Squirrel hunts are golden

Speaking personally, there are many uses for outdoor October, and I savor them all. I could drink that ale-golden month to its dregs and never touch a gun. But without hunting, some of the savor would be missing.

I’ve told you that before – many times. Forty-three times in fact. Every year, for 43 years, I’ve started my first week in October column with those three sentences. Those of you have been reading my column for lo these many years, know that when it comes to the outdoor hunting sports squirrel hunting is one of my favorites. There are squirrels and there are squirrels. But there are no squirrels quite like the ones found along the bottom lands of the Boone River here in Hamilton County. And I always look forward to the annual squirrel hunting pilgrimage.

Not only do I like the squirrel hunt itself, but it’s my favorite time of the year. Not too hot and not too cold. The woods are damp and smell good. The trees are turning color and losing their leaves. Naturally, the best part the hunt is the “Big Feed” afterwards. Long story short, a bunch of us guys got together the other morning for our annual hunt. The weather was dry, dusty and crispy and everything in the woods was on the move. A beautiful morning. I won’t bore you with details of the hunt, because the best part is the “Big Feed” afterwards.

Here it is, and this is the real deal. I love the sweet aroma of squirrel and I’m surprised at most folks’ inexperience with serving the little guys. It’s called Great Smokey Mountain Squirrel Casserole. You’re going to need one, maybe two big cast iron skillets or a large baking dish. Cut the squirrels into serving-sized pieces. Remove the hind and forelegs from each squirrel with shears. Trim the ribs away from the saddle and discard ribs. Cut the saddle in half.

Soak squirrels one to two hours in salt water – one teaspoon per quart of water, after soaking, butter your skillet or casserole dish. I like to coat the squirrel pieces with fish batter (preferably with lots of cornmeal). Shore Lunch (Original Recipe) is a good brand name and found in most grocery stores. I like to pre-dip the pieces in a bowl of liquid mix of milk and egg batter. This makes the breading-batter stick to the squirrel pieces. Then quickly roll the squirrel pieces in the cornmeal fish batter. Put them in the casserole dish (layer them if you need more room) and sprinkle with teaspoon salt, fresh ground pepper to taste, teaspoon ground thyme and 3 large bay leaves; pour 1 cup of water over the casserole. Cover and bake at 350 degrees until tender – one to two hours. For older and tougher squirrels add another 30 minutes to cooking time. Serve.

About 30 minutes before I take the squirrel out of the oven, I’ll add about one-half cup of Holland House red cooking wine just to “sweeten the pot.” Some folks bake the squirrel for two hours and then remove and then add the fish batter mixture. I never could tell the difference.

Since you’re reading this column, odds are that you identify yourself as a hunter or closely related to one. So, I’ve got to tell you about the stuff that goes along with the squirrels. There’s a big skillet of stir fry of sliced potatoes, onions, green bell peppers and mushrooms all fried together, one cherry pie, one blueberry pie, two loaves of garlic bread, a pot of baked beans and tons of hot coffee. Those guys never took time to savor the flavor. They just woofed it down. If I figured this correctly, the four squirrels we shot fed four hunters, two friends and a couple visitors.

Each hunt we make has its own stripe of greatness in one way or another. And some hunts occupy a niche all their own. I can’t recall many squirrel hunting trips I’d cull if I had the chance. Because most of them, if the truth be known, were memorable for one reason or another and I probably wouldn’t change a detail, success or lack of it, or whatever.

And now have a good weekend.