Squirrels don’t receive a lot of attention from today’s hunters. Most focus on other game, such as deer and turkeys, which is understandable. Deer and turkeys are big game — and a big deal. Many hunters can remember when deer and turkeys were few. Squirrels are small, and their populations have never been threatened. Squirrels are, well, just common.
Yet consider these facts about the squirrel as a game animal: The hunting season for squirrels is one of Missouri’s longest, extending from late May through mid-February; bag limits are liberal: 10 squirrels a day; practically any stand of mixed hardwood timber, of a few acres or more, will support huntable squirrel populations; and, when taken with a rifle, shooting squirrels requires pin-point accuracy — a challenge for any marksman. As table fare, no game animal is better. If you have overlooked squirrels as a hunting opportunity, reconsider. Here are some tips to get you started.
Know Your Trees
The two species of squirrels you can hunt in Missouri are gray squirrels and fox squirrels. Trees provide these animals with most of their food, as well as a place to live and raise their young. Accordingly, gray and fox squirrels are collectively known as tree squirrels.
Knowledge of tree species is key to finding good squirrel populations. The Department of Conservation offers an excellent reference on tree identification through the online Field Guide at mdc.mo.gov/node/73. There is also a printed Trees of Missouri Field Guide, available for $7.50 (plus shipping and handling). You can order a copy at mdcnatureshop.com or by calling 877-521-8632. You may also purchase one at a conservation nature center or regional office near you.
Missouri’s woodlands are dominated by various species of oaks and hickories. All produce nuts that begin to ripen in August and serve as food for squirrels throughout the winter. Most squirrel hunters focus their hunting when hickory nuts and acorns first ripen. The sounds of squirrels scurrying among branches and cutting nuts make them easier to locate and provide exciting action. Yet excellent squirrel hunting can also be found when squirrel season opens in late spring. The key: mulberry trees.
Two species are found in Missouri, red mulberry and white mulberry. Both species produce fruit from late May until early July. Find a fruiting mulberry tree in woods that support a healthy squirrel population and fine hunting is all but assured. But there is a catch, mulberry trees, though found throughout Missouri, do not dominate our woodlands. They occur scattered, here and there, and not every mulberry tree produces fruit. Male flowers and female flowers commonly occur on different trees. Only trees with female flowers produce fruit. Sometimes it takes a little searching to find a female tree.
Mulberry trees do not have to be big to draw large numbers of squirrels. A tree less than 20 feet tall and less than a foot across at the stump, if loaded with fruit, will draw squirrels for weeks. Look for mulberry trees at the edge of woods or growing in the richer soil along stream bottoms.
When mulberry production drops off in July, squirrels turn their appetites to the fruits produced by black cherry trees and hackberry trees. Just before the nuts of oaks and hickories ripen, squirrels feed heavily on the fruits of black gum trees. Like mulberry trees, male flowers and female flowers of the black gum occur on different trees. Find a fruiting black gum, however, and it will be worth your efforts. In southeast Missouri, squirrels also feed on the seedpods of yellow poplar.
Gear and Guns
Equipment and clothing for squirrel hunting is simple. During the warmer months, light camouflage is in order. For safety, a hunter orange cap is a good idea. When you are stalking to get in shooting range of a squirrel, if you find the hat compromising your approach, take it off and lay it on the ground. If you have already killed a few squirrels, lay your orange hat on the ground alongside your squirrels as a good way to relocate them after you have made your stalk.
An easy way to carry squirrels is to cut a hole in one of the hind feet, then thread them on a small green stick that you cut to 3 or 4 inches in length and sharpen on both ends. The stick fits well across your fingers.
Up until the killing frosts of November and early December, squirrel hunters must deal with ticks, chiggers,
and mosquitoes. You may want to treat your clothes with a permethrin-based spray, which kills ticks, as well as a deet-based spray, which you can spray on your clothes, as well as your skin, to repel ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes. Or take other measures to avoid bites from these pests.
If you are allergic to poison ivy, that’s another hazard to look out for. Visit the online Field Guide if you need a refresher on what it looks like.
Choice of firearm is up to the hunter. A muzzleloading rifle, even of heavy caliber, is well suited for taking squirrels if all shots are limited to the head. A scoped .22 pistol is another option that adds challenge to squirrel hunting.
Most squirrel hunters choose to hunt with either a scoped .22 rifle or a shotgun. A .22 rifle, if all shots are limited to the head, leaves squirrels in fine shape for cooking. The shooting is quite challenging. Shotguns are a great choice for hunting squirrels, though efforts must be made to reduce the chance of riddling squirrels with pellets. Use large shot size, like 4s, which limits the number of pellets. Learn your shotgun’s pattern at different ranges and hold your aim in front of a squirrel so as to just hit the squirrel’s head with the edge of your pattern. Also, try and limit shots to when only a squirrel’s head is visible, like when one peeks from behind a limb. Always be aware
The number-one key to hunting any game animal is placing yourself where the animals are at times when they are active. Doing so requires knowledge of the animals you hunt. Here’s a basic rundown on the habits of gray and fox squirrels.
In early morning, they emerge from their leaf nests or den trees and are active for two or three hours, with much of this time spent feeding. Midday, gray and fox squirrels tend to loaf on limbs or sleep. During the last two or three hours of daylight they are active again, feeding until close to dark, at which time they return to their leaf nests or dens for the night.
Gray and fox squirrels have two breeding seasons in Missouri: one that extends from late May through early July, and another from late December through early February. During these breeding seasons, squirrels are often active all day, with male squirrels fighting among themselves or chasing females.
