A few years ago, during a particularly fat fire season for me, I decided that I would put a little bit of that money toward something special for my friends once the season was done. What I landed on was a yurt in State Forest State Park. I booked the yurt, which sleeps around eight, for mid-November and sent out the memo.
This was my second winter in Colorado and, now that I was a resident, I figured I might as well pick up a small game license and bring my .22 with me to the yurt. Living in Boulder, it requires a bit of driving to get to anywhere that you can hunt, so why not take advantage of waking up in huntable woods. I often daydream about what it would be like to hunt the back forty. Just wake up, get dressed, and walk out the back door. No two-hour pre-dawn drive required.
The first night there, we got completed obliterated, as often happens in such situations. The next morning I slept well past first light and when I finally did make it into the woods, it was sporting a green sequin shirt and a staggering hangover. But that did not stop me. I hunted hard and came back to the yurt that night with four cleaned and quartered squirrels, which I fried up in butter and garlic. They tasted alright, but they were tougher than rubber.
I mention this because it was only a few years ago that I first started learning to hunt, and that was where I began. That was my first successful hunt. And, due to the incremental nature of learning, it can be hard to see how much you’ve actually learned over time. If there were a perfect way to see it, this is probably it: a couple weeks ago my friend Dan booked the exact same yurt for nearly the same time of year. He, in the last year, took his hunter’s education course and bought his first rifle. This would be his first hunt. A perfect opportunity to both realize and share what I have learned.
This time around things were not so different. The night before our hunt we accidentally drank until about two in the morning. Upon waking the next day, I was again plagued by a monstrous hangover. This time we didn’t actually make it out into the woods until around one in the afternoon. And we didn’t have even a single sequin shirt between the two of us.
I think that squirrels are an excellent first quarry. They are not shy to let you know where they are. They reward patience and stillness by calling out to the forest. There is rarely more than a few minutes without some sort of stimulation.
The basic tactic goes like this: walk out into the woods and stand still for a couple minutes. Listen hard. Before long, a squirrel is likely to call out. There are a few different types of calls that I have ascribed my own meanings to, but they all serve the purpose of giving you a rough location of where the little guy is hanging out.
Once you hear a call, you walk to where you think it came from. Keep your eyes open during this time as you can often spot them moving through the trees. There will also be fresh bits of pine cone on top of the snow where they have been feeding recently.
When you get to where you think you heard the squirrel, or a place with a lot of fresh sign, crane your neck skyward and listen again. Sometimes you can spot them just sitting in the tree staring at you. Sometimes you’ll catch a glimpse of one on the run. Other times you are not in the right spot and you need to wait a few minutes for it to call out again, so that you can home in on it properly.
Another nice thing about hunting squirrels as a beginner is that they will often sit still for you. When you are close, they will find a spot in the tree where they think that they are hidden and they will sit and watch you. If your eyes are sharp enough to pick them out, they often will give you plenty of time to take your shot. Remember to take your time and breathe.
And, if you miss or the squirrel spooks, just try to keep your eyes on it as you follow its progress through the trees. They will stop again, and they are likely to stop again in a place where you will have another shot. If you do lose your quarry in the trees, it will probably pop back up again in a few minutes to move or call out. They are not patient animals either.
None of this is particularly complicated. It is a very intuitive hunt. They make it easy on us. But there are some subtleties to it. Finding the sign, spotting the squirrels, knowing the different types of calls, judging the direction and distance, finding the squirrel in your scope, following it through the trees when you miss. All of those are things that come with practice and attention. All of those are things that I was hardly aware that I had picked up until I took my friend out to hunt for the first time.
It was not only his first hunt, it was also my first time hunting with a partner. It was an amazing experience to take someone out and share some of the knowledge that I have picked up over the past few years.
The afternoon started slowly. There were squirrels all around us making noise, but we struggled a bit at first to find them. And when we did, I was at first very focused on Dan getting one, which I know puts a lot of extra pressure on him. I would spot one and try to quietly point it out, all the while rushing him a bit to get a shot off.
After letting a few go that way, I decided to shift to being an example for a while. I could show Dan how I do it, and hopefully that’d help. I got one shortly thereafter. The first squirrel in the bag felt good, but our goal was to make a pie, and with pine squirrels that meant we needed to bring home at least a few.
The next squirrel we found really gave us the business. We both missed our first shot at him and he disappeared into the top of a thick spruce, where, even if we could find and shoot him, it was likely too dense for him to fall to the ground. So, we sat still for a while, until we heard another squirrel call a little ways off, and headed toward it. As soon as we got fifty yards away, the first squirrel called out. We hustled back, found it in a more exposed location, and each missed again. It quickly returned to its hideout.
