How to Catch and Prepare Small Game


Many individuals assume that, in an end-of-the-world scenario, they are going to live off the land and hunt big game like the Native Americans and other indigenous populations once did. Alternately, some individuals assume that the forests and fields will once again teem with wild berries and nuts, and the majority of humans will be able to sustain themselves with a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Both of these assumptions are erroneous.

For the majority of history, big game hunting was a long and grueling process involving bands of individuals who would travel long distances over the course of several weeks to hunt deer, antelope, elk or buffalo. Furthermore, most of these hunting trips were conducted only during a specific time, such as when animals were migrating to escape the oncoming winter or to engage in mating rituals.

This is because large game animals, and especially predators, require large parcels of land in order to survive and thrive. According to the ecological or energy pyramid theory, there needs to be a significant input of energy from a lower trophic level in order to support the next higher yet much smaller trophic level.

Thus, there must be many upon many shrubs and trees for a small population of deer to eat and survive on. Conversely, there must be several small populations of deer available for a single den of lions to hunt and survive on. And finally, there must be several dens of lions available in order for a single band of humans to hunt and survive on.

Meat procured during successful hunting trips had to be carefully prepared and stored for the many months when no big game was expected, when hunting trips were unsuccessful, or when the weather or climate did not permit big game hunting.

During these meatless periods, there was significant focus on in-season berry and nut picking as an alternate means of maintaining caloric intake. Fruits and nuts were highly prized because they provided a better ratio of energy to fiber than root vegetables, leaves and young plant shoots. However, once the berries and nuts had fallen off or been eaten by other animals, there were only the lower calorie root vegetables, leaves and shoots left for daily sustenance. Honey might be procured every now and then, assuming one could distract a swarm of angry bees and also fend off any interested bears.

A culture could not sustain itself forever on a simple plant diet because these foods, although more plentiful, required calories just to eat and digest. Even if this food was cooked, it still provided very little energy in comparison to its fiber mass.

In other words, humans had to seek out sources of higher calorie foodstuffs (i.e., meat and fat) or they would’ve inevitably starved to death even as they ate all day long.

Because large animals are difficult to track, kill and prepare, and because plant-based food does not provide sufficient nourishment, the best compromise for surviving in the advent of an apocalypse or some other catastrophe is to catch and prepare small game. This small game can include, but is not limited to, squirrel, mink, possum, rabbit, raccoon, duck, chipmunk, etc.

How to catch small game

There are several different methods that you can use to catch small game. Some of the most commonly used methods involve firearms and traps/snares. There are advantages and disadvantages with each method used.


Firearms enable you to hunt and kill small game with a great deal of speed and accuracy. For example, a .22 caliber rifle, when combined with a mounted scope, can be used to shoot and kill small game in the ideal body location of either the heart or the brain. Targeting either the brain or the heart prevents you from inflicting superficial body wounds, which only damage the meat and fur. You also prevent accidentally puncturing the gut area, which can result in organ and excrement spillage and resultant meat contamination.

For small animals that are scurrying about in the trees (e.g., chipmunk) and thus difficult to pinpoint, you may have to resort to a shotgun loaded with non-toxic (i.e., lead-free) #7.5 (nominal shot diameter of 0.95” or 2.41 mm) or #8 (nominal shot diameter of .090” or 2.29 mm) shot. While using a shotgun lessens the need to be completely accurate with your shot, you lose range (i.e., distance) and must be closer to your game in order to effectively stun or kill it. This is especially the case when using non-toxic ammunition, which doesn’t have the penetration power of lead.

A larger gauge shotgun, like the 20 or 28-gauge pump-action Ithaca Model 37, is ideal for hunting moving small game including squirrel, pheasant and even duck. The Ithaca shotgun even offers an optional interchangeable rifled barrel, enabling it to shoot slug cartridges instead of shot for game that is at the edge of small, such as Canadian geese.

If you only have a handgun at your disposal, your best bet is to use one that can fire .22 caliber ammunition and which has inset sights for aiming and shooting. One example of such a handgun is the Browning Buck Mark Contour 5.5 URX .22 LR.

Using larger size ammunition, including .357 or .45 caliber ammunition, will pretty much obliterate your intended target. Unless you want to be picking up 20 pieces of dead chipmunk, you need to use as small of a caliber bullet as possible.

The disadvantage with using any kind of firearm is that you need to be actively hunting in order to procure meat. Thus, it might take you an entire day to successfully hunt five squirrels, which provides enough meat for about two meals. Depending on your level of skill, you may hunt all day and come up empty-handed. Hunting is also not cost-free; spent ammunition needs to be reloaded, which can be an impossible task when gunpowder and primers are hard to come by.

Traps and snares

There are plenty of traps/snares available for catching small game. In many cases, these traps/snares kill the small game via strangulation or snapping of the neck. Technically, a snare uses a loop of wire or rope tied to a stick, while a trap uses metal, to accomplish either end.

Whether or not you choose to have your game killed in the trap/snare depends on several factors, including how often you check your traps/snares and whether the noise of the captured live animal would attract other predators.

