Some of my sweetest and earliest memories of life are of going to the squirrel woods with my dad or grandpa on fall days — some 60 years ago! Growing into my teens, I remember the high anticipation of September 1 — opening day for bushy tails with other hunting seasons to follow. It was the absolute best time of year.|
We typically would hunt in tandem, often sitting at the base of a large tree together. Dad and grandpa taught me to be patient, with the old hunter's cliché: 'squirrels will forget about you in 20 minutes — you can only sit still for 18' whispered in my ear countless times.
Dad used a single-shot .22 rifle with open sights or occasionally a single shot .410 shotgun; grandpa always used a .410 — he was 70-ish then. I followed suit, using .22s or a .410, however repeating rifles and shotguns were much more 'firepower-worthy' in my developing mind.
Dad and grandpa both went to the happy hunting ground in the sky around 40 years ago and while I continued to hunt squirrels, my interest waned and other hunting and fishing pursuits became higher priorities. That was until about 10 years ago when E. J. Mattecheck of Moline reintroduced me to the joy and sport of squirrel hunting.
He hunts bushy tails in much the same manner as I was taught, but with a few twists: he exclusively uses a .22, with excellent quality optics; uses shooting sticks and a little plastic device called a "Mr. B's Distress Squirrel Whistle" made by Lohman. He's an exceptional marksman with a rifle, given that he passed the four-score mark in age this spring; and I'm not sure if he even owns a scattergun. I think his personal best squirrel shot is something just over 100 paces — told me he had to aim a bit high to compensate for bullet drop. That's impressive, to say the least.
Shooting sticks are for when one is sitting — E.J.'s are cleverly home-made, very simple and work very well. Standing shots are braced by a tree trunk or branch — off hand shorts are rarely attempted. The 'squirrel whistle' is a dandy little device used to fool squirrels into doing something to give away their location or stop their movement. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's chuckling cool.
E.J. also taught me to enjoy the entire squirrel season. In prior years, upland season signaled the end of bushy tail hunting. I now look forward to a different kind of squirrel hunting when the leaves are on the forest floor — even into late winter as Feb. 15 ends the season in Illinois. It has become an enjoyable personal challenge to extend my personal range of shooting in later season when there are no leaves on the trees (snow cover is even better) to hide either the prey or predator.
I use an easy-to-carry small caliber rimfire rifle — an HMR .17 with respectable optics. I've found my .17 tobe extremely accurate with those tiny speeding bullets more capable of stopping a coyote should one show up while waiting for fox or grey squirrels to appear. I sit fully-camoed at the base of a wide tree, not unlike setting up for a turkey hunt, where I can observe a group of trees and the surrounding ground; and wait. The first bushy tails to forget about me and start bounding around are usually 40 or more yards away, so many shots are 50 or more yards, with my personal record now at 76 yards. Not bad considering the target is about the size of a walnut.
And, yes, I eat squirrels — they are delicious. They have a taste to themselves, and no, it's nothing like chicken. After dressing, I soak the animal in salt water for several hours or more, then cut into eight pieces, discarding the ribs which offer little meat. Roll the pieces in a mixture of flour, salt and pepper and fry slowly in a well-oiled cast iron skillet turning frequently. If you're a gravy maker, the drippings are super for gravy over mashed potatoes. A yummy bon appetite after a fine day in the great outdoors.
Bob Groene is outdoors writer for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org