By John Howle
One of the men on Lewis and Clark’s expedition was particularly amazed when the crew reached the vast expanse of the Great Plains with its absence of trees. The man said back East, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi river traveling treetop to treetop without ever touching the ground.
Even though it would be a slight exaggeration to say a squirrel could cross the state of Alabama traveling treetop to treetop, there are lots of wooded areas that serve as home to countless squirrels and offer plenty of hunting opportunities for hunters ranging from the novice to the veteran. The month of February is an ideal time to squirrel hunt and manage for wildlife at the same time.
Wildlife management through squirrel hunting
One thing squirrels have in common with deer and turkeys is they all love hard mast like acorns. A few well-managed squirrel hunts following the Alabama daily bag limit of eight squirrels per day can help keep the squirrel population in check and ensure deer and turkeys can get the benefits of hard mast as well. In addition, February marks a peak in the squirrel’s breeding season, and this gives the youth hunter more opportunities to get a harvest.
Alabama has both gray and fox squirrels, but grays are found more abundantly. Oaks and hickories provide plenty of hard mast food. Also, these hardwood trees serve as home in the form of leaf nests and den trees. Chances are you’ve probably already scouted out ideal squirrel hunting sites during the past deer season.
Get the youngsters out
Now deer season has passed, February offers a more squirrel hunt friendly time of year to be in the woods, especially with youngsters. The fast-paced style of hunting and treetop chases offer lots of excitement to the younger hunters as well as the older ones. If you are hunting in an area where you know squirrels are abundant, the sit and wait method might be most productive. However, if the younger hunter prefers to be on the move, teach them to move slowly through the woods planting each foot softly with eyes on the treetops looking for movement. Both methods require patience, a keen eye and a steady shot.
A shotgun in a .410 or 20-gauge certainly provides a wider pattern and better chance of a harvest, but smaller shoulders might prefer the low recoil of a .22 rifle. Obviously, the rifle will require more range practice before entering the woods. In either case, it’s extremely important to do the practicing at the range instead of on the first squirrel hunt.
Drill the concepts of hunter safety and safe shooting while on the range and in the woods. If the child can remember only one rule, make sure they keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction at all times and be sure of their target and what’s beyond. The excitement of a squirrel hopping onto the side of a tree might result in an unsafe swing of the firearm, but if you are in arm’s reach of the youngster, you can firmly remind them that no squirrel is worth a hunting accident. At regular intervals, check to make sure the gun’s safety is on.
February is often one of the coldest months in Alabama, so make sure you’ve planned to keep warm while out. Dress in layers and make sure the youngster does the same. For cold feet, a method I learned from Lacrosse Boot representatives works quite well for keeping the feet warm. First, spray your feet with an unscented, aerosol anti-perspirant, and wear wool socks.
Moisture and cotton socks are the biggest cause of cold feet. The deodorant keeps the moisture down and the wool wicks moisture away from the feet. If you don’t like the itchy feel of wool, try Merino Wool. This wool comes from the Merino Sheep prized for their extremely soft wool. Most outdoor retailers carry Merino Wool socks.
On windy days, it can be difficult to effectively hunt squirrels because they will often be denned up in trees or nests out of the biting winds. Sometimes taking a shot into the nest will spook a squirrel out of hiding. If there are muscadine vines growing on your hunting property, a vine will often run up a tree containing a nest. By pulling on the vines beside the nest, you can often startle a squirrel out of hiding on these windy days.
Trigger to table
Once you’ve bagged your limit of squirrels for the day, it’s time to prepare for the meal. For those of you who have never eaten squirrel, you are in for quite a treat. The meat has a hearty texture and tastes great when fried similar to chicken.
I’ll dress a squirrel by making an incision across the back with a pocket knife. Next, I place my fingers in this incision and begin pulling the hide apart just like you would pull a shirt and pants off the squirrel. Pull the hide until it is just below the wrists and ankles of the squirrel. Next, cut off the feet and tail which will complete the removal of the hide. Next, filet out the hams and shoulders. Some like to eat the backbone meat as well but I prefer only hams and shoulders where there’s more meat.
Once you have two hams and two shoulders, dip the meat in an egg and batter in self-rising flour adding black pepper and salt. Using a black iron skillet, place the battered meat in ¼ inch of cooking oil and slow fry the meat on the stove eye’s lowest setting. This slow cooking method helps tenderize tough, older squirrels. Once the meat is thoroughly cooked to a golden brown on one side, flip the meat and repeat on the other side until done. This meal goes great with biscuits and gravy, and the youngsters get to immediately enjoy the fruits of their harvest. Squirrel season in Alabama ends February 29, so get busy.
John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.