Chicken of the trees 

The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin?

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Great Washington County squirrel Shootout
  • The haul from the Great Washington County Shootout, an annual friends-and-family contest where hunters use reproductions of the same cumbersome rifles the American colonists used.
  • Mike Sula

Squirrel eating may be making a comeback, however, at least among those with au courant appetites for sustainable, healthy, and locally sourced meats. CNN.com's food blog Eatocracy has encouraged readers to seek out sources of squirrel meat—"more earthy and sumptuous than the darkest turkey." Hunting and foraging authority Hank Shaw has spilled plenty of ink on this "gateway" prey, an abundant animal that hones the hunter's skill for bigger game. It's delicious too, he argues, its pink flesh more dense than a rabbit's, which takes on the nutty flavor of whatever it's been eating.

But think of Squirrel Nutkin, Rocket J. Squirrel, and Princess Sally Acorn. How could one eat such an adorable, puckish animal, so easily anthropomorphized? Ask British food writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: "I do not argue that we have an inalienable right to eat meat," he writes in The River Cottage Cookbook. "I do say however that, if we are going to make meat part of our diet, then wild meat is, for me, the least morally problematic of all. All meat is the product of a killing, and those of us who kill for the pot are merely taking responsibility for the manner of that killing. A squirrel may have a cuteness factor that makes some people shudder at the sight of its back legs crackling on a grill. But if those people have ever seen young calves and lambs playing in the fields, then why have they not applied the cuteness argument to their own carnivorous habits? For I have found that most of the people who seem to be upset by the eating of rabbits, squirrels, and the like are not vegetarians but town dwelling carnivores."

One early Saturday morning last August I was sitting at the bottom of a dry creek bed in southern Indiana with a small shotgun staring straight up into the trees, listening to a squirrel I couldn't see cutting on a nut. The branch on which it ate was almost directly above me some 30 yards. In the forest's otherwise echoing silence it sounded like two quarters rubbing together on the edges.

I'd been awake since before dawn, creeping around the woods with 19-year-old Forrest Turner, a horse trainer and aspiring agriculture student who'd grown up hunting squirrels, turkey, and deer in these woods. He'd already shot about 15 to 20 squirrels since the season started. We'd stepped as lightly as possible, staring up at the canopy slowly coming to light, looking for motion in the branches, and watching for acorn and hickory shells as they dropped from the sky. Much earlier we stood under a tall oak, and with a small shotgun I took my first and only shot on a squirrel directly above me. I missed. Over the course of the morning we'd stalked close to 15 gray and fox squirrels, and while Turner got a few shots off himself, we had no luck. Near midmorning, we were ready to call it a day, until we heard the telltale sound above us and gave it one more try.

I'd never hunted anything in my life, and Turner, an enthusiastic guide, wanted me to get my first squirrel. He left me in the creek bed and went off to pursue others. But as the sun rose higher it became apparent my prey wasn't going to offer me a shot. Turner returned and moved up the bank beyond the tree to flush it out. Taking aim with his scoped .22, he fired off two rounds in quick succession. The second connected, and the squirrel tumbled off the branch and fell to the bank, rolling down the slope almost to my boots. He'd shot it diagonally through the abdomen and the small eastern gray attempted to drag itself away through the leaves with its forelegs. I tried to put it out of its pain with a heel to the head but it wouldn't go easily. Turner finished the job, picked it up, and handed it to me in time to feel its pounding heart slow to a stop.

click to enlarge Forrest Turner, 19, grew up hunting squirrel, turkey, and deer in southern Indiana. - MIKE SULA
  • Forrest Turner, 19, grew up hunting squirrel, turkey, and deer in southern Indiana.
  • Mike Sula

You can see why it's preferable to shoot a squirrel in the head, both for the sake of the animal and its meat. If that's a challenge for Turner, and a near impossibility for me, imagine what it's like to compete in the Great Washington County Shootout, an annual friends-and-family contest for which hunters are required to use long, heavy, single-sighted flintlock muzzle loaders, working reproductions of the same cumbersome rifles the American colonists used.

I shot one of these guns that afternoon at the home of Zen Caudill, a retired Seymour, Indiana, firefighter and the Shootout's host. He'd built his log-walled house and almost everything in it from the trees and stones surrounding the land at the bottom of the sylvan hollow where it sat. When Caudill hunted squirrels as a boy in Kentucky it wasn't for sport. It was to put food on the table. But he'd done well for himself—and he'd done it all by himself—a rigorously independent badass if there ever was one.

He packed the rifle with powder and shot and handed it to me. It was nearly as tall as I am, ridiculously heavy, with a hair trigger. As I took aim at a small hillock it went off before I could steady it. The chances of me hitting a nimble, camouflaged squirrel at any distance with this thing were almost nonexistent.

Caudill fabricated most of the guns used in the contest himself, and the hunters and their family members gathered at his spread at noon to count their kill, busting each other's chops as they arrived. "I see that one's got tire prints on him," one fellow shouted to another who'd brought in a single fox squirrel. The rules are simple: gray squirrels, which are craftier and tougher to get than foxes, carry a higher score, as do head shots over body shots. A head shot to a gray trumps all. Some dozen hunters took 17 squirrels that day, a mix of grays and the larger, slower foxes. As the men sat around eating fried chicken and potato salad, many complained that, so far, it had been a bad year for squirrel hunting in southern Indiana. Squirrels stay put in hickory trees, and the older ones chase the younger ones down to the lower branches. But hickories hadn't been producing so well last year. Walnuts were doing OK, but squirrels take the tougher nut to higher branches of satellite trees to eat, making them harder targets. In previous years the group had collectively taken as many as 70 squirrels in a single morning.

After lunch, they gradually rose and gathered around 69-year-old Jay Mellencamp—the uncle of the rock star—who took out his hunting knife and began skinning squirrels to confirm the head shots. No one's won more of these competitions than Mellencamp. His name has been engraved on the wooden winner's plaque eight times since 1987, when the Shootout began. He won the previous year's contest with a single head shot to a gray squirrel, but he didn't bag any that day.

Mellencamp was also a frequent champion of the skinning contests the group held in years when the collective kill was higher. That's why everyone stood back while he made a cut under the tail of each squirrel, planted his boot on it while gripping the hind legs, and peeled off the hide like a wet sock. He finished in less than ten minutes.

Caudill didn't do so well either that morning. He'd hit two grays in the body, but his adult son Matt got two head shots and won the day. Matt and his friend Nathan Knoblitt made short work of cleaning them, slitting their bellies open and whipping out their viscera.

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