Both gray and fox squirrels make a variety of sounds. To express excitement and warn other squirrels, they give a rapid call that sounds like “cherk-cherk-cherk.” Other calls include grunts, purrs, and chattering of teeth, the meaning of which may be varied.
Weather conditions and time of day are important concerns when planning a squirrel hunt. During warm months, watch the weather forecast. If morning temps are predicted to be in the 60s or lower, you can enjoy several hours of comfortable hunting if you start hunting at first light. If temps are forecast with lows in the 70s, it’s best to postpone hunting for another day. By early morning it will already be warm and uncomfortable in the woods.
Wind is another consideration. Windy days put limbs in motion, which make it difficult to spot squirrels as they feed and move in the trees. Best days for squirrel hunting are when there is little or no wind. Mornings are often preferable, because winds tend to be lighter.
Once you have located concentrations of squirrels, hunting strategy follows two methods: sitting in one spot and waiting for squirrels to move and reveal their presence, or still-hunting, which involves quietly walking through the woods, with frequent stops to look and listen for squirrels. With both methods, sit or move with the sun at your back. This makes it easier for you to spot squirrels and makes it more difficult for squirrels to spot you.
Regardless of hunting method, often when you see a squirrel it will be too far away for a good shot, which requires you to move to get closer. Move when the squirrel is actively reaching for nuts or chasing another squirrel. Being distracted, the squirrel will be less likely to see you. Use the trunks of larger trees and the leafy limbs of smaller ones to hide your approach.
If you are still-hunting for squirrels, every 10 steps or so, pause to look. If you end up just walking through the woods, you will fail to see many squirrels. If squirrels are not active, a good way to make them reveal themselves is to shake the limb of an understory tree and bark like a squirrel. This will often cause squirrels to bark back. You can use the same strategy to get a squirrel feeding at the top of a leafy tree to come down and take a look, putting it in better range for a good shot.
How to Clean Squirrels
The first step to converting squirrels to cuisine is proper cleaning. Here’s how.
Even if you make a good head shot on a squirrel, it is a good idea to remove the chest and abdominal organs so the body cools quickly. If you accidentally shoot a squirrel through the abdomen, removing the viscera and rinsing the body cavity with water is critical to prevent gut and bladder contents from tainting the meat.
To remove the entrails, use the tip of a small, sharp knife, and make an incision where the ribs meet the abdomen. Cut toward the animal’s hindquarters, taking care not to puncture the internal organs. Once the viscera is exposed, look for the urinary bladder. If it is full, pinch the neck of the bladder between thumb and forefinger and carefully cut to remove it. This prevents spills. With the bladder removed, split the pelvis and pull out the rest of the insides. That’s all there is to eviscerating a squirrel.
Skinning a squirrel is tougher. Done wrong, the meat will be covered with loose hair — a real mess. Follow this method to leave squirrel meat free of hair and ready for cooking. First, immerse the animal in a bucket of water. Slosh it around a few times to ensure that the water soaks all the way to the squirrel’s skin. This causes the hair to hold together and reduces the chance of hair contacting the meat while you skin the squirrel.
With this done, make a slit along the hide beneath and at the base of the tail. Cut through the tail but leave it attached to the back skin. Cut an inch or so further up the back and extend the cut along the squirrel’s flanks. With these cuts made, step on the tail and pull on the skin attached to the hind legs. This will strip the skin nearly all the way down the hind and forelegs.
Pull the skin over the forelegs and hind legs, then cut off the head and feet with a knife. During this process, frequently dip your hands and knife in the bucket of water
to rinse off any squirrel hair that could cling to the meat. This method greatly reduces the number of hairs that stick to a squirrel’s carcass.
Next, cut off the front legs, hind legs, and back meat below the ribs. You will see gland tissue on the front legs where they joined to the body. Remove them. Also, on the inner joint of the hind legs, find a small, triangular patch of light tissue. Cut into it and remove the small, round gland found there.
To remove any hair that still adheres to these pieces of meat, place them under slowly running water and pick the hair off by hand. Though tedious, this work is necessary if you wish to turn a squirrel into fine eating.
In the Kitchen
When you clean squirrels, separate the young ones from the old ones. Young squirrels are for frying. How do you distinguish young squirrels from old? Old male squirrels have a large scrotum with well-developed testicles, young males don’t. Old females often lack hair around their nipples from having nursed young, whereas young females show no signs of nursing. Young squirrels are often smaller than old ones, and the skin of young squirrels pulls off more easily than that of old squirrels.
To fry, dredge squirrel pieces in flour mixed with pepper and plenty of seasoned salt. Taste the flour. The flavor of seasoned salt should be distinct. Pour enough vegetable oil in a skillet to cover the bottom to a depth of about 1⁄₃ inch and heat to 350 degrees. Cook on one side for about eight minutes, or until you can see the sides browning. Gently turn the pieces over and cook for six or seven minutes, or until evenly browned. Remove from pan and drain well on paper toweling.
This recipe will make any old squirrel tender and delicious. Place squirrel pieces you wish to cook in a large pot. Cover with water and add enough seasoned salt to tinge the water orange. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for two hours. Lay two large pieces of heavy-duty tinfoil across each other on top of a large serving tray. Remove the squirrels from the pot and place them evenly on the tinfoil and serving tray. Add 1 cup broth and 2 tablespoons of butter. Fold edges of tinfoil over squirrels and place tinfoil and squirrels on grill over low coals. Cook for 45 minutes.
Remove squirrels from tinfoil and place directly on grill. Brush on barbecue sauce and cook for another 15 minutes. Remove and serve.