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Don’t be a couch potato - To spice up your winter try Wintertime Squirrel Hunting

Tom Lounsbury

Mon, 09 Jan 2017 08:28:40 EST

 


click on the picture to enlarge










   Tom Lounsbury's granddaughter McKenna loves hunting late-season squirrels
with a Henry Mini-Bolt .22 rifle. Squirrel hunting is actually a great
pastime for youth hunters because it often features plenty of action.





Don’t be a couch potato - To spice up your winter try Wintertime Squirrel Hunting
By Tom Lounsbury

When January and the rest of winter rolls in, I automatically begin pondering squirrel hunting and there is little doubt in my mind that a highly underutilized outdoor pastime is wintertime squirrel hunting. Personally I thoroughly enjoy every opportunity to go squirrel hunting and I have my favorite spots on both private and public land (actually the Thumb area offers excellent squirrel hunting opportunities at the various State Game Areas found in all three counties and some of my squirrel “hot” spots are on public land).
A beauty about squirrel hunting is that you don’t have to travel far to find ample opportunities anywhere in our great state of Michigan and with plenty of public ground available, it is a very accessible winter pastime which doesn’t cost a fortune to pursue (the Base License covers small game hunting). Once January comes around and with the deer seasons being over, a proper and polite approach can often provide access to private property.
I was real pleased when squirrel season was extended all the way through the first day of March, and this allows me to pick and choose my days according to winter weather influences. I’ve found that cold and blustery days aren’t that conducive to good squirrel hunting, but when the wind calms down a bit and add some sunshine, I’ll be in the woods seeking “bushy-tails”, which are great to eat with a whole bunch of recipes to use (squirrel meat makes just as good a “hasenpfeffer” as rabbit meat - and a variety of hasenpfeffer recipes can be found online, and we have our own family special, a great wintertime flavor).
Being a resident of the hardwoods, squirrels are tree rodents that live primarily on a wide variety of nuts, berries and buds. Squirrels take advantage of food caches (usually a variety of nuts) they’ve made in the woods to see them through the winter. If you find nut-bearing trees, you should be able to locate plenty of squirrels.
With leaves gone and usually snow on the ground, winter squirrel hunting is a much different atmosphere than the early fall season, and has its own share of distinct challenges. While it is easier to see squirrels in the winter landscape, it is also easier by the same token for sharp-eyed squirrels to spot hunter movements. Being prey animals with a wide variety of predators after them, squirrels are quite alert and hunting them during the winter is usually not a slam-dunk affair.
An advantage to winter squirrel hunting however is due to the nut caches which are usually located on the ground. A majority of my shots at squirrels during the winter are actually on ground traveling/feeding squirrels. Because of this I more often than not prefer a .22 rifle that allows me a little more reach on wary winter squirrels, and I do appreciate the white, snowy backdrop for this type of shooting. When it comes to shotguns for this atmosphere I prefer the small bores such as .410 and 28 ga stoked with number 4 lead shot (I dislike my squirrel meat being peppered with birdshot). Besides a variety of “twenty-twos” (some scoped, some not) I also use a variety of air rifles and a .32 caliber muzzleloader. (When using a rifle for squirrels, always try to make sure there is a safe backstop for the shot. A .22 rimfire round for example has a range of over a mile, so popping away at a sky-lined squirrel scampering overhead through flimsy branches is very unwise).
No matter what firearm I use, I prefer to focus on a headshot whenever possible not only to prevent meat damage (and no, I’ve never had a hankering for squirrel brains - a Southern delectable), but also because squirrels are surprisingly tough and resilient despite their small stature. When you clean squirrels you have shot and remove the hide, you can readily see their very muscular and lean stature that allows them to scamper through the trees as fast and gracefully as they can do. Skinning squirrels can also be interesting (and requiring patience) because they certainly don’t “peel” as easily as rabbits do - I’m always looking for an easier squirrel-skinning method.
One thing to always remember when it comes to skinning squirrels (and rabbits too) is to never, ever bring them into your house to perform the task. It is amazing how many fleas can suddenly appear when a warm room temperature wakes them up. I do all my squirrel (and rabbit) skinning and slicing and dicing outdoors. Also it is wise to wear rubber gloves when skinning because squirrels (and rabbits) often come into contact with poison ivy which doesn’t bother them a bit, but it can be transferred to you, even during winter (although poison ivy leaves are long gone during winter, the rest of the plant including vines can still pass on their allergic residue). I’ve been there, done that, and now always wear rubber gloves for skinning purposes. Poison ivy and I don’t get along a bit.
The two squirrel species hunted in Michigan are the fox squirrel (which is the largest specie) and the gray squirrel (which often features a black color phase that some folks assume is a different specie altogether, but isn’t). Here in the Thumb the most predominate specie is the fox squirrel due to our agriculture rich atmosphere it much prefers (and it loves field corn especially). There are however pockets of gray squirrels (including the black color phase) and one of my favorite local hunting spots features both species, and I don’t mind the variety at all. Once in the pot they all taste the same, which is always very flavorful, and ultimately the meat is fat-free (although the recipes I prefer sort of knock the heck out of being “fat-free”).
A key I use in selecting my winter days for seeking squirrels is that if I notice a likely number are out and about in an urban environment, the chances are they are out and about in the woods where I can hunt them. My favorite wintertime method is usually “spot and stalk” and I don’t appreciate crusty and crunchy snow that renders this particular method practically useless. Like I said earlier, I do pick and choose my days. I also sit and hold tight once I figure I’m in range of a lot of squirrel activity, and I don’t move to retrieve each and every squirrel I’ve shot right away, because hunter movement is more unforgiving than the sound of a gunshot. When I shoot a squirrel, I mark its location to memory and only retrieve downed squirrels after I’m done with that setup. I have on occasion bagged my 5-squirrel limit in this manner, from one spot.
Being able to recognize den-trees certainly helps. Squirrels have their notable leaf-nests but I have found they usually prefer dens by exploiting holes in mature hardwoods caused by a branch falling off next to the trunk. They are quite snug for winter in this manner and I’ve noticed large sugar maples are often a favorite tree. A den-tree will feature a somewhat sanded appearance in the bark (caused by the continual sharp nails of squirrels latching on) leading up to the notable hole in the trunk (a literal trail, so to speak). Some large, mature trees can certainly feature more than one squirrel-den, and these always get my focus.
Nothing beats a fine day spent in the squirrel woods (which as I mentioned before, are readily available on public land in the Thumb), and I’ll take that over my being a “couch potato” anytime to shorten the winter months. And if you ever try squirrel meat in a “hasenpfeffer” recipe, you probably will be out performing more wintertime squirrel hunting activities, trust me. It is truly a great winter pastime.

 

 

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