belong to the tree-dwelling squirrel.
The more common gray squirrel weighs a little over a pound, while the fox squirrel is about 2-2 1/2 times heavier. Being smaller, the gray squirrel often winters in live or dead tree dens. The fox squirrel seems more at home in open farmland woods; the gray prefers the cover of thick oak and hickory woods. Most reference books claim the gray is more adept at tree climbing, while the fox squirrel spends more time on the ground. A fox squirrel often feeds in cornfields adjacent to open woods where trees are far apart. If caught in the field, fox squirrels escape by scurrying along the ground. Grays tend to move high in the treetops, leaping acrobatically from one branch to the other.
Ease into hunting
Squirrel hunts are great ways to introduce kids to hunting. Too many times I've heard old-timers lament that kids today go directly from hunter education classes to deer hunting. They don't get the same sense of privilege as if they had slowly worked up from starting on small game hunts that provide time to learn the ins and outs of game hunting – reading signs, learning to be a careful observer, learning to listen, making hunting judgments, and above all, gun safety. After "education by observation," kids started hunting with a single-shot .22 rifle, or maybe a .410 shotgun, and would hunt squirrels and rabbits for several years before they were allowed to tag along to deer camp. Over time, they learned a sense of reverence for the animals they hunted. They learned deer hunting required skills and judgment that they had to "work up to."
You can start instilling that sense of reverence for game by taking your hunter education graduate along on squirrel hunts. Unlike deer hunting, where you have to wear special clothing and keep talking to a minimum, squirrel hunting is a lot like a stroll through the woods. No special togs required – a pair of blue jeans and any color of shirt, jacket and hat will do.
Gray and fox squirrels are active daytime creatures, though gray squirrels come out at dawn and fox squirrels later in the morning. They appear accustomed to people walking on trails through the woods. So as you and your child or young friend walk along on the squirrel hunt, you can talk as usual and continually review the important rules of gun safety: Treat every gun as if it were loaded. Always point the muzzle in a safe direction. Know your target and what's beyond. Keep your finger on the safety and out of the trigger guard until ready to fire. Especially watch where your child is pointing the firearm muzzle. Periodically remind him/her to keep the muzzle pointed up, down or in another safe direction. Ask them if the safety is on.
As for hunting techniques, they aren't complicated. You could read a lot of "how-to" articles that tell you to dress in special camouflage clothes, wear scent-stopping chemicals and use game calls to bring the quarry in, but life as a rural squirrel hunter is much simpler. I dress only for weather and water, and I don't bother about concealing myself from squirrels.
I recently queried our neighbor lady (age 80+) who still shoots raccoons on her farm about her favorite method of squirrel hunting. "Oh, nothing special," she replied. "I just followed the dog."
When I squirrel hunt, I take along my dog, too. Webster is just a mutt with some German shorthair in him, but he's sharp as a tack and loves squirrel and rabbit hunting. In fact, he's caught a number of both without my firing a single shot! On that first squirrel hunt with Carissa, we didn't see a single squirrel, but Webster caught her a rabbit that she proudly took home and had her mom cook that night. He caught a fox squirrel this fall that darn near jumped down on top of me. My dog is fast, and he's handy at locating squirrels I would otherwise walk by.
I can't say he's helpful in retrieving the squirrel to my hand. Plenty of times, I've had to snake my way into a tangled, prickly thicket to retrieve the squirrel from him – right under his smiling, proud nose and wagging tail. But he does draw the squirrel's attention so I can maneuver into position for a killing shot. A hunter can still enjoy plenty of success hunting squirrels alone. The dog just makes it more fun.
If you don't have a canine hunting partner, try the following techniques. In October, bushytails are busy making their winter nests and stashing nut caches. At peak nut time during hunting season, find a place in the woods with lots of oaks or hickories. Sit down by a large nut tree, prop yourself against it and wait. After about 10 or 15 minutes of quiet, the squirrels will resume normal activity. Watch for one coming out on a nearby limb about 10 or 15 yards away – certainly no farther than 25 yards. Raise your gun slowly to your shoulder, be sure no branches are in the way, wait for the squirrel to stop moving, and aim for a clear shot at the squirrel's head.
