- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

Although the local gray squirrel hunting season has been open for a while, I insist on having a bit of cold weather before I go into the woods. Hunting and swatting mosquitoes do not go well together. However, when it’s cool enough to remove a warm camo jacket from a storage box, it’s also time to bring home enough of the bushy-tailed rodents to provide a delicious stew that the family enjoys.

That day arrived last week when night temperatures actually touched the high 30s in our neck of the woods, but things “heated up” considerably late in the morning when the mercury climbed into the 40s.

The extensive woodlands where I have permission to hunt deer and turkey belong to friends who have a problem with the squirrels, especially. They raid the fine garden of the landowner wife, stealing tomatoes before they even have a chance to ripen.

“I wished you’d come up here and get some of those rascals,” she says every year during the growing season, and of course I can’t oblige until it’s legal to do so.

With plenty of leaves still on the hardwood trees, I prefer to use a small-gauge shotgun, firing No. 4 shot loads that reduce the chance of busting a tooth as you bite into a tender leg and accidentally clamp down on a pellet. The larger No. 4 loads simply don’t contain as many pellets as No. 6 or 7 1/2 shells. But later, when the trees are bare, I’ll switch to a single projectile .22-caliber rifle.

After loading the gun and slowly entering a stand of oak and beech trees next to an open field, the first things I saw were four does, tails held high, galloping effortlessly through the underbrush and disappearing like ghosts without making a sound. A misty rain fell, softening the ground. Even I was able to stalk through the timber without producing a racket.

Because of heavy rains the day before, the local squirrel population had probably not been feeding on ground mast in at least 24 hours. I knew they couldn’t stay in their treetop lairs much longer - and I was right as I spotted a flash of gray out of the corner of my eye.

Acting mighty suspicious, a squirrel ran down the trunk of a tall white oak as if something was chasing it. It stopped ever so briefly before it reached the bottom of the tree and, well, there now was the first one that would become part of a peppery stew in thick gravy, accompanied by mashed potatoes and peas.

The stop-and-go hunt continued in various parts of the woods until the rain grew stronger and the wind started blowing - all of it anathema to forest creatures who, if they can’t see any danger approaching, at least depend on hearing it.

As I added more stew meat to the morning outing, I thought of the newcomers to hunting and how so many of them want to start with the biggest forest game in these parts, the white-tailed deer. That’s really not how a novice hunter should begin what hopefully will become a lifelong passion.

I was trained by a father and several uncles who insisted that I first become sufficient on small game, then slowly graduate to the bigger prizes. Big game in my case meant deer and wild pigs because they were plentiful in the mountains of southern Bavaria where I began to hunt.

The point simply is this: If you can consistently stalk wild forest squirrels (remember, they’re not half-tame like those found in your backyard), you will become a good deer hunter. If you have the patience to sit well camouflaged under a holly tree, watching a beech tree that you know has squirrels coming out of it or going to it, it will help when you finally hunt deer. It’s all part of building a solid foundation of woodland skills that will pay of handsomely.

Squirrel stew

Skin, clean, wash, and cut up three squirrels - four legs and the back, which should be cut in two.

Saute a finely chopped onion and a couple of cloves of garlic in a deep pot. Salt and pepper the meat, dust off with flour and add to the browing onions. Let the meat brown a while, turning it from time to time, then cover with water; add a bay leaf or two and reduce the heat. Simmer for at least 1 1/2 hours.

When tender to the fork, remove the meat. Raise the heat until the liquid boils. Now thicken it by stirring in a mixture made of 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in a cup of water. Reduce the heat when the gravy has thickened. Taste and see if not more salt, pepper, maybe a shot of hot sauce, is needed. Put the squirrel pieces back into the gravy. Serve with mashed potatoes and peas.

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. Also check out Mueller’s weekend fishing report and his Inside Outside blog at washingtontimes.com/sports.



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