Scanning the treetops for movement, I slowly eased down the dry creek bed. Besides growing good mast like oak, walnut, and pecan trees, creeks also provide a hunter the chance to move quietly, since flood events periodically remove noisy dead leaves and the moist soil promotes quick decay of those that remain. I came to a stop behind a giant pin oak as I finally spotted what I was looking for — the unnatural “bounce” of a limb springing back and forth from the weight of a squirrel using it to travel through the tree as it sought a shellbark hickory nut. But seeing a limb move and finding the source of that movement among the full foliage of the late summer woods are two separate matters, and it was several minutes before I finally spotted the gray squirrel as he stopped on a limb and began cutting the still-green husk off the nut.
I braced the rifle against the tree in front of me, settled the crosshairs, and squeezed the trigger. At the crack of the shot, the squirrel tumbled down through the canopy, and for a moment the woods were still. Then, the unmistakable sound of claws on bark, and another gray paused on the trunk, tail twitching as it searched for the source of the noise. This one, too, soon lay on the forest floor, and I had the makings of a fine meal.
How long has it been since you enjoyed an experience like the one just described? Chances are, if you’re 35 or older, this is the kind of hunting you cut your teeth on. Years ago, most young hunters started out chasing squirrels and rabbits, usually spending a few seasons on small game pursuits before moving on to hunt deer and turkey. Tracking a running squirrel or rabbit with a 20-gauge shotgun honed our skills, which would pay off as we began wingshooting ducks, geese, quail, and pheasants.
Today, I would wager more kids begin hunting by sitting in a deer blind with a .243. While I’m certainly all in favor of folks going afield hunting for any legal game, I think there are a lot of good reasons for new hunters to start with squirrels.
From 1967–1983, Missouri squirrel hunters harvested between 2 and 3 million bushytails annually. Today, the Department puts that number closer to a half million. As deer and turkey numbers grew over the past several decades, several things have happened. Many seasoned hunters found big game hunting more exciting or more challenging. Meanwhile, many small game species, while still abundant, don’t get much attention. When was the last time you watched a show about squirrel hunting or bought a bag of food plot seed to grow bigger rabbits?
A recent survey of former hunters asked them to identify why they stopped hunting. Two of the top reasons were a lack of time and a lack of places to go — two areas that should not be of concern to a squirrel hunter. Hunters can have a good squirrel hunt in as little as an hour or two, and access opportunities abound in Missouri, with public forest within an easy drive of just about anywhere in the state.
If you prefer to hunt private land, just about every little woodlot harbors a few squirrels, and getting permission to hunt them is much easier than getting permission to hunt deer or turkey.
Most squirrel hunters enjoy solitude when they’re afield. Do the deer hunters in November cut into your solitude? Chances are if you take your .22 out a month earlier, you could enjoy those same woods all to yourself.
The point is many small game species are abundant and often underutilized.
Lots Of Action, Long Seasons, And Liberal Limits
Ask almost any parent and they’ll tell you that today’s young people are all about fast-paced action. This is important to consider as we start young people out hunting. It’s hard for many of them to sit quietly for hours in a tree stand. While adults might consider it relaxing and peaceful, an 11-year-old may have another word for it — boring.
Luckily, a squirrel hunt will often produce a lot of action, especially once a squirrel starts concentrating
on a particular food. Also, squirrel hunting doesn’t usually require the stealth and silence that deer hunting does, so kids can move around more and often even talk quietly without too much worry about spooking game. If they get restless during a sit, a stalk through the woods offers the chance to stretch their legs and explore new places.
Squirrel season is also one of our longest. Hunters have about 8½ months to pursue fox and gray squirrels. And if a lengthy season weren’t enough, bag limits for squirrels in Missouri are generous, allowing hunters to take 10 squirrels per day, with 20 in possession.
If you want to encourage some handicraft, check out our squirrel call on Page 15, or go online and search for homemade squirrel calls or squirrel cutters. These calls are easy enough for kids to make themselves, and using a call they’ve made on their own enhances their feeling of satisfaction.
Squirrel hunting is a great introduction to hunting as it teaches kids valuable skills. Using a .22 rifle hones marksmanship and good shooting technique, but even if they miss, another opportunity will present itself. Squirrel hunting encourages hunters to learn their trees — what they look like, where they grow, and when they produce mast or fruit. Young hunters will quickly learn to use their senses, too — sight to spot movement or hearing to detect the sounds of claws on bark and teeth cutting through shells. Challenge young hunters to find a deer antler, a turkey feather, or a turtle shell. They’ll find other cool treasures as well, and you can use these finds as a chance to teach them about wildlife and nature. Hunting along a creek might even provide a chance to look for arrowheads and talk about our ancestral ties to the pursuit of game.
As hunters, we often talk about the good old days and reminisce about hunts from days gone by. Hit the woods this year and you’ll see that these days may not be old, but they’re just as good.
Squirrel and Dumplings
Season squirrels with salt, pepper, garlic, and diced onion and pressure cook until the meat falls off the bone. Remove the meat from the bone and save the broth.
- 1 egg
- ½ cup water or cooled broth
- 1 teaspoon salt
Mix ingredients with enough flour to make a firm dough. Turn dough out onto a board and knead in flour until dough is stiff. Then roll out thin and leave for about one hour. Slice into either a diamond or noodle shape and drop into boiling broth. Water may be added to the broth. Put squirrel meat in broth and simmer over low heat for at least
15 to 20 minutes before serving.
Make your own squirrel call
Materials and tools needed:
- Popsicle sticks (half or whole)
- Scotch tape (half-inch wide)
- Plastic film (or paper)
If you use half-sticks, you’ll need two per call — one for the top and one for the bottom.
If you use whole sticks, you’ll need to break them in half. (Use the edge of a table.) Then, put the two rounded edges together and tape the ends with the broken edges in Step 1.
You can use paper between your sticks, but it will get soggy after a lot of use and won’t work until it dries out again. Plastic film (like clear report covers) doesn’t get soggy.
- Use 3 inches of tape and wrap all of it around one of your sticks about a quarter-inch from the end. Do this for both sticks.
- With scissors, cut a thin strip of plastic film about the same length and width as one of your sticks. It doesn’t have to be exact, but don’t let it hang out over the edges.
- Sandwich the film between your two sticks. Be sure the film is pinched between the layers of tape.
- Use another 3 inches of tape and wrap all of it around both sticks to hold your call together.
Your squirrel call is finished! Hold the taped end and blow gently between the sticks. If you don’t get a sound at first, try turning the call over. You might need to squeeze the very end of the call to spread the sticks a little bit. This will change your call’s pitch and tone. Experiment and practice. You’ll soon sound like the real thing.