Sunday, October 16, 2016

Squirrel hunting promises action-packed experience

The perfect quarry for starting out kids in the woods, that's how they often are described.
And true enough, they are that.
But to hear their fans across the country tell it, squirrels are a whole lot more, too. They are a fine game species in their own right, one that's fun to hunt and tasty on the table.
Nate Wilder certainly is a fan.
The Raleigh, N.C., man has a website — — devoted entirely to hunting the tree climbers. It attracts visitors from all over the East Coast, including Pennsylvania, he said.
Like him, all of them are passionate about squirrel hunting, he said.
“There's a lot of allure to it to me,” Wilder said.
The reasons why are numerous. He likes squirrel hunting because of the camaraderie. He likes it because, unlike deer hunting, there's no need to worry about things like scent control. He likes it because he can move around a bit, rather than having to sit in one place for hours on end.
And as much as anything, he said, he likes the action.
“A lot of guys, if they're hunting deer, depending on where they're at, they pull the trigger once and they're maybe done. I like knowing that, potentially, I'm going to be able to pull the trigger a lot,” Wilder said.
He and a friend did that a lot last year, taking approximately 150 squirrels.
That same potential exists here.
There are some localized areas of the state where timbering has made a dent in squirrel habitat, said Matt Lovallo, supervisor of the game mammals section for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But generally speaking, the state is home to lots of mature mast-bearing trees like oaks and hickories.
As a result, there probably are more squirrels out there for the taking than at any time in recent decades, Lovallo said.
“Statewide, I think you can say that,” he added.
Pennsylvania's season on squirrels opened Oct. 15 and runs through Nov. 26. It comes back from Dec. 12-24 and Dec. 26-Feb. 28.
Hunters can take fox, gray and red squirrels, with a daily limit of six combined.
Anyone who bags a few is in for a treat, so long as they're handled correctly, said Travis Gameson of Norman, Okla. He is a member of the “Okie Squirrel Busters” team that won 2016's Squirrels Unlimited World Champion Squirrel Cook-off ( last month in Arkansas.
Gameson's team produced a fried squirrel ravioli. Other competitors made everything from squirrel-stuffed mushrooms to squirrel sliders. All those giving away samples had lines of people eager for a taste, he said.
Most liked what they tried, he said.
“Squirrel meat is certainly not very gamey at all,” Gameson said. “It's a mild meat.”
That's not surprising, he said. For being technically rodents, squirrels are clean animals that feed largely on acorns, hickory nuts and the like.
Their flesh can be tough, though, he said. Squirrels are all muscle, so they are best cooked slowly.
Often, that means cooking them until the meat can be pulled from the bone, he said.
But done that way, and perhaps ground and mixed with something like bacon or pancetta to provide moisture, they're very good, he said.
“Squirrel is a type of meat you can just get really creative with. You just need to get a mess of them and start experimenting,” he said.
To get a “mess,” Wilder starts by “hunting the food.” He looks for stands of oaks and hickories then grabs a seat.
“Most of the time we go in right before daybreak and we're still. We sit and see what happens,” he said. “Usually we're pretty successful.”
Andrew Lewand of Rochester, N.Y., a field staffer with FoxPro, the Pennsylvania-based game call maker, said he sometimes gets squirrels by sneaking quietly through the woods. He looks for “cuttings,” or acorns and hickory shells that show evidence of squirrel feeding, and listens for leaves, nuts and debris falling from the tops of trees. All of that indicates active squirrels, he said.
Later, in late-morning and early afternoon, he falls back on another trick, using a squirrel call. The barks it reproduces sometimes sparks squirrels to respond.
“That's a pretty effective tactic, a more aggressive one, that can pay off when the action slows down,” Lewand said.
Both prefer to use a .22 rifle over a shotgun, firing standard velocity hollow point rounds. The relatively quiet report of such a gun is less intrusive and alarming to squirrels, they agreed.
It also hones precision shooting abilities, Lewand said. Squirrel hunting is great practice for many other types of hunting, he added.
“Dad called it deer hunting in miniature. The woodsmanship skills you learn squirrel hunting transfer to hunting deer and really anything, for that matter,” he said.
Gameson agrees and said he makes a point of hunting squirrels early each year, before big game seasons fill the calendar, in part to scout for whitetails.
“It's a great way to start a hunting season,” he said.
And end one and fill in all the time between, Wilder added.
“Yeah, they're mainly what I key on,” Wilder said. “When I want a lot of meat, I shoot a deer. But squirrels are it for me. We really look forward to it.”
Bob Frye is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter@bobfryeoutdoors.

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