My father was a Sergeant in the Army and served through Vietnam. His father was in the Marines and spent time in North Africa and Korea and retired before Vietnam. In a fit of teenage rebellion, I joined the Air Force and washed out shortly thereafter because they discovered I could not distinguish between green and yellow (sometimes even red). The Air Force generally wants people to be able to find which wire is which color so that no-one turns on the air-conditioning and finds themselves over the jungle hanging from their parachute. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed as I had grown up helping my father work on his Triumph and I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life working on engines. Fortunately for me, my father had seen fit to sell some of his guns which he had collected and buy a computer, which contributed to my current career in technology. The other thing he had given me was the skills to shoot from having a rifle so early in my life.
My brother and I (my sister came too late) grew up shooting 22 caliber bolt action rifles. 22 cal is nice to shoot, reasonably accurate for the novice shooter and it probably is the cheapest ammo you can buy. For comparison, a 22 cal bullet is probably about the size of a small pea, and the shell is no longer than three or four centimeters. There is almost no recoil or noise shooting a 22 cal bullet from most rifles which makes it a very mild round to practice good shooting techniques with.
Learning to Shoot
At 10, learning to control breathing, heart-rate and finding the subtle nuances of my own body was far from my mind. There was a coffee-can sitting on the stack of railroad ties which served as the backstop and it made a nice hollow thump when the round struck it. This was back when you could still find steel coffee cans; the new aluminum ones simply do not have the same resonance. Sometimes it was a balloon, or a light bulb which had burnt out. Soda cans worked, but I had found them hard to hit in the same way my father did which sent them soaring. I later would figure out that my father was cheating and that his 30-06 bullet -- which imparted many times the force that my 22 bullet did -- caused a proportional reaction. This would be important later. The basics were easy enough; I put the pole on the front sight into the notch on the rear sight so the ball on the pole was resting in the half-circle of the rear sight and made sure it covered up the target. A quick yank on the trigger and hopefully the can made a metallic thump.
The sight-picture was right but I was missing the nuances. At 12 I had figured out that my eyes grew dim if I held my breath too long, but I was tall enough that I could no longer ignore the wobble from my own lungs. Yanking the trigger had become squeezing it as my hands grew stronger and could exert five pounds of force with my single finger. I had noticed that there was a notch in the seer of the rifle which allowed me to squeeze things just enough that the kinetic energy sat on edge, but no further so that it unleashed itself. In my mind, it was a cracking ball of energy being fired from my shoulder, down the lightning rod my rifle had become, and out the front of the barrel instantly arcing through the air to hit the target. I would draw in my breath, focus on the front sight, bring the rear sight in to cup it and center it on the fuzz of the black paper target and squeeze. A sharp crack followed, and if I had maintained a good, steadily increasing pressure with my finger, I would be rewarded with a hole through the 10 ring of the target. Another year would come and I became interested in cars and driving and slowly abandoned the rifle after winning a few awards in Scouts. Things would come full circle when I discovered the magic of the turbocharger. Instead of 15 PSI, I wanted to play with 15,000 PSI, and the rifle re-entered my life. I relearned these skills quickly. Focus. Breathe. Squeeze. I was ready for more interesting targets and some variety and reward for shooting more than holes in paper. I became interested in hunting...
The squirrel is a member of the rodent family (genus sciuridae). Check your local laws for how to apply for a hunting license and if you can apply for a hunting license in your area for squirrels. They are amusing little creatures and come in a variety of sizes and colors. Most of them have large, bushy tails, and the most common variety is the grey squirrel with its grey-coat and tail about the same size as its body. The next most common one is a black squirrel, which has a tail slightly larger than its body and is a tad smaller than the grey squirrel. Beyond that is a red squirrel, which is smaller still but keeps the large tail, and the rarest squirrel of all is a white squirrel. The white squirrels are an albino mutation and may occur in any squirrel colony, including setting up their own colony if there's a particularly high instance of white squirrels in a given area. Squirrels are not picky about mating, so it is not uncommon to see grey squirrels with a red stripe, or black squirrels with a grey stripe. Do not hunt animals with black with white stripes, these are not squirrels.
Squirrels are opportunity scavengers, which is to say that they eat just about anything and are just as content finding food as they are returning to known-plots. A squirrel diet consists mainly of local farming (corn, greens, oats, etc) and fruit or nut bearing trees (acorns, walnuts, even pinecones). These animals have happily learned to co-exist with humans and will also eat fried foods and prefer crunchy items or fatty items such as peanut butter, puffed cheese chips, or potato chips. Squirrels do not enjoy spicy items and sprinkling ground hot pepper or similar products such as Tabasco around trouble spots will make for a squirrel-free area in short order.
The squirrel social life is fairly lonely. A squirrel will typically become pregnant and bear two or three young (kit or kitten, male or female) squirrels into her nest (drey) which is typically a mess of dried leaves and other papery cast-offs perched in a tree. The male squirrel will go off to find the next pretty young thing to mate with while the female squirrel is left to gather food and nurse the young. The young, unsupervised and virtually blind, do occasionally fall out of the dreys and usually die from the impact. A good indication of an active drey during the birthing season is to look for tufts of fur or even dead kits and kittens below or near the nests. An active nest after the birthing season will have dry leaves and other nest refuse lying below it, in addition to having a fair amount of squirrel traffic coming in and going out of it until the kits and kittens are big enough to set out on their own.
As a result of the squirrel's solitary lifestyle, squirrels generally are not vocal creatures. Kits and kittens follow their mothers around learning the smells of food (and what is not food) but there is no colony social structure the way lions or deer have an alpha male and a harem of does. Squirrels have a distress call, which sounds like a high pitched squeak similar to a rusty hinge on a door and they have a chatter which serves as a challenge call if two males are fighting over food or a female. Kits and kittens flee from either call, and female squirrels may be attracted to either call. Males generally flee at the distress call and are attracted to a challenge call. Female squirrels, however, are usually homebodies and do not stray far from their dreys. This makes it unlikely that a particular squirrel you see will be attracted to the distress call but squirrels may poke their heads out to investigate a challenge-chatter. My personal experience is that squirrel-calls only serve to alert the squirrels of my presence and this is not advantageous to hunting them.
We already know what squirrels eat, and what squirrels do not eat, and we know that squirrels generally are solitary, quiet creatures. From here, we can set off into the woods and actually begin looking for squirrels. A good place to start is the drey, which will tip you off to about how many squirrels are in a given area. If you happen across a strong population, there should be a drey every few trees or so. These are not always occupied with squirrels as they are fairly transient, but this means that food is likely to be around somewhere. Now you want to fan out. We happen to have plenty of oak trees in my area so my brother and I usually look for split acorns on the ground. Other fruit or nut bearing trees will do fine (including a pine with green pine-cones, not mature brown cones) but oaks are by far the easiest to find around here.
If you do find an oak, observe the acorns under it. Are there many whole acorns? If so, this tree may be too new for squirrels to be using as a food source. If the acorns are split open and their shells are lying around under the tree, then you have found a tree the squirrels are using for food. For pines, look for green pine-cones the squirrels have dropped and forgotten about. For fruit trees, you should find the pits of the fruits lying around under the tree. If there is scat also around the base of the tree, than larger animals -- rather than squirrels -- are browsing the tree and moving on. For corn, just about everything eats corn so camp out the field. Pay particular attention to the tops of stalks, you should easily be able to see the stalks dance as squirrels climb up them for the kernels. Have you found a viable food plot but you cannot find any squirrel-sign? Pay attention to what is near the food plot. Pepper-corns, skunk-cabbage and milkweed irritate squirrels and squirrels will avoid food plots in close proximity to these plants.
