In the past I have hung up my hat after my big game season of choice, the whitetail, and subsequently retire to hiking and fishing through the spring and summer waiting for opening day to return; so beginning my offseason. Â But two years ago following a successful season of whitetail harvest, I had been unsuccessful in the sense of time spent in the woods. I felt the absolute need to get out and spend more time amongst wildlife. I had been busy working and completing school during deer season and the spring squirrel season presented a chance for me to get back on the chase.
Squirrel hunting is commonly a hunter’s first trip to the woods, but I had taken a different course and jumped straight into whitetail hunting in my youth. I will openly admit that I did not shoot my first squirrel until I was 20 years old; taking place during the aforementioned spring season, just two years ago. Combing through literature surrounding the art of squirrel hunting I had believed to have gained enough confidence and know how to pursue them in the woods. I went out on multiple trips that spring and had outings of successful harvests and hunts where I had been completely skunked. What I took away from both empty handed and successful hunts is that squirrels are somewhat an uncredited challenging hunt; they have great senses and the swiftness of their movement is not easily followed with crosshairs. The stealth needed to pursue a squirrel is much more demanding than that of softly making my way into a tree stand. In the time it takes to raise your rifle and get them in view of your scope they could disappear with their speed, or their stillness could cause trouble finding them in your scope due to their amazing camouflage and their ability to hug tree and appear simply as part of the branch or trunk they chose to hunker down on.
For those familiar with the topography of Kentucky it’s an accumulation of endless peaks and valleys filled with dense hardwoods and notable undergrowth. The odds are stacked against a hunter when it comes to silent stalks. This challenging terrain along with a skillful foe created an environment for me to focus on my skills of stalking and efficiency in the woods; teaching me to evaluate every move and analyze the forest with a keener eye. This offseason had become one of the greatest hunting lessons for me in my entire life, and on top of that it was an absolute blast; arguably more fun than the general deer hunting experience. The fun didn’t stop as I drove away from my favorite Kentucky WMAs, but continued in the kitchen with the challenge of preparing a new type of wild game.
I was able to successfully fix two separate recipes between the roughly six harvested squirrels and share them with friends, most of which were on their first squirrel hunts when they joined me. On one hand a classic recipe of deboned squirrel simmered in cream of mushroom soup over a bed of rice, and the other a buttermilk chicken fried squirrel.
This entire experience had brought something to my attention that had for so long lingered idly by, that in fact the offseason is not a time depraved of exciting hunting but just new opportunity and medium to do so. This idea continued into this year when I had my first empty handed deer season as I spent many hours shed hunting all over my uncle’s farm and additional public grounds, I even found a shed on my walk into the office one morning. I covered more ground in that pre spring time frame than I do in most deer seasons all together. When the grass grew too high and the squirrels had laid claim to the remaining sheds I was left without a familiar game to chase until squirrels in May.
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So I decided to again try my hand in hunting a new species, this time being the renowned spring turkey. What I would soon discover is that turkeys are bad ass creatures, and hunting them can be described in quite similar adjectives as the turkey itself. Their eye sight any first timer would underestimate, as I had, and their feathers in full strut are a beautiful sight unmatched by most animals. They are a majestic and elusive creature that out witted me this year, and left me obsessed with their pursuit. I had been hard at work pursuing my first turkey on many chilly mornings and reality was setting in that I am at a disadvantage to these intelligent creatures. I had felt so prepared with a slate, box and mouth call along with a few lower priced decoys and my daddy’s trusty Remington Sportsman 48.
With all of these tools at my disposal the challenge had proven too great for me, until one morning my hard work of focusing on solely my slate call proficiency had come to fruition. I had gotten my first response gobble sequence from a distance off; pacing my calls back I focused on the sound of each stroke with anxiety and a pounding heart reiterating the severity of this first opportunity. My calls persisted as each response did and they drew closer with each passing second. As I looked off to the right edge of the field I had set up in, not one tom appeared, but three. My lack of experience started to show when they slipped below my point of view, and left me stuck between the decision of readying my shotgun or continuing to call. I laid down a few more short clucks and purrs to keep bringing them to my decoys. Before I could switch over to my gun they surfaced only yards from my decoys. It is here where I thought despite my flaws and lack of experience thus far I was going to have the amazing opportunity to harvest another species of game.
There was one last mistake that cost me; when the toms closed the distance to only a few yards they had busted my inexpensive decoys and knew something was off. Within no more than two seconds they turned and headed back down the ridge they came. In a panic I tried to swing my shotgun in the opposite direction as I had been slowly raising it and take a shot on the moving birds, but I had missed and shot right over his head. On the drive home I felt extremely disappointed to have come so close; this miss had unfortunately fallen on the same year as my first miss on a deer.
These feelings of disappointment were short lived as I reflected on the experiences I have gained over the past years, and began to appreciate more the knowledge and diverse skills I had acquired by taking on these new challenging species rather than the missed kill. Every trip to the woods doesn’t guarantee success, but always presents a great chance of new experience and knowledge. I am humbled by the animals that are able to outwit me and live another day, but I am grateful for every opportunity I have to learn from their superior expertise. These animals in fact spend their entire lives in the wild; I will never be able to allocate enough time to be out in the wild to gain the same amount of intellect.
What I can do, and will continue to do, is to utilize every opportunity possible to get out and chase a new type of game and persist in refining my skills in the species I have already pursued. The diversity of experiences and bits of knowledge one can acquire from partaking in the hunting or trapping of many different species builds a better and more distinguished hunter, and that is the highest goal we all seek when we head into the wild. So take to the woods and pursue a new game; head into the field in a time of the year when your gear is normally packed into storage bins and make your offseason your best season yet.
About the Author
Justin calls a quaint little town in Northern Kentucky home, and like most hunters his general outdoor education came from his father. He has refined his skills and knowledge through a devotion to reading on the subject. From a very young age Justin developed a passion for fishing and hunting alongside his father, the shared suffering made each catch or harvest that much more of a triumph and accomplishment. It is this appreciation for the outdoors that has remained with him during his four years away at the University of Cincinnati. In those years, Justin began not only preparing, but also processing his own wild game. Whether it’s squirrel, venison, or crappie Justin will always love sharing the experiences and food of the wild with those in his life.