It goes without saying that you cannot leave traps/snares very long without checking them; a dead rabbit that has had its neck snapped, for example, will start to decay within an hour of death. Rigor mortis will make it nearly impossible to properly skin and gut any furry animal. Even if the meat remains uncontaminated by bacteria, it will taste more “gamey” than if it’s prepared right away and chilled in cold water or a freezer.

So, while traps/snares are a more passive method of hunting when compared with using firearms, this method still requires an active cycle of constant checking.

The main advantage with using traps/snares is that you can set as many or as few as you wish, enabling you to catch and prepare quite a haul of meat in the space of a single day. You do not need extensive marksmanship skills to catch small game with traps/snares. Finally, most traps/snares are reusable.

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Types of animal traps

The most common trap that you might consider setting for small game is the common snap-type rat trap. This trap is designed much like the snap-type mouse trap, except that it is bigger due to it being intended for rats.

Another snap trap that captures larger animals like beavers, otters and raccoons is the Victor Conibear trap. This trap, which was introduced in the 1950s, offers several different jaw spreads and includes a trigger that the animal must set off. The advantage of this type of trap is that it positions the animal so that its neck can be snapped quickly or its head crushed. While gruesome to think about, this also provides the most humane ending to an animal’s life.

Other common animal traps include deadfall traps, which operate by the placement of a heavy load at the top of a levered trigger. Quite often, these will become your traps of choice if you don’t have the metal-containing snap traps mentioned above.

The basic Paiute deadfall trap uses a post stick, lever stick, a trigger stick, and a bait stick. The trap also requires a string or rope, which can be made from natural yucca or stinging nettle fibers. Put together, these items balance a heavy load at the top and use bait to attract an animal so that it scurries underneath the load. Once the animal takes the bait, the bait stick becomes unbalanced and drops the load on top of the animal, crushing it.

Types of animal snares

Snares typically make use of metal wires or strings to trap (i.e., ensnare) the animal. Most snares rely on the use of a slip noose to strangle or hold the animal.

The Ojibwa bird pole uses a 6 foot (or even taller) high pole that is driven into the ground and has a small hole drilled towards its top. A small perch stick is inserted into that drilled hole. The perch stick is also draped with a slip noose string that is tied to a weight. The rest of the string is fed through the drilled hole, and its attached weight hangs towards the bottom of that pole.

Everything is balanced until a bird lands on the perch, causing it to fall. This results in the rock dropping and pulling on the slip noose. If the slip noose is nestled around the feet of the bird, it will catch its feet and drag the bird towards the drilled hole. The ensnared bird will remain in this position until collected by the hunter.

The spring snare also uses a slip noose, which in this case is placed on the ground and is attached to a balanced notched trigger; that trigger is ultimately attached to a bent tree branch or other tension source.

The slip noose is triggered into action when an animal disturbs it, which typically happens when it steps into the noose and releases the trigger. The bent tree branch then straightens out and snatches the animal up and into the air. Such a snare may or may not use bait; however, bait is useful in that it positions the head and neck of the game animal into the noose instead of just its limbs. This type of snare is typically used to catch small game like rabbits and raccoons, but can even be designed for larger animals like deer.

How to prepare small game

Once you have shot, trapped or ensnared your small game, you must act quickly to prepare it for storage or immediate consumption. In the majority of cases, this will involve two key steps: removing the animal’s fur or feathers, and then removing the animal’s guts.

There are many animals that have fur pelts or feathers, and under ideal circumstances, these fur pelts or feathers should be removed before the animal is prepared for eating. Granted, you could keep the fur or feathers on the animal or even burn the material off; however, these items are useful and can be used for insulation. Also, by removing the fur or feathers, you can better examine the meat for underlying parasites and possible disease. Likewise, you don’t want the possibility of introducing lice, fleas and other fur and feather-associated pests into your food.

How to skin a squirrel

Before you begin, understand that an animal’s fur is usually loose and capable of being gripped and pulled by hand. You need not hack into an animal to remove its fur; however, because its skin is attached via connective tissue, you will require a very sharp skinning knife. Typical skinning knives have a smooth blade that curves up at the tip in order to split skin. Some skinning knives even have a hook at the tip to enable back and forth cutting.

Sharp scissors is also a useful, though not essential, tool to have on hand. Finally, skinning pliers are invaluable for gripping and holding slippery sinew and skin when pulling off animal fur.

There are many furry animals in the wild that will need to be skinned, including rabbit, beaver, raccoon, etc. Because the anatomy of many of these animals is similar, the squirrel may be used as a basic example of how to skin a number of furry animals, up to and including even larger game such as deer.

To begin the process, you may wish to first cut off the front and hind feet of the squirrel. This step may also be omitted and performed at the end of the skinning; it’s up to you. Then, lift up the tail of the squirrel and locate its anus. Make a cut just above the anus and towards the back, making sure to not cut through the back skin. Start peeling back the skin with your fingers, making sure you are only peeling skin and not flesh.

Once you have a good amount of skin peeled back and cut away from the back area of the animal, step on the tail with your foot and use your hands or pliers to pull on the hind quarters of the squirrel. This will start pulling off the fur, at least until you reach the front legs of the animal. At this point, the coat may get stuck and you will need to use your fingers to help take off the fur from the front legs.

