Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By Ken Allen
Much to my dad’s disgust, gray-squirrel shooting excited me more than deer hunting until my 14th birthday, and why not? As the gerunds suggest, “shooting” implies action, and “hunting” sounds a tad pedantic to a kid.
Right or wrong, the preference may not surprise folks with a memory of their early teens or an understanding of that age group. Gray squirrels provide shooting galore, but deer offer hours and even days or a week of no sightings. Lack of action destroys confidence and bores young teens.
Competent game cooks can turn gray squirrels into good eats, too – a nutty, rich taste that appeals to adventurous diners who can ignore the fact that this 17- to 20-inch long, 1- to 11/2-pound critter is a rodent. (After skinning they do look like rats.)
At age 11, part of my summer vacation passed with an aunt who lived south of Boston. One evening a suburban denizen from South Hanover asked about my favorite food and evidently expected a kid to say pizza, spaghetti, fried chicken or french fries. My answer visibly shocked him.
“Squirrel,” I said without hesitation, a choice from a country boy with a Coopers Mills, Maine, address for the first 24 years of life.
Back then, when a gray squirrel fell to my Stevens .22 rimfire rifle, images of fricasseed-squirrel jumped to mind, as it should. Gathering protein the old-fashioned way is serious business.
My recipe now includes browning serving pieces and chopped onions with salt, pepper and sage to taste, and pouring a half- to 1-cup of a white or red dry wine into the hot pan, which should sizzle for a few seconds.
After two or three minutes, the alcohol dissipates. Then add enough water or chicken broth to cover the meat (barely) and simmer until tender. Remove the serving pieces and thicken the gravy with a roux.
Serve with a fall Brassica, winter squash and potatoes, pasta or rice. A light Bordeaux red such as a Graves or Medoc helps create a memorable October feast, as do amenities such as china, candlelight and linen napkins.
Maine’s gray-squirrel season runs from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, an under-hunted species in this state. Dropping foliage now increases sightings.
Two habitats attract squirrel concentrations for shooters.
Oak and beech ridges laden with heavy mast crops draw this small-game animal, and oak groves excite me the most. In my humble opinion, oaks produce nuts more consistently than beech.
Cornfields close to oak or beech ridges with mast create a double dose of forage – a squirrel hunter’s shooting Mecca.
Hunting tips from youth have stuck with me into adulthood.
Camo or drab, solid-colored clothing works well for sitting against a big trunk or thick foliage to break the human outline. This gives shooters an edge for hiding from the prey’s prying eyes.
One April at age 10, I made a shooting stick from a red-maple sapling the size of a kid’s thumb with a fork on the top end for resting the front of the rifle stock.
After peeling the bark, I sharpened the bottom end for sticking into the ground and tied a string onto the fork for hanging this simple aiming aid in a hot shed to dry for the summer – the perfect rest for a rifle. This tool helped me harvest more squirrels by far than by holding the rifle offhand.
My rabbit hound also increased my success rate, a Lab-beagle-bloodhound mix named Stormy. When we sneaked along a hardwood ridge, squirrels would circle to the tree’s backside to hide. The dog resembled a yellow Lab, a breed with legendary intelligence, and he would routinely circle the tree to flush the furtive prey around the trunk to my waiting rifle.
The downside to this dog: His rabbit-hound training influenced him to chase a rabbit now and then, which screwed up squirrel hunts. Often enough, though, we came home with a hare as well as a squirrel or two.
I grew up with my father preaching a philosophy that humans should keep a hand in the food-gathering process, so they would know animals and plants die to sustain life, a lesson for the ages. It wasn’t lost on me.
Even gardening fit into his lessons. As all gardeners know, a single winter squash, ear of corn, broccoli floret, etc. often grow faster than all the rest in that garden through summer, which gives the largest produce an identity. After watching, say, a squash grow for weeks, we eat it in one sitting, making us realize how much goes into a simple side dish.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: