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Ramblings of an old squirrel hunter

By: LARRY CASE

You’ve heard be talk about squirrel hunting quite a bit in the past, and I hope I haven’t bored you with it. This traditional, close to the earth type of hunting strikes a deep chord with me. I can’t help it, it just does. I think it has to do with where I come from, and what formed me as a hunter and all-round woods rat. We can’t really escape who we are.

I’ve been a squirrel hunter for most of my life. In some parts of the country hunters think that is an odd statement, they didn’t grow up hunting squirrels and it’s not part of their hunting culture. In my part of the world, the southern Appalachian Mountains, there was a time when most all young hunters started out squirrel hunting. The squirrel woods is where we learned how to be a hunter, it’s where we learned all of the basic skills needed to hunt everything from bushytails to Greater Kudu, you can too.

Squirrel hunting was made for new and first-time hunters. You can hunt them almost everywhere; any forested area is likely to hold squirrels. East of the Mississippi there is an estimated 384 million acres of woodland, a lot of this is on public land like National Forest and state wildlife management areas. As for private land, many times landowners will give you permission to squirrel hunt when they might not for deer or turkeys. Expensive leases are not required to be a squirrel hunter.

Besides all the stalking and tactics skills, squirrels will teach you other basics that every hunter should know. Learning to find and recognize the food that game needs is essential to any hunter. If you think about it, much of what a wild animal does every day is walk around and look for something to eat. This goes for deer, bear, turkeys, and squirrels.

Squirrels will establish a home range, especially if it is centered around a good den tree, usually an older, large tree that has hollow places that squirrels can get into. This is the bomb proof shelter squirrels will run to when all else fails and may be the sleeping quarters during bad weather.

Squirrel hunting doesn’t require a lot of special gear. If you have a .22 rifle or a shotgun and a pair of boots you are ready to go squirrel hunting. Camo clothing may help but is not absolutely necessary, wear your old jeans and a sweatshirt. If you have a turkey vest, they are a great way to carry squirrels and whatever gear you chose to take plus they supply a seat cushion. A small game or bird vest is also handy.

Any .22 rifle that you can shoot accurately out to 50 yards will do as well as will most any shotgun, and you don’t necessarily a 12-gauge and three-inch magnum shells, a 20-gauge will do fine or even a .410 for the younger hunters.

When I was 10 or 12 years old on the opening day of season, I would spring from my bed where I am sure I got no sleep. Getting ready entailed no more than pulling on some blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and maybe grabbing a bowl of Cheerios. Unlike the mountain of gear that seems to be required today, I have my squirrel pin (it’s to hold the squirrels I collect and is made from bending a coat hanger) on my belt and some .410 shotgun shells in my pocket.

I follow my Dad out the door and he starts up the International Scout and we are off. This is a day trip close to home so in a few minutes he pulls over on an old dirt road and we sit in the predawn darkness. The anticipation, the pent-up excitement, is palpable. We have waited for months for this, and now it is here. The realization that the event is here, and now we are living it seems well, almost euphoric.

I look back on this now, after so many years, and I think about was Dad really excited as I was on those opening mornings? Or was he just playing along for a skinny kid that lived to go hunting? It is just one of a hundred questions I wish I could ask him.

A lot of today’s hunters may find it hard to believe once upon a time the opening day of squirrel season was a big deal, I mean like as big a deal as buck season. It was not unusual for the surrounding woods to ring with hunter’s shots on opening day. I remember my Dad would say it sounded like a “young war”.

Back in the day hordes of hunters went to the woods for a tree dwelling rodent that might weigh a pound or two. Why? There are probably several reasons. Fifty years ago, without a doubt we had more hunters. Hunting was something more people thought of as important and more young people naturally followed their fathers, uncles, and grandads into the squirrel woods, more so than today.

In some areas, like my native southern West Virginia, small game like squirrels could be the only game in town. Deer were not found all over the state and wild turkeys were not as plentiful either.

This Saturday, September 11, is the start of the squirrel season in my home state of West Virginia. In some states in the southeast the season has already begun; others will soon follow. Would you consider an early morning trip to the misty woods this year? Maybe it has been a long time for you, life and other types of hunting got in the way. The golden fall woods, the squirrels, and that wide eyed kid full of wonder are there waiting for you.

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