We’d hatched the plan earlier in the year for the express purpose of finding a new adventure: backpack bowhunting a species we’d never hunted before in the wildest backcountry in Michigan…
“Aim small, miss small,” is what every bowhunter says before the shot. When the vitals in your sight window are scarcely larger than a quarter, though, you really don’t have much choice, and that is what makes bowhunting for squirrels such a challenging and rewarding endeavor.
I didn’t set out to bowhunt squirrels last October. After a 10-hour drive up to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, I left the trailhead literally loaded for bear: a tag for the unit, my compound, Gold Tip Kinetic Kaos carbon arrows tipped with G5 Montecs in a Kwikee Air quiver, and a hammock and three days of gear in my new Tenzing TZ3000 pack. I hiked along the escarpment above Lake of the Clouds toward where I’d meet my hunting partners at a campsite about five miles in. Jason Meekhof – the state chair for Michigan Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) – also drew a bear tag for the unit, and was similarly outfitted. Here’s what neither of us were equipped with, though: bait, hounds, or a clue of how to hunt bears.
Which was as we wanted it. We’d hatched the plan earlier in the year for the express purpose of finding a new adventure: backpack bowhunting a species we’d never hunted before in the wildest backcountry in Michigan. We wanted to challenge ourselves and hunt on our terms, even if success was highly unlikely, so we planned to still-hunt just as we do for deer. We were joined by Bob Busch, also a fellow board member for the Michigan BHA chapter, who didn’t have a bear tag but brought a vintage Bear Archery recurve for deer and a ukulele for the campfire in his enormous Mountainsmith pack. They’d travelled together earlier in the day and texted me where to meet them.
With darkness approaching, I fast-packed along the escarpment trail to make up time, until I met a backpacker who wasn’t too excited about sleeping in a hammock at the top of the ridge with the wind whipping the branches around us. I invited him to our campsite, and we hiked the rest of the way together as it got dark. Scott Masters, a firefighter from Bay City, was a welcome addition to our camp for the night, and we all still stay connected through Facebook.
The next morning was hunting time, though, so Jason, Bob and I camoed up while Scott packed up to continue his loop hike. We split up to hunt in different directions, as much exploring as hunting, though with keen attention paid to wind, sound and movement. Throughout the morning, I heard red squirrels chirp at me as I scanned the woods, hillsides and valleys with my binocs. I’ve hunted squirrels often with a shotgun or .22, but usually when bowhunting deer I focus solely on deer. Maybe it was the knowledge that my chances for even seeing a bear were so low, but I had packed along a blaze orange hat just in case I decided to put my base small game license to use (even when bowhunting, blaze orange requirements apply for hunting squirrels in Michigan). I traded my camo ballcap for my blaze one and nocked an arrow.
Finally one of the little red squirrels showed himself on the branch of a tree about 15 yards from me. I scanned the woods behind the tree to ensure there was nothing I didn’t want to hit if I missed and put my pin on its vitals. “Aim small, miss small.” I triggered my release and the arrow went right through it, sailing on as the squirrel fell to the ground. I recovered the squirrel first, then the arrow after a short search, and skinned and cleaned it on a fallen tree, putting it in a zip-lock bag I always carry for heart and liver when I hunt.
I’ve hunted many squirrels, but none compared to taking one with my bow, even this small red squirrel. Though far smaller than the gray squirrels I’ve hunted in the northern Lower Peninsula and the ones I can’t hunt in my Ann Arbor backyard, its smaller size created an inverse appreciation for it. I resumed bear hunting for most of the rest of the day to no avail, but arrowed two more squirrels for a campfire meal while losing one arrow in the leaf pack under a squirrel I missed and stuck another high in a pine tree just below another one I missed.
Back at camp, I cooked all three directly over the fire, one for each of us. In the past I’ve tried to cover up the flavor of squirrels by brining or making “Buffalo squirrel wings,” deep-fried in batter and coated with Red Hot. But these were seasoned only by the campfire smoke, and they were the most delicious squirrel and campfire meal I’ve eaten, undoubtedly somewhat mental.
We moved camp the next day to the banks of the Big Carp River, where an overnight thunderstorm flooded the campsite underneath Jason’s hammock and washed his boots in the river. We hunted another day, yielding only a “mini-bear” – or ground squirrel – with my bow which Bob and I shared for lunch, cooked by the riverbank over the flame from my mini gas stove and garnished with Red Hot.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said, “For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” I think a thunderstorm flooding our campsite in the grandest wilderness in Michigan and washing away Jason’s boots qualifies. We sought adventure and we found a little of it in Michigan. And I found a new favorite way to hunt a species which gave many of us our first hunting experiences, and it tastes better than ever over a campfire with friends.
About the author: Drew YoungeDyke serves on the board for the Michigan Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the sportsman’s voice for America’s wild public lands, waters and wildlife.