Start young hunters out with firearms equipped with open iron sights. A scope can be problematic; the inexperienced hunter may have a difficult time waving about the firearm trying to find the sight picture in the scope. Once you have the bead on the squirrel's head, gently squeeze the trigger. Never take chances shooting at squirrels running in the treetops. It is important to teach respect for the fellow creatures we hunt. When the cold winds of November and the colder snows of December descend, you can practice this same sequence, but you will need to locate a den tree, rather than a nut tree.
Sitting and waiting for squirrels to become active definitely teaches children patience. It's a stark contrast to fast-paced TV shows and commercials that interrupt their attention every few minutes. On the other hand, squirrel hunting doesn't require as much patience as deer hunting, so it's a good way to help your young hunter learn the skills of sitting quietly and waiting. Definitely get him or her out squirrel hunting several times before going out to a deer or turkey stand!
If you hear a squirrel "barking" somewhere in the woods, you can try your hand at still hunting – quiet, slooooooww stalking. Place your foot carefully with each step until you see the squirrel and are within shooting range (30-75 feet). One problem in hunting without a dog is that a squirrel has infuriating ways of avoiding you. A squirrel will work hard to keep the tree between you and it. If you run into that dilemma, try picking up a branch or chunk of dead wood and toss it to the other side of the tree. If the squirrel is young and inexperienced, it just may come to your side of the tree, thinking that you (or some other predator) are now on the other side. That's your chance. By the way, squirrels also evolved some additional help. Squirrels have yellow filters in the lenses of their eyes that reduces glare and allows them to see well in low-light conditions.
While squirrel season opens in mid-September (Saturday the 13th this year), I prefer to wait until mid to late October. First, in September, the leaves are still clinging to the trees making it much more difficult to locate squirrels than after leaf drop. Second, September weather is still hot and the woods are filled with mosquitoes. I prefer to hunt on sunny days when there is a slight coolness in the air. Third, I'm concerned about meat spoilage, so I feel much safer choosing the later, cooler months. Then, too, I'm sensitive to the fact that late-nesting or second-nesting squirrels with young may still be in the trees if I hunt earlier. I'm not that hungry.
I encourage young hunting partners to use a solid tree trunk or branch for support. I coach right-handed shooters to lean their left, gun-holding forearm firmly against the tree while aiming at the squirrel. I prefer shooting a .22 caliber rifle because a single, well-placed shot to the squirrel's head means the meat will be undamaged. For a young hunter, a small shotgun, like a .410 or a youth model 20-gauge, may be easier and more rewarding – but shot-gunners have to watch for lead or steel pellets in the meat when they sit down to a squirrel dinner.
I'm rather proud that my husband Kenny, a highly skilled outdoorsman and my own hunting mentor, calls me a "crack shot" with off-hand shooting. He's amazed that I can balance myself, stand still enough to steady my shot without a supporting tree, and drop squirrels to the ground. I'm not as good at duck hunting. It's definitely harder to shoot a moving target than a still one. That's another reason to start young hunters with squirrel hunting.
Field dressing tips
Your aim in field dressing squirrels is to keep the meat clean and hair-free while getting the carcasses quickly skinned and cooled to dissipate heat. Squirrels are easier to clean when they are slightly warm and the skin is still supple; prompt skinning and gutting keeps the meat tasty and less gamey because it prevents bacteria from souring the meat. I put squirrels in an open-weave gunnysack to keep the carcasses cooler.
Skinning a gray squirrel is relatively easy. Use a small belt ax or a larger hunting knife to cut off all four lower legs, tail and head. Save the tail.
Lay the trimmed carcass on its side. Now take your left hand and pinch up a piece of skin from the side. With your right hand, stick the knifepoint through the skin as you lift it away from the body. Roll the carcass toward you, making a slit just through the skin midway between the front and back legs from near the belly. Up over the back and down the other side as you roll the squirrel toward you.
Now put away your knife. Take one finger from each hand and work it under the fur at the squirrel's back to loosen the skin from meat as you pull the two sections apart. After you have three fingers under each side of the skin, give one mighty yank, pulling your hands away from each other. The two sections of skin should pull off each end. You may find it necessary to cut the skin on the belly if it's too tough and doesn't separate during the pull.
