Whitesburg KY

Squirrels now safe from this hunter

Points East

It used to be, this time of year, that we would call out a little treeing squirrel dog and take him to the woods and rejoice when he treed one we could shoot there in the high timber just under the ridges that separated all the hollows in the lower end of Letcher County.

And on a good day my cousins and our good friends and I might harvest a dozen gray squirrels or even more than that for supper like I think they’ll serve in real thick gravy in heaven if we ever get there.

The trick was to shoot them in the head so that they didn’t suffer and the good meat did not get messed up from gunshot wounds. Mike Mitchell, who lives there at Red Star on the lower end of Letcher County just above the Perry County line, and I were pretty good at doing that. Everybody else who hunted squirrels used shotguns and filled the carcasses full of lead shot that you had to pick out your teeth come eating time.

Mike and I learned to shoot them in the head with a .22 rifle so that when they were dressed out, the meat was as clean as anything you’d see on the butcher’s display at your favorite grocer. Takes a little patience and a keen eye but it can be done. In our old age we took to using magnifying scopes instead of iron sights on our .22s, but we still fared well until we quit hunting 10 years or so ago.

We quit because the squirrels got too tame. There has to be a little sport in this hunting business to make it worth the effort. But when you have parked your truck at the edge of the woods beneath a hickory tree there in the morning frost, half an hour before daylight, and you wake up with your coffee splattered in your lap because the squirrels have discovered that the best way to get the hulls off a hickory nut is to bounce it off the windshield and eat it by your truck door, the hunt is over when it comes to using guns because they get too close and there is some danger of shooting yourself in the foot. But if you’ve brought along your golf clubs, there’s still some sport in trying to knock them in the head with the sharp end of a sand wedge.

We could have shot them but it would have been in self defense. Mike looked at me and shook his head. “Let’s go fishing while we still have time,” he said.

But the point is that I still love squirrel gravy slathered on baked sweet potatoes with hot cornbread at dinner time on cold autumn evenings.

One the other hand, I am in awe of squirrel intelligence, as in “let’s just play easy to get and the hunters will leave us alone.” It has never bothered me to wring a chicken’s neck, scald off all the feathers and dress it up for the frying pan and serve it up, but the thing about squirrel in gravy is that it only tastes good if you have to hunt it down and shoot it, running through the upper limbs of big timber, from some decent distance far below. I would not give you a nickel for a squirrel if I had to wring its neck before I skinned it.

This has worked wonderfully for squirrel-kind. Nobody hunts squirrels anymore. We mostly dodge them on the road. Some people call them furry rats and that’s because they feel no guilt when they hit one on the highway.

Well actually that might be an overstatement. There are some guys out there with guns who will shoot a house cat if it ventures off your porch — and skin and eat it and swear it was fair game. Or take it to a taxidermist and have it mounted and put it on his mantel and swear that it was something wild. Not actually a wild bobcat, but it sort of looks like one when the hackles are raised up there on its back and it glares and shows its teeth like a UK football player. Not very intimidating but still fair game. (Same guy has a lizard mounted on his desk and claims that it is a gator that chased him in the Everglades. And then it shrank way down to nothing after he shot it and brought it to Kentucky.)

We dream here in the Bluegrass. And we tell tall tales.

In the meantime, here on Charlie Brown Road and over on the main road known as Old Railroad Grade, the black walnuts are falling onto the pavement by the buckets full. It has frosted here three nights in a row and the walnut leaves are on the ground. But we have had a magnificent growing season and the nuts still hang ripe and heavy on the limbs until the wind blows.

And then they fall down on the road we who live hereabouts take great fun in squashing green walnuts with our automobile tires, believing that we will go back and pick up some hulled-out fruit that we may stash away in coffee or onion sacks to dry and crack to season cakes come the holidays.

The squirrels huddle, shoulder to shoulder, and point to one another as we drive by. My truck not only hulls them out but my tires are so hard they mash the nuts down to the core and splatter kernels all around.

As soon as I drive by, the squirrels hop out into the road and gather up the bounty. It’s far more convenient than having to sit on a limb and gnaw for half a day to get a single mouthful of tender kernels. It seems to me that I have become fair game instead of the other way around.

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