Most diehard sportsmen are busily prepping themselves for the upcoming deer seasons, which begin with the archery-only hunt on Sept. 28. Few are giving much thought to small game of any kind, let alone squirrels.
The opening day of Tennessee’s squirrel season was almost four weeks ago. Of the few among us who still consider themselves squirrel hunters, most only go on opening day — mostly for old times’ sake — then hang up their gun and don’t think about it again until late August rolls around next year.
There was a time when squirrel hunting was it, even into October and November. As other game like deer and turkey have become more plentiful, and supermarket meats less expensive, and as hunters find more activities lobbying for their time, that has slowly changed.
Rare is the modern hunter who takes advantage of the truly best time for stalking these bushy-tailed tree rodents — late September and October. And that’s a shame. Easing along a woodland ridge on a crisp October evening, scanning the golden-hued tops of oak trees — or just about any other mast-bearing tree — for squirrels is one of life’s simple pleasures.
Several months ago, I made a pledge to myself: I am going to do far less archery hunting this year, and watch a little less football on Saturdays, to free up a little more time to reacquaint myself with squirrel hunting. As a kid, I spent many October afternoons after school, and many October weekend mornings, stalking the wooded areas along Black Creek, looking for the tell-tale shaking of the limbs in the beech trees that lined the banks.
The benefits of mid-season squirrel hunting are many: the weather is cooler than in late August, and once the first frost occurs there are far fewer pests to fight off . . . no seed ticks, no skeeters. The first frost also wipes out the warbles (botfly larvae) that infest squirrels in late summer and early fall. Plus, the forests are simply beautiful in October. And a day spent roaming the woods on an autumn afternoon is good for the soul.
One reason so many hunters have quit squirrel hunting is that dining on the critters has become something of a forgotten art. Even in a day when surveys show that an increasing number of Americans are taking up the hunting sports because they’re enamored with the opportunity to put their own “organic” meats on the table, squirrel is way under-appreciated as a dish.
Middle Tennessee’s David Edgar, a white-collar type by day and grizzled outdoorsman after hours, likes to instruct “newcomers” on the proper way to prepare squirrel:
“Take a couple of cedar planks and soak them in vinegar water for 24 hours,” Edgar has said. “Put your marinaded squirrel between the planks and tie them together with string, and grill over charcoal until the meat is the proper temperature. Remove the planks from the grill. Throw away the squirrel and eat the planks.”
Edgar is kidding, of course. He’s one of the best wild game chefs you’ll ever meet. If it flies, flops, swims, hops or crawls, Edgar has cooked it . . . in a way that would make even the biggest yuppie’s mouth water. And squirrel is probably at the top of the list.
Truth be told, there are few meats better — or better for you — than squirrel. Our forefathers in these rural hills and hollers of northern Tennessee and Kentucky probably own the patent for squirrel dumplings and pan-fried squirrel, and it’s hard to beat those two tried-and-true dishes. But that’s just the start of the many ways squirrel — “chicken of the trees” — can be prepared.
“A squirrel lives for six to seven years, whereas a cottontail (rabbit) lives for only one,” writes chef and author Georgia Pellegrini. “The texture of squirrel meat is denser, the color grayer, and the flavor more complex because of this.
“When you think about it, squirrels are hoarders, and after having feasted on a grove of pecans or acorns, their meat is nutty and sweet, buttery and tender,” she adds. “And so a fat, nut-fed squirrel is not only better tasting than any meat in the woods, it can be even better tasting, and much more economical than that Spanish pig that sells for $170 per pound.”
Squirrels not only taste good, they’re also good for you. Squirrel meat is very low in fat, making it a healthy alternative to beef or pork. And with no plant processing, industrial packaging, or farm injections and feeds, squirrels — like any wild game meat — are much more organic than commercial meats.
The meat of squirrel is an excellent source of vitamins B6 and B12, as well as iron. It is also a good source of niacin — the cardiac-healthy natural acidic compound that can help combat cholesterol problems.