October 7, 2012

Allen Afield: Among reasons shooters like a .22 rifle: a nice fricasseed squirrel

By KEN ALLEN

Most hunters own a .22 rimfire rifle -- and for good reason. For starters, novice shooters can easily master the mild recoil, and in fact, this rifle has virtually no kick. Period.

That feature helps them learn to shoot this small caliber accurately, but folks can also buy inexpensive ammunition for guilt-free target practice, worry less about noise bothering neighbors and hunt small-game animals and even birds like grouse that sit still long enough for a stationary shot.

In Maine, this cartridge makes an excellent choice for hunting edible critters. We can target squirrels and grouse from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 and varying hares from Oct. 1 to March 31. Red squirrels and woodchucks are fair game year-round, and I have shot foxes with this pipsqueak choice.

What's not to like about a .22 rimfire?

A .22 rifle comes in a variety of actions for every taste, including a bolt, slide, lever, semi-auto or single-shot. Most parents start their children with one of these styles, and in fact, my mother and father gave me a Stevens bolt-action .22 rimfire when I was 5 years old. With that six-shot rifle, they taught me proper firearms safety from day one.

My parents traded a sit-in pedal car for the .22, and I never looked back. The little red "sportster" no longer fitted me, and the new owner of the car loved it. In short, the .22 turned into one of my favorite gifts in life.

The rifle served me well for 36 years and accounted for gray squirrels, ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, varying hare, red squirrel, woodchuck and red fox. That .22 harvested mostly squirrels and hares for fricassees, but it took at least one of the other animals before my 14th birthday. Putting food on the table for the family made me feel proud.

My partnership with this rifle ended with an amazing amount of luck, too: Mainly, I didn't injure my eye or in a worst-case scenario put it out.

The manufacturer designed the bolt-action for a right-hander, but I shoot left-handed with both eyes open. Because of holding the rifle on my left shoulder, it left my right eye vulnerable if burning powder sprayed from the juncture between the bolt and chamber, which seldom, if ever, happens.

On a crisp, still October day, though, a gray squirrel passed my path on a beech ridge and offered a long, tough head shot for a .22. I closed my right eye to give me a shooting edge, a fortuitous decision.

On the trigger squeeze, powder flew from around the bolt head and blackened the right side of my face, particularly the eyebrow and lid. Closing the eye had saved me from a serious eye injury, and also it reinforced the importance of wearing glasses for safety when shooting.

I retired the rifle and quickly replaced it with a Marlin .22 semi-auto that worked great for squirrels and rabbits. The rifle had a wicked accurate micro-groove barrel, so for a tiny investment, I had acquired a decent hunting tool that cost far less than a high-end choice. (Years ago, I almost bought a Kimber bolt-action.)

I drifted back into gray-squirrel hunting a few years ago and found -- probably surprising to more squeamish palates -- that this animal tastes as good as I remembered it in my youth. In fact, when I was 11 years old, the rich, nutty flavor of fricasseed or stewed squirrel was my favorite meal.

This country grew up on squirrel and rabbit as main dishes, and two tactics work fine for harvesting this abundant food:

First, these rodents like to get out later in the morning as the air starts to warm, so a hunter with a squirrel meal in mind sneaks onto a hardwood ridge and finds a good place to sit -- say against a large tree trunk to break up the human outline. Then, without fidgeting, the hunter just sits quietly and waits for the game to come. It can be that simple.

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