Once you find a source of food which has squirrel sign, the waiting begins. This is often the hardest part. Squirrels will have surely detected your scouting and gone to hide. If you have trained your eye to see them, sometimes this can be advantageous because the squirrels will be pressing themselves against branches and holding still. For most of us, there will be a 15 to 30 minute wait before squirrels start moving around again. The best position is one which allows you to see the complete food source, but allows you enough distance that the wind will not carry your scent across the path from the drey to the food and obscures you enough that the animals cannot see your face or outline. Be sure to use this time scouting and waiting to look for signs of other hunters which include flags and at very least orange clothes. Squirrels do not have particularly good eyesight, so use orange liberally. Hopefully in 15 to 30 minutes, you will see a squirrel crawling along the ground following the scent of food or leaping tree to tree in a hurry to eat and return to the young.
Taking the Shot
You should already know how to aim the rifle and be confident and comfortable with its operation. The trick to taking a shot is to get your body under control and remember to take a supported shot. Shots come in two types: unsupported and supported. Unsupported shots are generally OK in situations where the hunter kicks up large game (such as deer) which has a large target area. The vital organs on a deer occupy a space slightly smaller than volume of a basketball. Taking a shot from a stand with little prep can be done by the experienced shooter who has a steady hand, good aim and a decent gun. On the other hand, squirrel vitals are only in the upper half of the body and the top half of the head. The second type of shot is a supported shot. The hunter will take this type of shot when the rifle is supported by some means. The difference between the two on small game is the difference between getting the kill and a miss, or worse, wounded game. Some hunters prefer to bring along shooting sticks which can be crossed and held to the rifle with the forward hand. I personally prefer to just take hold of the nearest tree and rest the rifle on the flesh of my palm at my thumb. Do not rest the barrel of the rifle against your hand. This is a suggestion easy to forget in the heat of the moment, but you will be the coolest guy in the office come Monday with a burn across the back of your palm. Before you take any shot, consider where the bullet is going. Do not fire towards buildings or the sky. Do check for orange or the local hunter safety color before taking a shot.
Rest the rifle against a tree, across a log (if you are prone) or between the support sticks. Make smooth, slow movements so as to not alert game to your presence. If the squirrel is foraging along the ground, it will be making small hops from place to place, smelling the earth for small insects or buried food. When the squirrel finds something that might be food, the animal will pick it up and examine it. The squirrel may try to eat it. While the squirrel is examining its find, it will be standing still and usually upright. This is the moment to take the shot. If the squirrel is up in a tree, wait until the squirrel is climbing up or down the trunk. Squirrels typically follow a spiral pattern down the trunk and pause at branches. Take the shot when the squirrel pauses. If the squirrel does not immediately drop off the tree, wait a bit for the corpse to relax and it will come down soon enough. A hit to the head results in instant death and the squirrel should fall over dead. A hit to the neck usually results in the squirrel bleeding out and may require some fishing through the brush to find the animal. A hit to the upper portion of the chest results in massive damage to the heart and lungs which usually causes death within 15 seconds. Hitting the squirrel any lower then the upper third of its body results in an injured animal but the wound is far from terminal. It also generally causes separation of the bowel and damage to the liver which ruins the meat. The animal will usually crawl to where it feels hidden. Hopefully you can approach the animal and make a terminal shot. Not only does this waste ammo, but the meat may now be spoiled from the feces. Please do your best to make terminal shots in an effort to give the animals a good death and keep the meat in good condition. Do you want to eat meat filled with feces? Retrieve dead squirrels as soon as possible as other predators will collect the body if you wait too long. Dead squirrels also generally alert other squirrels in the area that there is something hunting them and will make other squirrels cautious or leave the area altogether. Bring a backpack filled with plastic bags and ice along. In another 15 minutes, the squirrels will be back out and you can shoot again!
Cleaning and Skinning
Once you return home, you have several options for your squirrels. You can throw the squirrels out. There is nothing illegal about it, but I personally feel that this is a waste of the meat, pelt and the animal's life. You can taxidermy the pelt, but squirrels have small, pliable bones which make getting the pelt off the body in one piece a challenge. If you do go this route, you should be familiar with skinning the squirrel. Cut along the belly and remove the liver and bowels. Turn the squirrel inside-out, cut off the feet as low as you can peel the skin back, and then buy a mounting kit. I prefer "squirrel sitting". Leave the squirrel on top of your books at the office, bonus points for installing red-LEDs in the eyes and wiring it to your phone. The final option is to actually eat the squirrel. To skin the squirrel, bring the body up to room temperature and ensure that the body is pliable. Now is a good time to inspect the body for damage. Is the squirrel foaming at the mouth and eyes? Are the eyes clouded and grey? Does the pelt have spots of missing fur or an infestation of ticks? If any of these are true, the animal was diseased and not fit to eat. Wrap the animal in a plastic bag and dispose of the body in the trash. Wash thoroughly before touching anything else, including the next squirrel. I suggest using a razor-blade to skin the squirrel as a knife is generally too large.
