SMALL GAME hunting has declined sharply over the decades of my hunting career, and I am part of that decline. When I was a kid, my dad raised beagles, and he and my brothers and I would go to the fields every fall Saturday from when I was 12 until I was 37. Then Mike, our best beagle ever – he could jump rabbits and quickly chase them in a wide circle to our waiting shotguns and also flush the cackling ringnecks into the bright blue sky for an open shot – sadly passed away at the age of seven, and Powser gave up raising dogs.
So, during the 1980s, Billy, Skip and I converted to squirrel hunting in local woodlots in Mercer and Lawrence counties, with some success. Then we founded Camp F-Troop in 1986 and discovered “the great place” for ruffed grouse in the 1990s by researching the vast area of State Game Lands 86 in Warren County and focusing on cuts white with several years of foliage regeneration. We gutted 20 or 25 birds a day and only killed a couple a day, but were left awestruck by their thunderous flushes and deviant flight paths. This was a native, unstocked game bird worth pursuing. Our state bird.
But nowadays, ruffed grouse populations have dropped sharply due to West Nile virus, habitat issues, and other issues, and many of us have given up grouse hunting altogether. Rabbits have also declined due to habitat issues, and wild pheasants have almost disappeared. So what should an avid small game hunter pursue before and after deer season? What are squirrels? Populations of these tasty animals have survived and thrived throughout the state of Pennsylvania, in small private woodlots, public parks, and State Game Lands where hunting is permitted and encouraged.
Squirrels are in season from October to February (before and after deer season) and they are abundant wherever hardwood trees grow and produce food. Hickory trees attract them, as do oaks, maples, cherry trees, dogwoods, fruit trees and many others. They’re active in all seasons except the coldest winter days, and if you’re hunting them with a .22 single shot rifle, that’s good practice for deer season. Camp F-Troop regular Brad Isles led a hunting trip last month for winter squirrels and had a great time in the woods and a great time in the kitchen. Brad says:
“My reasons for hunting squirrels are two-fold: first, I had never eaten a squirrel and wanted to try it. Second, I knew I would be using Billy’s old .22, since I bought it there to his widow Sandy some time ago. Knowing the history of the weapon at Camp F-Troop and what the camp has meant to me for the past 15 years, it seemed right. Late small game season had arrived and it gave us a reason to take a camp trip together in what was otherwise a long, cold February.
“There were only four of us to watch the hunt and we chose Thompson Run Hollow for its good wild game populations. We hiked up creek through pines and hemlocks and then up the steep incline among hardwoods. We didn’t see much, so we changed our plan to a hunt behind the camp, where the squirrels are plentiful. I walked along the edge of Game Lands, then set up to watch for squirrels. After a while I shot a gray squirrel gliding among the windfalls, but I missed. Shortly after, I heard chattering about 40 yards up the hill. The squirrel ran then stopped and I dropped it.
“I skinned and quartered the squirrel and put the meat in a salty brine overnight. I chose a recipe Todd had tried last year, which involved making a light breading with salt, pepper and a little cajun seasoning then fry the wedges.It went well and I will definitely try again next year.
DON FEIGERT is the outdoor writer for The Herald and the Allied News. His latest book, The F-Troop Camp Chronicles, and previous books are available by contacting Don at 724-931-1699 or [email protected] Browse her website at www.donfeigert.com Or visit Leanna’s Books at Shenango Valley Mall.