We repeated that process three or four times. Hustling back, finding it, trying to get a shot, and either missing or just losing it again in the dense spruce branches. With about an hour of light left and feeling very frustrated by our lack of marksmanship and nearly empty game bag, we decided to try our luck on the other side of the road. Things were not looking good for this squirrel pie.
On the other side of the road things quickly turned around for us. After around five minutes over there I spotted a squirrel only about fifteen feet up and quickly brought it down. Morale lifted a bit, and we kept walking. A few minutes later we heard one call out nearby and hustled toward it as it scrambled up a tree. I held off a bit on this one, hoping Dan would get a shot, but he had some snow on his scope and couldn’t find it in the tree, so I took this one as well.
Three squirrels could probably make a pie. We were feeling alright. But we still had half an hour, so we figured we might as well keep going. We walked another hundred yards or so and a bit of movement in the distance caught my eye. Fifty or sixty yards away, a squirrel perched itself in the crook of a branch near the top of a tree. I tried to point it out to Dan, but he couldn’t find it and I couldn’t properly describe the location.
I found the squirrel with my crosshairs, but it felt like a pretty long shot for standing without any support. The squirrel was very still so I tried a little longer to describe its location to Dan, but I was not doing a good job. In my head I didn’t feel certain about the shot and right after saying so aloud to Dan something inside me said I had it. I squeezed the trigger and the squirrel dropped from the tree.
Okay, four squirrels will make a pie. But hey, there are a few minutes left. Might as well keep up this hustle.
Things were clicking for us. We heard another squirrel nearby and took of toward it, loping through the snow as quickly and quietly as we could. We spotted it high in a tall spruce. But it spotted us as well and shimmied over to the back side of the tree. We circled the tree in opposite directions, trying to get a shot at it. I found it in my crosshairs, but it was partially obscured by branches that could easily misdirect a tiny .22 caliber bullet. I circled the tree a bit more, keeping my eyes on it, in case it moved.
There came from nearby the soft pop of a bolt-action .22. I looked over at Dan and I could tell he’d shot true. A couple seconds later, the little squirrel came tumbling out of the tree and into the snow. In the dying minutes of the day, the final moments of legal light, Dan got his first squirrel.
We cleaned the squirrels in the cold and dark and joined our friends in the warm yurt for another night of good food and good drink.
And, a couple weeks later, we turned those squirrels into an absolutely delightful pie. I think Dan would agree that it turned out to be a pretty great first hunt.
Squirrel Pot Pie
2.5 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1.5 sticks chilled butter (12 tbsp)
½ cup ice water
We used this recipe for the crust.
5 pine squirrels or 2-3 fox or grey squirrels
1 large white onion, diced
3 carrots, diced
5 celery stalks, diced
½ lb. crimini mushrooms, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 sprigs rosemary
2 tbsp flour
1 cup beef broth
12 oz. dark beer (we used a double dunkel from Wibby Brewing)
Salt + Pepper
1 egg, beaten (to wash the crust)
We will begin by braising the squirrel. Heat a bit of oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat and brown the squirrels. Once they have a nice brown all around, toss in the diced onions and cook a minute or two until they begin brown around the edges. Add the rosemary, beer, and broth. These additions will cool the pot a lot. When it is again bubbling, reduce the heat to medium and cover. Simmer for an hour or more, until the meat is falling off the bones. Add water as needed during this time to keep the squirrels submerged. When the meat is tender, remove the pot from heat, set the squirrels aside to cool, and keep the broth. When the squirrels have cooled, pick the meat and discard the bones.
Make the pie crust while the squirrel is braising–it needs to sit in the fridge for a while before you use it. We’re going to bake the pie at 400 degrees. Depending on the quality of your oven, this might be a good time to start preheating.
Once the squirrel is finishing braising, we can begin the pie filling. Heat a couple tablespoons of oil in an 8” cast iron pan. When hot, toss in the carrots, celery, mushrooms, and garlic. Cook these until they begin to soften. Then add 2 tbsp of flour. Stir this around until it disappears into the mixture, then cook a minute or two more. Strain the onions from the braising liquid and add these to the pan. Toss in the picked squirrel meat. Top with a cup of the braising liquid.
Stir this around, continuing to add braising liquid as necessary. More beef broth can also be added if you run out of liquid from the braise. Cook for 5-10 minutes, allowing this to cook further and form a gravy. Taste here and add salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and allow to cool a few minutes.
Once the filling has cooled a bit, toss the crust on. Trim it to fit the pan and pinch it to the edges. If you’re feeling up for a challenge, cut out a squirrel with the extra dough–it certainly adds a bit of flair. Beat an egg and brush over the crust. Cut a few small vents in the middle. Then bake at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes until the crust is golden brown.