The two men made several loops around the perimeter of the woods before quietly entering under a cluster of hickory and acorn trees. One carried a .22-caliber rifle, and the other trailed behind with a hook to transport the carcasses. Both wore T-shirts.
After spotting their prey hiding in the crook of an oak tree, the first man stood on one side with the gun while the second went to the opposite side to coax the critter around for a shot. Though he could barely see his target, the man with the rifle aimed for the creature’s head and pulled the trigger. The squirrel, after falling more than 80 feet, landed amongst the yellow leaves of the forest floor, dead.
The inspiration for the hunt came earlier that day on the campus of Goshen College as Matt Thomas and Tim Landes were leaving the sculpture lab and noticed the sunny autumn weather. Inspired to take advantage of such a lovely Wednesday afternoon, Thomas pitched an idea to his friend.
“Want to go squirrel hunting?” he asked Landes with a grin. Intrigued by his friend’s suggestion and lured by the promise of squirrel meat, Landes said yes.
Thomas, a senior art major, has considered squirrel hunting a favorite fall activity ever since his dad started taking him to a friend’s woods when he was about six years old. Back then, Thomas used a homemade bow or slingshot instead of a rifle.
For Landes, though, this was a first-time adventure. “I’d gone shooting at a hunting range before, but nothing like this,” said Landes, a junior art major. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
Although Goshen College is home to a large number and variety of squirrels, students can receive a minimum $150 fine if they shoot a firearm on campus or anywhere else within city limits. With this in mind, Thomas and Landes drove to a wooded property owned by a friend of Thomas, 10 minutes west of campus.
Once they arrived at the two-acre property, the men gathered their supplies—a rifle, pocket knife and hook—and headed out to the woods. For the next three hours they silently scoured the trees in search of a breed rarely seen on the GC campus: sciurus niger, the orange-tailed, golden-bellied fox squirrel.
“It’s pretty simple,” Thomas said of his hunting strategy. “Fox squirrels are more wary than gray and black squirrels so it’s best to walk quietly through the woods or sit still.”
Fox squirrels weigh 1 to 2 pounds and are exceptionally agile tree climbers, which makes them more challenging targets than other game. Tracking squirrels requires a lot of patience, but by the end of their three-hour hunt, both Thomas and Landes had each shot and killed two squirrels.
With darkness approaching, the men decided to return to the sculpture lab to skin the meat and divvy up their bounty. As he has done in the past, Thomas kept the skins to send to a tanner and will use the leather to make bags, pouches and book covers.
Landes, meanwhile, decided to use the meat from the kill to make squirrel gumbo, a stew consisting of tomatoes, okra, peppers, garlic and, of course, squirrel meat. Having never cooked squirrel before, Landes simply found a chicken gumbo recipe in a Mennonite cookbook and hoped the squirrel substitution would work. Thomas had warned him that squirrel can be a little tough, so Landes let the meat simmer in a slow cooker overnight.
As Landes waited for the meat to cook, he reflected on his first-time hunting experience. “It makes you appreciate your food,” he explained. “You can buy your food from the grocery store, or you can get it for yourself.”
The squirrel hunting experience also gave Landes a new outlook on these woodland critters. “I have a newfound respect for squirrels,” Landes said. “I wouldn’t shake a squirrel out of a tree—it’s not nice. But if your intentions are just to eat the meat and you do it responsibly and respectfully, I think squirrel hunting is a great thing.”
The next evening Landes invited six friends to share in his culinary experiment. Skeptical but curious, his friends agreed to give the dish a taste.
“When Tim asked me to come over for dinner and mentioned squirrel in the same sentence, I was a combination of disgusted and intrigued,” said Kaeli Evans, a junior public relations major and one of the friends who came to dinner. Despite her uncertainty, she figured she might as well give it a try. “How many people can say they’ve tried squirrel these days?”
To everyone’s surprise and delight, the gumbo was a huge success. The group enjoyed it so much, in fact, that they all took second helpings.
“The meat was super tender and the peppers and broth gave it a really tasty flavor,” said Evans. “They could have said it was dark chicken and I would not have noticed the difference. I actually look forward to the next time I have the opportunity to eat squirrel gumbo and wouldn’t mind going on the hunt, too.”
Spicy Squirrel Gumbo Recipe
Saute in large, heavy kettle:
¼ c. oil or margarine
2 onions, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 green pepper, diced
2 T. flour
Cook and stir over low heat until vegetables are tender.
2 ½ c. cooked tomatoes
2 c. cooked okra, or 1 ½ c. frozen whole okra
2/3 c. tomato paste
3 c. broth or stock
1 ½ T. salt
¼ t. pepper
1 ½ T. Worcestershire sauce
1/8 t. ground cloves
½ t. chili powder
pinch dried basil
1 bay leaf
Simmer 1 hour. Prepare cooked rice.
Chop and reserve:
1/3 c. parsely
Add to gumbo:
3 c. cooked squirrel meat, diced.
Simmer briefly. To serve, combine hot cooked rice with chopped parsley and mound rice in center of soup bowls, using ice cream dipper or large spoon. Pour hot gumbo around.