The light but steady rain of morning had stopped a while ago, yet there it was, the sound of droplets hitting the ground from up above.
A look up revealed why.
One limb in one tree was gently swaying. Its movement slowed, then almost stopped, as we waited, watching.
Then, there it was. The branch moved again as a squirrel gathered itself and leaped to another, sending another shower of droplets down.
The scope of the .22 rifle settled on the furry tree climber and, a pull of the trigger later, it was in the bag.
These days, relatively few hunters experience that. Across the country, as forests have aged, habitat for squirrels has improved and populations of the animal have boomed.
Across Pennsylvania, for example, there are some localized areas of the state where timbering has made a dent in squirrel habitat, said Matt Lovallo, supervisor of the game mammals section for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. But generally speaking, the state is home to lots of mature mast-bearing trees like oaks and hickories.
The result is there are probably more squirrels out there for the taking than at any time in recent decades, Lovallo said.
“Statewide, I think you can say that,” he added.
Yet fewer and fewer people pursue them every year.
Nate Wilder, for one, can’t understand why.
The Raleigh, N.C., man has a website — squirrelhuntingjournal.com — devoted entirely to hunting the tree climbers. It attracts visitors from all over the East Coast, he said.
That doesn’t surprise him, necessarily. Squirrel hunters tend to be diehard fans of their quarry and their sport, he said.
“There’s a lot of allure to it to me,” Wilder said.
The reasons why are numerous. He likes squirrel hunting because of the camaraderie. He likes it because, unlike deer hunting, there’s no need to worry about things like scent control. He likes it because he can move around a bit, rather than having to sit in one place for hours on end.
And as much as anything, he said, he likes the action.
“A lot of guys, if they’re hunting deer, depending on where they’re at, they pull the trigger once and they’re maybe done. I like knowing that, potentially, I’m going to be able to pull the trigger a lot,” Wilder said.
He and a friend did that a lot last year, taking approximately 150 squirrels.
They ate them all, or at least those that they didn’t give away to others who likewise enjoy their flavor.
Some may find the idea of eating squirrels odd, but the truth is, handled correctly, they’re delicious, said Travis Gameson of Norman, Okla. A member of the “Okie Squirrel Busters” team that won 2016’s Squirrels Unlimited World Champion Squirrel Cook-off thisyear in Arkansas, he’scooked them in all manner of ways.
At the recent cookoff, his team won for making a fried squirrel ravioli. Other competitors made everything from squirrel-stuffed mushrooms to squirrel sliders. All those giving away samples had lines of people eager for a taste, he said.
“Squirrel meat is certainly not very gamey at all,” Gameson said. “It’s a mild meat.”
That’s a function of what they eat. Squirrels, he noted, are clean animals that feed largely on acorns, hickory nuts and the like.
Their flesh can be tough, though, he said. Squirrels are all muscle, so they are best cooked slowly.
Often, that means cooking them until the meat can be pulled from the bone, he said.
But done that way, and perhaps ground and mixed with something like bacon or pancetta to provide moisture, they’re very good, he said.
“Squirrel is a type of meat you can just get really creative with. You just need to get a mess of them and start experimenting,” he said.
To get a “mess,” Wilder starts by “hunting the food.” He looks for stands of oaks and hickories then grabs a seat.
“Most of the time we go in right before daybreak and we’re still. We sit and see what happens,” he said. “Usually we’re pretty successful.”
Andrew Lewand of Rochester, N.Y., a field staffer with FoxPro, the Pennsylvania-based game call maker, often hunts that way, too. Occassionally, though, to shake things up, he’ll sneak quietly through the woods. He looks for “cuttings,” or acorns and hickory shells that show evidence of squirrel feeding, and listens for leaves, nuts and debris falling from the tops of trees. All of that indicates active squirrels, he said.
Later, in late-morning and early afternoon, he falls back on another trick, using a squirrel call. The barks it reproduces sometimes spark squirrels to respond.
“That’s a pretty effective tactic, a more aggressive one, that can pay off when the action slows down,” Lewand said.
Many hunters chase squirrels with a shotgun, loaded with No. 6 shot. Others prefer to use a .22 rifle, firing standard velocity hollow point rounds. The relatively quiet report is less alarming to squirrels, Wilder said. That often allows a hunter to get off a shot at one squirrel without scaring off others that may be around.
It also hones precision shooting abilities, Lewand said. Squirrel hunting is great practice for many other types of hunting, he added.
“Dad called it deer hunting in miniature. The woodsmanship skills you learn squirrel hunting transfer to hunting deer and really anything, for that matter,” he said.
Gameson agreed, saying squirrel hunting is not only a “great way to start a hunting season,” ut also a way to scout for whitetails.
That’s true, Wilder said. But there’s no doubt it’s fun all on its own, too.
“Yeah, they’re mainly what I key on,” Wilder said. “When I want a lot of meat, I shoot a deer. But squirrels are it for me. We really look forward to it.”