After having been closed for an interminable three months and 12 days, squirrel season finally reopens on May 28th. Or at least the wait between seasons seems long to confirmed squirrel hunting fanatics like yours truly. But what if you’re new to the sport? Read on.
I spent–wasted?–over an hour searching through the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website and the printed “Wildlife Code of Missouri,” looking for statewide restrictions on firearms legal for squirrel hunting, but a limitation to .22 caliber or smaller rifles and shotguns using #4 shot or smaller during the firearms deer seasons was the only one I could find. It obviously goes without saying that centerfire rifles are dangerously impractical, but muzzleloaders firing reduced loads and light-for-caliber bullets work as well in the 21st century as they did in the 18th century. (Note: I by no means guarantee I didn’t miss something buried in the statewide fine print, and I know that some Conservation Areas have specific restrictions on firearms.)
If you’re either a novice hunter in general or just a novice squirrel hunter, I recommend opting for a shotgun. Gauge isn’t important, but to be an effective and ethical choice for squirrel hunting, a shotgun must throw a tight pattern of #6 or #4 shot that hits where you look.
That recommendation notwithstanding, I rarely hunt squirrels with anything other than a .22 caliber rimfire rifle or a .50 caliber muzzleloader. If you’re willing to spend the money it takes to buy a rifle capable of shooting nickel-sized groups out to 50 yards and the range time it takes for you to make it deliver those groups, there’s no reason you can’t learn to hunt squirrels with it. Just remember that most of the squirrels you catch glimpses of won’t pause where you can get a clear view of their heads.
Finding the right food source is the key to finding squirrels. Unfortunately for hunters, over the course of a year, the average squirrel will have nibbled on virtually everything that grows from or on every woody plant in its territory. The best advice I can give is to move very–and I do mean very–slowly through the timber, until you spot a squirrel. Then sit down with your back against a tree trunk and wait. When the action slows–or if it never starts–move on.
Let’s skip ahead to the end of a successful hunt. Now what? I’m optimistic enough to assume success, so a small cooler with a couple of pounds of ice cubes and a field dressing kit–medical examination gloves, heavy shears, a sharp knife with a gut hook and a homemade gambrel–will be waiting back at my vehicle.
Even a quick tour of the Internet will reveal a lot of different ways to skin squirrels. I’ve tried most of them and like very few. I have a specific objection to the ones that tell you to dip the squirrel in water before skinning it. Not only does this make skinning unpleasantly messy, but some of the water will wind up on the meat. If you wouldn’t drink it, don’t dip your food in it. But whatever method you choose, please employ it at least 50 yards from the parking lot.
For what it’s worth, I begin by removing all four feet, the tail and the head. Then I lay the squirrel on its side and make a transverse cut through the skin all the way across the middle of its back. Next I work all four fingers of each hand into opposite sides of the cut and then pull the skin in both directions until one half of it is completely free. After freeing the other half of the skin, I hang the carcass on the gambrel by its hind legs. It’s then gutted, cut up and put on ice for the trip home.
Since I keep talking about gambrels, this might be a good time to tell you how to make
one. To make a small game gambrel, cut the straight bottom section off of a wire coat hanger and bend it double. Secure the top inch or so of the bend in a vise and twist the wires around twice to form a closed loop. Bend the last inch of each arm almost double so that the open ends point in opposite directions. Finally tie a three-foot length of stout cord to the loop.
I’ve found that, with almost 100 percent accuracy, if a female squirrel has never nursed young or if a male squirrel shows no sign of sexual activity–enlarged testes and prostate–it’s meat will be tender. On the other hand, it’s best to assume that the meat of any squirrel that fails this test will be, shall we say, “chewy.”
Frying is by far the best way to do a young squirrel justice. Dip the met in buttermilk, double coat it with flour and gently fry to a golden brown, about 15 minutes for hind legs and 10 minutes for front legs and backs.
Recipes that combine slow cooking and onions do wonders for old squirrels, but most wild game cookbooks will have other options.
Have fun out there and don’t forget the bug dope.
Gerald Scott can be reached at [email protected]