At this point, if you have not cut off the front and back feet of the animal, the fur will again get stuck at the paws. You can use a knife to cut off the front paws at this point. The fur should then only be stuck at the head; you can cut off the head or slowly and carefully carve away the connective tissue until you remove all the fur from the front end.

That will leave only the fur on the hind legs of the squirrel. Using your fingers, you should be able to dig into the fur and pull it off, much like you would pull off a pair of pants. Again, if you have not cut off the hind feet, the fur will get stuck there. The best remedy is to cut off the feet at the heel, leaving just the meat and no fur.

Be careful not to squeeze the squirrel’s torso during any portion of the skinning or you will risk breaking its gut sac and spilling its organs and excrement all over the meat. Granted, if this does happen, you can always wash out the insides of the animal- but it’s best not to have this happen in the first place.

If you are dealing with a larger animal or want to keep as much of the pelt as possible, you might also consider making two inner area incisions on the animal, such as on either side of its belly and along its inner thighs. After making these incisions, you can begin peeling off the fur. That will leave you a significant amount of pelt from the animal’s back.

As you gain more experience with skinning, you may only need to make one incision along the torso and gut to remove most of the fur from the animal.

How to gut a squirrel

Once the squirrel has been skinned, it is ready to be gutted. To do this, you can again use your skinning knife to carefully create a small incision along the bottom of the animal, towards its anus. Do not poke or jab the gut sac, as this will cause the organs to become punctured and/or burst. Indeed, there is really only a small membrane that needs to be cut before the digestive organs of the animal are in full view.

Once you’ve opened up the belly, keep cutting upwards and towards the rib cage. Go as far up as possible, or at least until you can see the heart and lungs.

Once the animal has been fully opened, use your fingers to dig in and carefully extract the heart and lungs, as well as any associated connective tissue. Then, go down and do the same with the stomach, liver and intestines. If you intend to save the liver, I would recommend throwing away the fluid-filled gall bladder and its associated bile duct; these items create a bitter taste to the organ meat.

To remove the blood from the meat, you can soak the squirrel in a jar of salt water overnight. Then, the squirrel will be ready for baking, frying or boiling.

How to feather a duck

Captured birds will have feathers, not fur, to contend with. The term ‘feather’ actually refers to both the quilled harder top feathers and the softer down feathers. Both these types of feathers can be saved and used for pillow, bedding and winter coat stuffing. Despite the advent of some amazing synthetic materials, down still beats synthetics in terms of its insulation and wicking power- so do not throw feathers away!

The process of removing feathers from a bird, such as a duck in this example, involves simply pulling on the feathers and ripping them out of the bird’s skin. With down feathers, this is best accomplished by ripping the feathers against the skin grain. With the quill feathers, you will need to pull them with the grain.

It’s not difficult to pull out bird feathers, although the process can be a bit slow. Some individuals only pull out about half the feathers before dipping the bird carcass into a vat of hot paraffin wax followed by a vat of cold water. This results in the hot wax embedding itself in the feathers and skin pores of the bird. Once the carcass has been cooled with the cold water, you can easily “break” its wax casing and remove almost all of the remaining feathers within the casing.

How to gut a duck

Once the duck has been de-feathered, you can start removing its organs and fat deposits. To begin, you should first cut off the duck’s feet with a pair of kitchen shears. Then, cut off the first half of the duck’s wings with the same shears, snapping the bone at the small notch in the shears.

Locate the anus of the bird and cut about an inch off all around this area. There will be a small fat pocket in the rear of the bird that you may keep and use to create rendered fat (i.e., lard). Rinse that area completely and keep the fat pocket.

Cut off the head and neck of the duck, which opens up its chest cavity. Using just your first two fingers, reach into the bird and pull out its gizzard, then cut it off. You may also find some additional white fat; keep that part. The gizzard, incidentally, can also be cleaned and cooked; a good portion of a bird’s gizzard is pure muscle.

Reach into the bird cavity again and pull out all the organs. As you pull out the organs, you’ll find the liver and heart; you may want to save these organs for later consumption. Regarding the liver, however, you will again want to locate the green-colored bile duct; gently pull the duct away from the liver and discard it.

At this point, the interior of the bird’s carcass can be washed with water and the bird is ready to become your lunch or dinner.

Small game catching and preparation

Small game hunting has several advantages over large game hunting. To begin with, it’s relatively easy to kill, transport and store small game. Unless you are completely negligent at gutting your kill, you will not have too many issues with food waste and spoilage. Also, small game animals are typically prey animals, and thus have a lot of protein due to always being on the run.

During times of food shortage, smaller animals may even be easier to find than larger ones because they will probably come scurrying to your house in search of scraps. Dogs and cats can be used to “flush out” small game, enabling you to take aim with your firearm. In short, you should not dismiss hunting and catching small game simply because it is “small” and thus of no consequence to your survival.


About Author

Halina Zakowicz is a full-time freelance writer, investor and aspiring sci-fi novelist. In her spare time, she appreciates the finer points of zymology by brewing various hops-infused concoctions.

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