Each fall there are tens of thousands of small game hunters who head for the piney woods, mixed hardwood forests and swamps to secure a longtime favorite component of stews, gumbos, fricassees, etouffees, barbecues and deep-fried platters. I’m talking about squirrels and rabbits.
Hunting small game in Louisiana is the perfect gateway into hunting. It’s relatively inexpensive and, in the case of squirrel and rabbit, the species are abundant — offering plenty of hunting opportunities on public lands.
Season dates and bag limits are generous. In Louisiana, the open season runs from the first Saturday in October through the last day of February for both species. The maximum number of animals you can kill and keep in a day, or bag limit, for each is a liberal eight per person per day. There’s also a special spring season for squirrels that runs on private and most public lands from the first Saturday through the last Sunday in May. The daily bag limit during the spring season is three per person.
Small game hunting doesn’t require expensive, hi-tech equipment like hunting deer and waterfowl, and can be kept simple. Firearms especially can be simple. Single-action shotguns in either .410 or 20 gauges are easiest and safest to use. Small caliber rifles such as .22 and the recently developed .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR) are legal, but best used where the terrain and hunter density allows for safety. The use of high-powered air rifles is becoming increasingly popular.
In Louisiana and other Gulf coast states, there are the gray and the considerably larger fox squirrels, each of which have subspecies. They differ in size and have several color variations, but for the most part, gray squirrels are indeed brownish-gray, while the fox squirrels are reddish-orange and black. Both species can produce solid black, or melanistic, phases as well as albino or blond individuals.
As with squirrels, there are two species of rabbits in the Southern states: the eastern cottontail and the larger swamp rabbit. Farther west, you find another species: the long-legged, big-eared jackrabbit.
I’ve not noticed a difference in taste between the two squirrel species, but the texture is a different story. While fox squirrels offer more quantity, they are not nearly as tender as the gray and require longer cooking or marinating times. As with all game, younger means more tender, and also determines cooking time.
Depending on your recipe, squirrels and rabbits can be cooked whole or in pieces. When serving pieces are used, I butcher both into five parts. The four front and back legs are easily separated from the back loin some cooks call the “saddle.”
People ask all the time: “What do squirrel and rabbit taste like?” I find it hard to describe, but I think squirrel is similar in color to dark chicken thigh meat, but has a much more robust flavor — close to, but not as unique as, venison.
Rabbit, on the other hand, appears much like chicken breast in color and texture and has a much milder flavor than squirrel. I always try to avoid the “tastes like chicken” explanation, because it really doesn’t. However, it’s safe to say any recipe that’s good for chicken, from Southern deep-fried to stewed to spaghetti, is also good for rabbit.
Besides ensuring your meat will be moist and tender, one of the reasons I like to combine both squirrel and rabbit in a gumbo is for the diversity of flavors.
Both are delicately flavored, and recipes are only limited by the imagination — as evidenced by my mom’s “Squirrel Salad Sandwiches.” Yum! Here’s one of my favorites for either squirrel or rabbit (or a combination of both), which you might find on a camp stove on a chilly fall night.