Some of the fondest memories of my youth involve the common gray squirrel and a single barrel, 20-gauge shotgun. My Dad started me hunting when I was 10, and in his mind, he figured that if I was going to be unfettered in the woods with a strong desire to pull the trigger, he could at least slow down my consumption of shells with a longer reloading cycle.
While the single-barrel's capacity did force me to be more judicious with my shots, after a few trips I longed for the day when I would be able to carry an 870 pump like his.
We were rationed shells, and usually left camp with enough rounds for a limit of squirrels and a couple of slugs, just in case a deer were to stumble unwittingly into our path. While that old 20 never spoke to a deer, it did lay a raft of gray squirrels on the dinner table.
As kids growing up on a lake in central Florida, we were attached to the water at the waist, and spent almost every day fishing, swimming and water-skiing. Around our hometown of Lakeland, the changes in seasons were subtle, but in the early '60's you didn't have to check the calendar to know what time of year it was. Snowbirds started showing up around Halloween, and when we could count at least one out of three car tags from New York or other points northeast it was time to get ready for hunting season.
Every November, we would load up and head for Gulf Hammock along the West Coast near Otter Creek. Back then, the area on both sides of highway 92 was public hunting land. In most years, it was so wet that only the most stalwart of hunters penetrated the dense undergrowth. For those willing to wade and slog their way through heavy palmettos, creeks, marshes and brush, it was an ideal land for hunting the wily grays.
Huge live oaks spread their massive arms as if to push back the hickory, sweet gum, pine and cypress trees that crowded the forest floor. At first light the treetops would be teeming with running and chattering squirrels barking their disapproval to intruding strangers.
For the first couple of years that we hunted, my older brother and I were limited to hunting within eyesight of Dad. He kept a close watch on us to make sure we didn't get lost, but perhaps more importantly to him, we were to stay close to perform our chief function. If he had a squirrel treed that would not show itself, he would signal one of us to walk around the backside of the tree. It was our mission to flush and turn the squirrels, and if we weren't lightening quick, he would reach out with his 16-gauge pump and drop them in our lap.
Naturally, our next job was to fetch. Dad didn't need a dog. He had two retrievers that didn't bark, scratch fleas or chase cars. Sometimes we had a hard time finding one that still had enough strength to pull itself under a pile of leaves or behind a fallen branch. These instances would elicit a standard response. "What am I feeding you boys for anyway. I'd be better off with a beagle," he would harp.
All the while, I was wishing that he had a beagle, so that I could venture out of the reach of that pump shotgun and get a little action of my own. Usually there was more than one squirrel in a tree, and the second shot was ours if we didn't dawdle. In the early days, we got our share of shots off, and always managed to bag three or four on a good day, but we both longed for independence. When we had a few years of close work under our belts, we were allowed to slip off a little further, as long as we stayed within a shout's distance.
What a thrill it was to be hunting alone without having to be admonished for stepping on a limb or swatting a mosquito when it was time to be still. While Dad could bark like a squirrel by simply working the air between his cheeks, I had not mastered that technique. My bark lacked the air of authenticity that his had, but I learned a few tricks of my own.
A squirrel's worst enemy is their own mouth. They just can't keep quiet. Even when they're filling it with hickory nuts, their gnawing is so loud that it can be heard for some distance. When I would hear them chattering or chewing on nuts, I would slip as quietly as possible through the woods. When they were alerted to my approach, it didn't take long to figure out that I could set down and wait them out. Eventually, either their curiosity or hunger would get the best of them and they would stick their head out from behind a limb. Gradually, I improved on the skills that he taught me, and on a good day my game bag would contain a limit of eight.
Naturally, when we got back to camp, the duty of cleaning the day's harvest fell to the junior hunters. Shucking these little rascals out of their fur coat was easy once I got the hang of it. The first task was to limber up the ones that had gotten stiff. Dad gave a demonstration, but got wise after we asked him to show us again, three more times. That was the end of the free ride, and from then on we were on our own.
Here's the gist of the technique, but "I'm only going to show you once".
Grasping the tail, you put their hind legs on a log and put a foot down on their feet. Making a cut just under the tail, you cut through the tailbone without severing the skin on their back. This is an important point, because the tail becomes the handle for pulling later in the process.
Next you run a blade down the inside of the skin in front of each hind leg, meeting at the underbelly. After pulling down the skin on the hind legs you have a handy way to hang them on a stiff branch while pulling the remainder of the skin down over their head. That's where the tail comes in handy. If you cut, or break the tail off, the process is much more difficult. To complete the process, simply remove the entrails and sever the head.
Squirrels can be prepared by boiling them with dumplings, but I never cared much for that recipe. For my palette, the only way to eat squirrel is fried. The absolute best combination is fried squirrel, mashed potatoes and gravy with a couple of buttermilk biscuits.
To fry them properly you should cut them up into smaller pieces so that each piece can be completely immersed in hot oil, and brown evenly. A light coating of flour, salt and pepper will add just the right amount of crunchy, and you've got a very tasty meal.
One of the best parts of the meal was the gravy, at least when someone else made it. Normally there wasn't much effort put into meal preparation in our camp, and gravy was definitely a luxury at the hands of chef-Dad. When it came to the fine art of sauces, Dad wasn't much of a gourmet. As a matter of fact, I can only remember a few times that he made it, but I definitely can remember the last.
It was so thick that the spoon stood straight up in the bowl. When Dad wasn't looking, I hooked a finger over the end and let it snap back, it vibrated like a tuning fork. One of Dad's hunting buddies, who often joined us, remarked that he wanted another slice of gravy, and that's the precise moment he became our new camp cook. Once the blue air cleared, we had a new chef, and Smitty could make gravy like none I have met since.
When Smitty was in camp the squirrels didn't have a chance. Good gravy was all the incentive we needed to fill our limit.
As we grew older, and graduated to bigger game, we gradually turned away from squirrel hunting. Dad and Smitty have both passed on, and its been years since I have stalked the woods for gray squirrels. With the advent of fall, I feel the need for a big batch of squirrels and gravy, but this time I won't be using a single-barrel shotgun. I'll leave that class of firepower to my two "retrievers", Andrew and Jordan.
It's time they learned a few family traditions. The only question is who'll make the gravy?
Frank Ross grew up on a lake in Florida, where fishing and hunting were second nature. He has pursued his passion from the jungles of South America to the northern reaches of the Arctic Circle and most points in between. With a background in newspapers, the wire services and magazines that began in 1970, Frank brings a unique perspective to his work with Cabela's. He is an award-winning photographer with a flair for getting to the bottom line of every story.
When he's not out hunting down another interesting story, Frank can be found near his home in western Nebraska where he now spends most of his time guiding his two sons and teaching them how to be successful in the field. "It's part of the responsibility we all have as outdoorsmen, to share what we have learned and pass on the passion. I take the same tact when approaching a story.... how can I help someone be better at what they love to do?"
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