To skin a squirrel with the intention of eating it, first get a pair of meat scissors or a sharp knife and also a razor blade. You will need a pot of water and a trashcan. Fill a second, larger pot with water and add a teaspoon of salt per cup of water. Both pots should be lukewarm. Lay down newspapers and plan to skin the animal outside. The smell is wholly unique, and having worked for an ambulance crew, I can safely say that the inside of all animals pretty much smells the same. The smell is terrible. Wash the squirrel in the unsalted water. This pot will wash off all the loose fur and miscellaneous dirt. The remaining fur will clump up and this serves to keep it on the outside of the skin, away from the meat. The fur should easily separate by rubbing the squirrel towards the head and tail leaving you a clear space to cut along. Using your razor, cut lightly along the squirrel as though you were separating the skin into "shirt" and "pants" sections. Try not to cut into the muscles or organs. If the corpse is warm and pliable, the skin should separate easily. Pull the front half over the head and down the arms. The wrists should be positioned in line with the neck, which allows you to cut along the wrists and lob the head (and fur) off in one clean cut with your large knife. The bottom half of the fur should pull over the anus of the squirrel and down to the feet. The intestines will pull with the anus and should have the trailing tissue pull the rest of the organs out. Some massaging of the connective tissue may be required to get the organs out. Cut the feet off at the ankles and throw the mass of pelt, organs and feet into the trash. If you have pets, these are safe to feed the pets who will usually eat everything except the intestines. If the intestines separate from the anus or stomach, try to minimize the amount of feces which gets onto the meat. The first squirrel anyone skins is always a mess, so bring along the soap and water to clean the meat if anything gets on it. Visually inspect the skinned squirrel for fur (which will not wash off) and place the skinned squirrel in the pot of salted water. Let this pot of squirrels sit for at least 8 hours in the fridge.
After 8 hours or so in the fridge, or more like 24 if you work and wish to bring 'normal' food to the office, the water should be cloudy with blood and the squirrels should be significantly lighter. They should look like chicken but be firmer to the touch. Flesh which is black or abraded should be cut off at this time and discarded. Generally the entrance and exit wounds will be obviously bruised and the meat does not cook well. Squirrels are white meat so any recipe that you have enjoyed for chicken translates well into being a recipe for squirrel. Squirrel meat is similar to chicken although slightly less greasy (it is sweeter) and the mouthfeel is firmer. It should not have a 'gamey' taste, which usually means that some of the bowel spilled on the meat and was not properly cleaned. Squirrel goes well boiled and quartered and placed in salad and also is delicious fried in light oils and breaded.
My Father's Favorite Squirrel Recipe
- 3 squirrels, quartered
- Creole seasoning
- 2 strips bacon, cut up
- 1/2 stick butter
- 1 onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 bell peppers, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 3 potatoes, cubed
- 5 cups water
- 1/4 cup burgundy wine
- Rub the creole seasoning liberally over the squirrels.
- In a dutch oven, melt the butter. Add the bacon.
- Add the squirrel to the dutch oven and brown evenly. Remove.
- To the dutch oven, add the onion, garlic, peppers and celery. Saute until the veggies are soft.
- Add the meat back to the pot along with the water and potatoes. Stir together.
- Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 1/2 hours stirring occasionally.
- Remove the squirrel pieces. Cool and debone.
- Return meat to the pot. Stir in the wine. Heat to boiling again then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.
- Serve over biscuits or toast.
Recipe provided by Backwoods Bound