• Posted by Steven Rinella on July 23rd, 2008, 1:13 PM

    When I’m hanging out with friends who live in big cities on the East Coast, it takes a lot of convincing before they’ll believe me that most states in the eastern two-thirds of this country, including their own, have squirrel hunting seasons. Their reluctance isn’t moral–that is, it’s not like the reluctance that some people have upon learning that you can hunt wolves from airplanes in parts of Alaska. Rather, the reluctance is sort of like the reluctance you’d have if I told you that some people hunt rats. It’s a squeamish reluctance.

    To be honest, I’d probably have it too if the only squirrels I knew were those that hang around garbage cans and rat poisoning stations in Manhattan parks and Boston suburbs. But the squirrels of the nation’s deep forests are a whole different beast, so to speak; each is a perfect little package containing equal doses of pure hunting challenge and great meat. In the state where I grew up, Michigan, squirrel hunting season runs from September 15 to January 1. You’re allowed five squirrels per day, in any combination of fox squirrels and gray squirrels (including black squirrels, which are a color phase of the gray squirrel).  That’s a very generous season and bag limit. If you’re a hardcore, talented hunter, and you love squirrel meat, you could bag and eat over 500 squirrels a year. But I’ve never heard of anyone getting nearly that many. The best squirrel hunter I know of, a man named Al Cole, hunts very hard in order to kill an average of one hundred per year.

    Squirrels can be found in many different types of forest, but in my own squirrel hunting area they prefer beech and oak. These are deciduous trees–they drop their leaves in the fall–and good squirrel hunters divide the season into the leafy segment and the non-leafy segment.  During the leafy part, which comes first, you’re lucky to bag one-third of the squirrels that you see. They can see through leaves much better than we can, so at that time of year I hunt squirrels with a shotgun. I usually don’t even notice them in the thick vegetation until they’re bouncing and swaying the overhead vegetation as they run away, and a shotgun allows you to run beneath the squirrel as it tears through the treetops. Then you can take running or jumping shots in those little instants when it sails from limb to limb, free in the open air.

    Usually, though, they vanish on you before you can get a clear shot. They’ll find a thick limb and flatten themselves on the upward side, or else they’ll hug the trunk really tightly at a point high up in the tree. And then the squirrel will wait with Buddhist-like patience. If you try to go around the tree, or go up a hill to get a different view at its hiding place, the squirrel will adjust its position on the limb or trunk. This can drive you bananas. But a good trick is to walk around to another side of the tree and tie a piece of string to a small sapling, and then slip back around to the other side of the tree with the other end of the string. Hold very still. Don’t even scratch an itch. The squirrel will know you walked over there, but you’re hoping it forgets. After fifteen or so minutes, tug the string to shake the sapling. If you’re lucky, the squirrel will think he mistook where you were and it’ll immediately dodge around the tree and then “hide” again right where you can see it. Usually, though, this doesn’t work. Instead, you wait and wait and wait and get bit by bugs until doubt drives you away.

    In the non-leafy season, it’s possible for a human to see a longer way through the woods than a squirrel can. The thing is, though, they get exceedingly wary at this time of year. The lack of leaves opens them up to avian predators like hawks and owls, and they need to be on their toes. So, even though you can see them it’s really tough to get with shotgun range, which is only 30 or 40 yards. Rather, the thing to do is to get a.22 rifle that you shoot out to 70 or so yards. Then you go out into the woods really early, before daybreak, before the squirrels are out and about. You want to get settled into a spot where you’re hidden from view. I like to nestle myself beneath a hemlock. Then I wait. Sometimes I’ll give a few clucks on a squirrel call, sometimes not. As the sky lights up, you’re sure to start seeing some activity. Maybe a squirrel high in the limbs a couple hundred yards away, maybe a cluck from a squirrel down the hill. The trick is, don’t be tempted to go after them. It’ll never work. Instead, you’ve got to hold tight. Wait it out. As long as they’re not disturbed, they’ll stay out for most of the morning and they’ll cover a lot of ground. Maybe they’ll come to you.

    One time, I was waiting for squirrels early in the morning in a forest of beech. It was Christmas Day, I remember, and the temperature was below zero. I was freezing my ass off, but I could see two different squirrels off in two different directions. One was a fox squirrel, feeding in the snow on the ground, and the other was a gray squirrel, scrounging around in the tops of beech trees in search of nuts that hadn’t fallen in the fall. They were each heading toward me, slowly but steadily, in a way that made it seem like they’d arrive near my hiding spot at the same time. I waited about an hour before the fox squirrel, a big rusty colored animal the size of a French baguette, got close. It took an excruciating feat of self-control not to shoot him right away.  But I managed to wait, and within five or so minutes the one in the treetops finally hopped into one of my nearby beeches. I eased my rifle barrel to my knee and centered the crosshairs just behind the squirrel on the ground’s ear. It crumpled. The one in the tree knew something wasn’t right, but it didn’t know where the problem was. It dashed to a good lookout limb. I found it in my scope. It fell a long ways, stone stiff, and hit the snow with a light though significant thud.

    Steven Rinella is the author of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine and American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon. He’s a correspondent for Outside magazine, and his writing has appeared in many other publications, including the New York Times, Men’s Journal, Field & Stream, the New Yorker, and the anthologies Best American Travel Writing and Best Food Writing.

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