WINONA, Minn. (AP) -- Some call them tree rats. Others either attract them to their yard, or drive them away from their bird feeders. Some, like Doug Beeman of Goodview, hunt and eat them as a fall tradition.
''I think squirrels are more of a young person's bag, because that's the first thing they get started on -- Dad takes them out squirrel hunting, and you kind of lose that after time,'' Beeman said.
Beeman hunts deer, turkeys and ducks, but always makes time for an autumn walk in the woods to play cat and mouse with the squirrels.
''It's kind of a waiting game. You get into a spot where there's an abundance of nut trees and acorn trees, fairly clear undergrowth. You sit underneath a tree and you just wait. Pretty soon they'll start chattering and coming out and moving around early in the morning.''
He kept the tradition alive in early October with a morning of squirrel hunting in a nice-sized parcel of woodland a half hour from Winona.
Beeman carried a Remington .22-caliber rifle that day. The weather was calm and overcast -- perfect conditions for detecting squirrels. In addition to being small, squirrels offer other hunting challenges.
No bigger than doves, woodcock, snipe or quail, squirrels have lost favor among hunters. Squirrels don't fly. However, they are extremely wary and when frightened, can dance through the treetops so quickly to rule out a shot, let alone track them with the eye.
''They have pretty good eyesight and hearing,'' Beeman said.
Miss the first shot, and a squirrel will disappear before your eyes, melting into the bark, branches and crannies of an oak. When this happens, Beeman scans the tree for a hole -- a sure sign to give up the chase. Other times, no hollow is seen but neither is the squirrel. Once lost, squirrels are hard to find again.
The 50-year-old Beeman has hunted squirrels since he was 10, and has never lost the enjoyment. Like many boys, Beeman was weaned on a .410-gauge shotgun. This was convenient in case a grouse, woodcock or rabbit suddenly appeared, he said. If you prefer a shotgun, Beeman recommends a 20-gauge or 28-gauge.
But the small rifle makes for a cleaner kill, leaving no troublesome pellets to spit out at the dining table. Dining, you ask? Squirrels are excellent, cooked in a stew, braised in a skillet, or anything else your meaty hunger desires.
Beeman's squirrel hunting eventually evolved into a .22 caliber game, because sometimes big fox squirrels would shrug off a few pellets and keep going.
''Hit them with a .22 in the head and they don't go too far,'' he said.
Tree rat is an appropriate name for a squirrel. For one, they have mastered the arboreal, or tree, lifestyle. And they are members of the order, Rodentia, sharing this distinction with critters like chipmunks, beavers and meadow voles. As a prey item for many predators, squirrels eyes are positioned on the side of their heads, scanning for trouble.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best squirrel hunting periods, Beeman said. So are days after a fresh snowfall and cold snap.
In the Winona area, hunters see a mixture of gray and fox squirrels, with more grays than foxes, he said. Sometimes a hunter will encounter a black-phase gray squirrel. Occasionally, Beeman sees an albino -- pink eyes, pink nose and blazing white fleece. He generally ignores them.
The autumn squirrel game is the same as the autumn bird watching game -- the more foliage on the trees, the tougher it is.
''Now is kind of tough because there's a lot of leaves on the trees,'' he said.
Beeman keeps an eye peeled for abundant hickories and acorns on the ground. Between sitting, watching and listening, Beeman slowly and quietly walks short distances. If activity is noticed but a shot is not possible, he may sit and wait. If a squirrel is within stalking distance, he will try to get closer.
He missed a few, but shot four -- two grays and two foxes. He quickly cleaned them, stowed the meat in a plastic bag and looked forward to some savory eating. He has as much respect for the squirrel as any other game animal, but sees a little humor in the tree rat.
''They're all pretty scampy little things,'' he said. -
Minnesota hunters kill about 60,000 to 150,000 fox squirrels each fall, and roughly 150,000 to 250,000 gray squirrels. The season ends Feb. 28, with a daily bag limit of 7, and possession limit of 14.
Wisconsin's squirrel season closes January 31. The daily bag limit is 5 and possession limit is 10. It is unlawful to molest a squirrel nest or den. For a free Wisconsin publication on fox and gray squirrels (PUBL-WM-131-86), write: Wisconsin DNR, Bureau of Wildlife Management, Publication Order, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921.
Squirrel and Dumplings
3 squirrels, cut up
4 quarts of water
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Boil squirrels in water until tender. Remove, let cool, remove meat from bones, set aside. In large bowl, mix flour, egg and salt with 3/4 cup of broth and roll into ball. Strain broth, bring to boil and add squirrel meat. Roll dough ball to 1/16-inch thick. Cut into 1-inch wide strips and drop one at a time into boil broth. Cook 10-15 minutes until dumplings are tender. Experiment with your favorite soup vegetables and herbs to enrich this recipe.
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