Whenever I think of hunting squirrels, I can’t help but recall the movie “Christmas Vacation” starring Chevy Chase. A squirrel is running loose through the Griswold household when Chase’s Clark says something along the lines of: “Where is Cousin Eddie? He eats these things.”
Some people consider squirrels to be “woodland rats,” unfit for human consumption. But squirrel meat is actually very good — just as tasty as venison to my palate.
When I was a kid, my mother liked to prepare the squirrels my brothers and I brought home using the standard formula with cream of mushroom soup. Now my favorite squirrel recipe is a stir-fry. I simply cut the meat into strips against the grain, sauté, add veggies and sauce, and it’s ready to eat.
Hunting squirrels during the winter requires different tactics than in the fall. In the winter, squirrels tend to be most active during the middle or warmest part of the day, unlike earlier in the season, when they’re most on the move at dawn and dusk.
The best winter hunting occurs on warm and sunny days with little or no wind. When the mercury plunges, squirrels tend to spend the day in a tree cavity or a nest made of leaves.
Mature oak forest is the squirrel’s preferred habitat. An oak woodland adjoining an unharvested or picked cornfield is a squirrel hunter’s paradise, since bushytails will feed on the corn in addition to acorns provided by the oaks.
Squirrel hunting can be especially good during February because that is breeding season for squirrels. Sometimes several male squirrels can be found in one tree as they vie for the favors of a female.
It takes a bit of practice to spot stationary squirrels as they hide among tree limbs. Oftentimes, a squirrel’s fluffy tail will give it away. Even a slight breeze can shift the end of the tail.
The best way to pursue squirrels involves two or more hunters. The idea is to spread about 30 yards apart and hunt slowly. One hunter moves ahead while the others remain still, watching the trees for movement.
The moving hunter will often prompt a squirrel to shift from one side of a tree trunk or branch to the other. This exposes the squirrel to the idle hunter. The largest oak trees in a given area usually hold the most squirrels.
Hunters should watch for squirrel tracks in the snow. They should spend extra time scanning trees in the area where a profusion of tracks is encountered.
The squirrel season in Minnesota runs through Feb. 28. The daily limit on gray and fox squirrels is seven squirrels combined, and shooting hours are a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.