We couldn't see the gray squirrel from our vantage point behind a fallen tree and some tangled brush. But we could certainly hear it descending a large hardwood about 35 yards away.

The small, bushy-tailed critter was noisier than you might suspect. That's because it was perfectly quiet in the snowy forest we were hunting near Red Wing. Any sounds were magnified.

"Glass the base of the tree," whispered my friend, his .22 rifle slung over his right shoulder as we watched for any movement. "See if he pops his head up or comes out in the open. He's going to start looking for food sooner or later."

A Broadway producer couldn't have staged a better day to hunt winter squirrels. It was about 30 degrees, sunny and windless — hitting the trifecta of perfect hunting conditions. Still, winter squirrels can be artful dodgers. They possess characteristics that make them challenging to hunt: exceptional eyesight, speed and agility on the ground and through the treetops. My late father, who loved hunting gray and fox squirrels, thought they had a sixth sense for spotting danger. "Squirrel hunting is no canned hunt," he'd often say. "They'll make a fool out of you if you're not careful."

I'm in my 40s now. As I peered through my binoculars the other day, I couldn't help but feel nostalgic. Like many kids of my generation, squirrel and other small game (such as rabbits) provided my gateway into hunting.

But sadly, participation rates in small-game hunting have been dropping for years in Minnesota and across the Upper Midwest. For squirrel hunting alone, participation has dropped from roughly 40,000 Minnesotans during the 2010-11 season to roughly 34,000 last year, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"Small-game hunting was the traditional path to becoming a hunter, but that has changed," said Steve Merchant, the DNR's wildlife populations and regulations manager. "Fact is, there are just fewer kids and adults hunting squirrels and rabbits today."

Many younger hunters, Merchant and others say, are leapfrogging small game for "sexy species" like deer and turkey. The growing popularity of bowhunting turkey and deer has likely contributed to the shift, they say.

"I think this trend reflects what's happening in our mass media and what we see on outdoor television," Merchant said. "When was the last time you watched a show about squirrel hunting? They're probably few and far between. Marketing plays a significant role in shaping our attitudes about hunting."

I began my squirrel-hunting apprenticeship when I was 5 years old, in the oak woodlots and forested river valleys around Belle Plaine. In my world, my father was the sport's sole promoter, and he had strict rules for his only son: Shut up, observe, learn. He wasn't the most patient teacher, either. He'd turn flat-out ornery after he had missed a shot with his scoped .22. When I'd ask him why he didn't use a shotgun, he'd fume. Let's just say my old man would never stoop to conquer a squirrel with a shotgun. He didn't think it was sporting.

As temperamental as my father could be, he nevertheless instilled in me a passion for squirrel hunting, a tradition I've never wavered from or lost — even as some in contemporary society have devalued squirrels as little more than "woodland rats." My father taught me to respect squirrels and their natural wariness, as well as the succulent meat they provided for the table. I've never forgotten that.

'Deer hunting was for adults'

"When I was growing up in the 1970s near Falcon Heights, I began hunting with a .22 for squirrels at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area," said my friend Tom Dickson, formerly of the Minnesota DNR who is now the editor of Montana Outdoors magazine. "I didn't know anyone in my peer group who hunted deer when I was a kid. Deer hunting was for adults. There seemed to be a progression based on age and maturity: You'd start with squirrels and rabbits, graduate to waterfowl and maybe pheasants as you got older; then you'd go deer hunting. Today things are far different."


"In the 1970s there wasn't a lot of big game, either, so that could have something to do with it," Dickson said. "When deer and turkey populations took off, there was a boom in participation for both. I think a lot of kids just skipped squirrels and rabbits and went straight to what they saw as more exciting stuff to hunt. Deer and turkeys have really been popularized in our culture."

The upside of small game

Small-game hunting still has its staunch devotees — even in the cold of a Minnesota winter. My friend Larry Gavin, a high school English teacher and an avid outdoorsman from Faribault, regularly hunts cottontails with his two beagles. "I grew up hunting rabbits with my dad south of Austin," Gavin said. "I've always liked it, but I really don't know many people who hunt small game anymore. I love hunting rabbits because it evokes memories of my childhood and a much simpler time and gets me outside with my dogs until the end of February. It's just a blast.

"Another thing I always liked about small-game hunting is that you can do it in the place you are," he added. "For squirrels and bunnies, there is no superiority of place. All places are equal. It's the definition of hunting locally. Engaging in outdoor activities where you are at, and understanding a place unusually well. There is a value to that, too. It develops woodsmanship."

The squirrel my friend and I located a few weeks ago near Red Wing seemed to vanish into thin air. He neither poked his head up nor came into the open. "He just disappeared," said my buddy, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief.

Under a peerless blue sky, we walked this particular public hunting area for the next few hours, spying squirrel tracks in the snow but seeing little else. Still, the afternoon was far from a bust. We had the squirrel woods all to ourselves, an anecdotal reminder of just how much the hunting world has changed.

The hunting season for squirrels and rabbits runs through Feb. 28. For more information, go to www.mndnr.gov.

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer who lives in Prior Lake. Contact him at torimccormick33@gmail.com.