- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

I’m a squirrel hunter, and I offer no apologies to people who feed those that are half-tame in municipal parks, or to animal rights advocates who know little or nothing about hunting.

If shooting squirrels to provide food for their families was good enough for the likes of Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and mountain men from Western Maryland to Wyoming, well, then it’s good enough for me.

To be sure, I hunt other wild game as well; everything from deer to wild turkeys and from ducks to cottontail rabbits, occasionally even bears and caribous. But when cold winter days loom and some of the big-game seasons have begun to shut down, the gray squirrels in our neck of the woods provide as many hunting challenges as any other game. Besides, the little rodents are excellent, nourishing table fare.

I’m sure reading all this will result in serious cases of the goose bumps for card-carrying members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights groups, but being scorned by animal religionists is no more hurtful than being hit with a feather duster.

There is, however, something that has bothered me lately. During the latest deer hunting season in southern Maryland, I was able to count 10 to 12 squirrels every time I reposed in my tree stand and watched the grounds around me. In the back of my mind, I promised myself to return after the deer hunt ended and cash in on a bounty of the bushy-tailed wizards.

Soon thereafter I sat at the base of a large oak tree, fully expecting to be overrun by the gray speedsters, a .22-caliber rifle cradled in my arms.

Not even one squirrel showed up. None, nada, nichts.

What’s up with these critters? My better half suggested that because of the cold they might have started hibernating, and all I answered her with was a bitter laugh.

They don’t hibernate, do they? They never have in the past. In southern Maryland, you see squirrels every day of the year - except, of course, this particular day when I entered the woods with a firearm in my hand.

Happily, my fears about hibernating gray squirrels disappeared the following week, when I found action in another section of the hardwood forest I’m privileged to visit.

The squirrels appeared long after daylight, at about 8 a.m., and they busily fed on the few white acorns and beechnuts they could find. Much of the nut mast they love so much had mostly been devoured by deer and flocks of wild turkeys, but enough food could be found under the leaves to keep the furry critters busy.

By the way, one of my hunting mentors when I was in my late teens was a Western Marylander whose name was Gene Moon. The powerfully built Moon knew how gullible I was when I was a youngster. I believed every word he said.

“Boy,” he once said, “if you want the squirrels to show themselves, just walk into the woods with your bill-cap turned backwards. The squirrels will spot you from up high in their trees and seeing the bill on the cap they’ll think you’re leaving, not coming in. Before you know it, you’ll be up to your armpits in squirrels.”

I’m ashamed to admit that I often I turned my cap around whenever a squirrel hunt was under way in those days.

- Wash the skinned and dressed squirrels, then cut them in two across the saddle. Salt and pepper the carcass halves and dust them with a little flour. (Plan to serve at least 1 1/2 squirrels per person.)

Put the squirrel halves into a deep pot with a little oil that contains a finely chopped onion and a crushed clove of garlic.

Brown the bodies a few minutes on each side, then cover the meat with equal amounts of water and canned beef stock; add two bay leaves. Place a lid on the pot and let the meat slowly simmer until it is tender to the fork.

Remove the meat, bring the remaining liquid to a boil and thicken the gravy with a bit of water-dissolved corn starch. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Usually, a little more salt or a couple of shots of Maggi seasoning or soy sauce will do.

Put the meat back into the gravy. Serve with mashed potatoes and lima beans, string beans or red cabbage.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com. Visit Mueller’s Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/ sports.

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