A tradition born out of necessity, squirrel hunting brings us back to our Appalachian roots
It’s been a busy few weeks for me. In between graduate school work at West Virginia University, my full-time gig, scouting, and running out to get dove and goose hunts in, I’ve hardly had time to break into my column writing.
Still, what better time to get back into it than a few days after the state squirrel opener?
I was recently reminded of a rather obnoxious moment that was in the public eye on Instagram last year, one I’ve long forgiven my Philadelphia-native friend for, but still resonates with the larger non-hunting community.
“Wait, you … eat that?” The question read, plastered for all to see.
Typically one to have a witty response at the ready, I was taken aback by the question.
“What else would I do with it?” I replied.
Really, what else would I do with a dead squirrel? Throw it to my dog or leave it for the coyotes? Strip its tail and nail it on my wall while letting the tree rat waste away in the woods? No, of course not – this was going in the cast iron to be fried and plated with potatoes, beans, or collard greens.
Many in the non-hunting community likely have the same response my friend did. Why would you kill and eat something we see on a daily basis in our backyard? Why would you kill and fry something so cute? The truth is, squirrel is one of those “calorie-deficit” wild game meals where you put more into the hunt than your body gets out of it. There’s not a ton of meat on the little things, nor do they have a particular taste that a morel or ramp forager dreams about in the offseason. What matters to me and many others is the tradition behind squirrel hunting.
I’m not sure when squirrel hunting caught on, but in Appalachia, most wild game was a means of survival. There were no big-buck hunters in those days, no one was toting around their new $1,500 shotgun with a brand name strap vest looking for grouse, and no one was casually sitting in a duck blind with a mini-stove, pack of hickory smoked bacon, and a few eggs cursing “the damn migration!” when they whiffed six straight shots.
And, while I wasn’t around, I doubt if anyone cared if the meat on the table that night was the eight squirrel legs the oldest son procured or the oldest hen from the pen. What I do know, is that the early Appalachians survived on what they had. Even throughout the 1900s, many Americans took what they could get, which included small game like grouse, quail, squirrel, and rabbit. But, as the country progressed after World War 2 and access to fresh food increased in addition to a growing middle class, the need for wild game began to shrink. Yes, through the country’s evolution to today, many still rely on hunting seasons to put food on their table, but overwhelmingly, the need is no longer there.
Now, it’s a matter of tradition – and one we’re losing at that. My personal belief is that if we can get new hunters chasing squirrels, we will see recruitment and retention numbers rise. Coming to understand and appreciate the woods and the gifts they provide with a .22 or 12-gauge in my hands is one of the main reasons I stuck with hunting. Plus, squirrel hunting is fun and doesn’t require the preparation deer, grouse, waterfowl, or bear hunting needs.
So, yes, I do eat squirrel and I’m happy I do. It’s worth every bite.