BRAINERD - When in January the sun is out, the wind is calm and the temperature is above zero, hunters must take advantage of it.
It was early afternoon last Sunday when I realized if I was to get my weekly fix of the outdoors, now was the time. Weather forecasters were predicting a week of bitter temperatures.
Outside, it was sunny and about 10 degrees. A slight breeze blew from the northwest. All in all it was a decent January day.
I tried via telephone to rustle up a hunting partner or two -- enough manpower to bow-hunt snowshoe hares -- but already it was early afternoon, and on such short notice I was unable to find a cohort.
I thought of spending the afternoon hunting squirrels, but already the day was slipping away. January bushytails rarely venture forth except during the warmest part of the day.
But then I noticed a gray squirrel feeding on sunflower seeds as it hung from one of my backyard bird feeders.
Without delay I loaded my truck with a few squirrel hunting essentials, including a bolt-action .17 HMR, a nifty, accurate little rifle ideal for hunting small game.
It was almost 3 p.m. when I arrived at my hunting location. The area consisted of high rolling ridges studded with red oaks, terrain that eventually butted up to a field of standing corn. It was ideal squirrel habitat.
The past 10 years or so, much of Minnesota has been spared deep snow. Not this year. The white powder was close to knee deep, muffling my footfalls. My breath rose in plumes as I trudged up and down the hills. I scanned the treetops for squirrels and their leafy nests while also surveying the snow for squirrel tracks.
But the oak ridges were surprisingly barren, not just of squirrels but of all wildlife. I crossed the occasional deer track, and sometimes used their meager trails for easier navigation. Nowhere did I see spots the deer had pawed the snow in search of acorns, nor did I see a single turkey track. Obviously, for whatever reason or reasons, the oak trees in the area produce few nuts.
The first animal I saw was a ruffed grouse. It flushed from an isolated clump of hazel brush where I'm sure it had been feeding on catkins. Some might find it odd that a grouse would be in a mature oak forest, but during winter ruffed grouse can be found in almost any habitat type, since they roost beneath the snow and thus don't depend on thick cover typically used during other times of the year.
Next, I hiked in the direction of the standing corn. There had to be squirrels feeding there since the oak ridges were barren.
I walked quietly along the corn field just inside the woods, looking more for squirrel tracks than squirrels themselves. Here and there, written in the snow, I found evidence that indeed squirrels were raiding the corn, but much to my dismay the tracks were made by red squirrels, small cousins to the gray or fox squirrels I was after. Noteworthy by its absence was sign left by turkeys and deer.
That is until I topped the first hill.
There was a flock of turkeys -- 50 or more. With a wild beating of wings and nervous clucks, the birds arose. Some landed in nearby oaks, others flew up and over the trees and sailed out of sight. Many were adult toms, evident by their dangling beards.
I'm always amazed at how a 20-pound-plus bird can rocket through the trees much like the ruffed grouse I had flushed a few minutes earlier. Sure a flying turkey's wings strike branches, and now and then one of the big birds will falter in heavy cover. But despite their size and ungainly appearance, they are astonishingly adept fliers.
Judging by the turkey tracks the entire flock had lived literally within about a 2-acre area, feeding on the corn and then loafing and roosting in the oaks that adjoined the field. The deep, fluffy snow had the birds concentrated.
By now the sun was near the horizon. Further along I finally found a few spots where gray or fox squirrels had entered and left the cornfield. I followed the tracks while scanning the tree tops, but ultimately I saw no squirrels.
The best squirrel hunting is yet to come. Between now and when the squirrel hunting season ends Feb. 28, expect to see squirrel activity increase, especially on warm, sunny days when the wind is calm. Midday is usually the best time to find squirrels during winter.
Some people consider squirrels to be "woodland rats," unfit for human consumption. But the meat is actually very good.
Don't forget the squirrel "rut" or breeding season is starting. Squirrels that have procreation on their minds are often more active and less wary as they chase each other through the trees. Hunting will only get better as the winter progresses.
In Minnesota, the daily limit of gray and fox squirrels is seven combined and 14 in possession. Shooting hours are from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.