After skinning, remove the entrails by making a shallow cut from the lower abdomen up through the chest area. Discard the entrails, skin, feet and head in an unobtrusive manner in the woods to return a portion of your catch back to other creatures that will promptly pick up the remains. Place the cleaned carcasses in a clean plastic bread wrapper or plastic grocery bag, twist the bag closed and store in a cool place until you can freeze or cook the meat.
Save the squirrel tails, salt the butt ends, and freeze them flat. Mepps, in Antigo, Wis., is a large Wisconsin producer of fishing lures and they buy squirrel tails for 16-26 cents each to dress the hooks of their spinners. Company researchers have tested hundreds of other materials, both natural and synthetic, and have found nothing comparable to the natural tail hairs of tree squirrels for use on the famous Mepps spinners. (See Mepps and click on "squirrel tails" for details.)
At home, inspect the squirrel meat, trim off fat along the belly and the back of the hind legs. Also snip off the small glands under the armpits. Place the carcasses in salted water (1/2 cup salt per gallon of water) with a pinch of baking soda. Soak overnight in the refrigerator. This process helps draw out blood and leaves the meat fresh and pink.
The tasty finish
A lot of wild game cookbooks rave about fricasseed squirrel stewed in gravy until the meat falls from the bones. Squirrels are small and have equally small bones. To me, eating a squirrel with bones is on par with the "excitement" of eating an unfilleted trout. I don't care to pick bones out of my meat at the supper table and I don't expect my dinner guests to do so. Therefore, ahead of the meal I cook and bone the meat. Even in that form, squirrel is a versatile meat that can be fixed in many ways – sauteed, stewed, slow-roasted and more. It was such a staple of rural diets that squirrels earned the nickname "limb chicken."
Here's how I prepare them: Rinse the light salt brine from the meat and place it in a large stainless steel stockpot. Toss in some dried parsley and chives from last summer's garden, a couple of slices of onion and a few chunks of green pepper. Sprinkle in salt and ground black pepper, then add water to just cover the meat. Place a lid on the pot, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer the meat until it falls off the bone.
Cooking time depends on the type and age of the squirrels. We tend to leave the fox squirrels and seek out the smaller, tenderer gray squirrels. My experience is that fox squirrels are tougher to skin and take at least twice as long to cook, to keep them from coming out chewy. In side-by-side cooking comparisons, the fox squirrel definitely needs to be cooked a lot longer than the gray squirrel.
When the meat is fork tender, which may take two hours or more, place a stainless steel colander into another pot and carefully pour the contents from the steaming pot through the colander. Drain the meat. Some people save the broth. Others substitute chicken, beef or vegetable broth in their recipes.
Place the seasoned broth back on the stove to boil. You can reduce this as a base for a sauce, but I like to concentrate the broth a bit and then use it to cook wild rice or pasta. Add wild rice (use a little more than two parts liquid to one part rice) and cook about 45 minutes covered until the rice is doubled in size, split and curved like a bowtie or banana. If you don't have wild rice on hand, good pasta will absorb nice flavors from the broth.
Meanwhile, set the colander of meat and strained vegetables into a bowl to cool a bit and let the last of the liquid drip out. Pick out the bones and shred the meat as soon as it is cool enough to handle. Heat up a cast iron skillet on the stove, and then add a pat of butter or two tablespoons of oil to the hot skillet. Saute some finely chopped green pepper, onions, celery and several crushed garlic cloves.
After the onions turn translucent, toss in the boiled squirrel meat. Add whatever herbs catch your interest. I like lots of ground thyme. For a gourmet treat, I'll add nonpareilles capers. If I want a little more zest, I substitute curry powder for thyme. At times, I will also sprinkle on some table blend herb mixes available in most grocery stores. I never measure my herbs, I just sprinkle them in and taste as I go. Add some of the rice stock to form a light sauce. For a creamier sauce, you can add a can of cream of mushroom soup slightly diluted with the stock. Either way, keep the skillet simmering on low heat.
Finally, drain the wild rice and place about one cup on each dinner plate. Spoon the squirrel meat and sauce over the rice and enjoy – a true taste of autumn fresh from the field. I'm getting hungry...time to fetch Keith and Carissa and do some real huntin'!
Mary Kay Salwey is DNR's Wildlife Education Specialist stationed at Alma. She and her husband aim to be as self-sufficient as possible by hunting, fishing and gardening in Buffalo County.