Call me a contrarian if you wish, but from my perspective today’s youth are experiencing serious and ongoing deprivation as they travel the road to becoming hunters. Arguably the finest sporting scribe, Robert Ruark in one of his timeless The Old Man and the Boy tales reckoned that no youngster who hunted and engaged in wholesome enjoyment in the world of nature had time to get in trouble or wander into juvenile delinquency.
Today, however, many young people lucky enough to grow up with exposure to the joys of hunting and fishing in the great outdoors are missing what should be key elements in development of these skills. One obvious factor is that far too many youths have no exposure whatsoever to the quest. Simply put, today’s youth, even those with well meaning tutors and ample opportunity to develop as hunters, are in many cases missing a great deal.
Just yesterday I looked at a photograph of a 9-year-old boy with a fine gobbler he had killed. The bird’s fan almost hid the small lad. The experience had to be a grand one, but I immediately asked myself, “Where does he go from here?” The same thought immediately crosses my mind whenever I see a tad of a lad with a lordly eight-point buck. He’s reached a lofty pinnacle. Now what does he do? In these types of situations, the benefit of a natural learning curve with an evolving apprenticeship, where the young hunter develops, step by step, into a skilled and highly knowledgeable woodsman, is absent.
The young man or woman is missing the slow and steady development of hunting skills and the subsequent mental acuity connected with the quest when sitting in a blind while an adult calls a turkey or being positioned in a tree stand, where cameras, scouting by others, and reliance on an adult to do everything but pull the trigger, produces a trophy buck.
Such experiences provide momentary excitement and perhaps even memories for a lifetime. But what do they do in the making of a sportsman, in the implantation of an instinctive desire to cling to sport and crave more knowledge of the hunt? Precious little, I fear. Instead, there’s greater likelihood of overly heightened expectations, failure to develop sustained interest in hunting that will last a lifetime, and, dare I say it, almost a malaise or attitude of indifference.
After all, the young hunter did next to nothing to achieve Olympian heights, so why should he find a corner of his soul forever linked to the quest? For my part, I would hold that the richest rewards are those that are hard earned, and that’s where a plaintive plea for squirrel hunting enters the picture.
Difficult though it may seem to believe, three generations ago, in South Carolina and indeed over much of the Southeast, squirrel hunting was the most popular of all shooting sports. This was before the grand success stories of whitetail deer and wild turkey restoration when bushy tail squirrels were plentiful, as they still are today. A hunter could take to the woods with every expectation of some action. If he had a good day, he could eagerly anticipate a fine game meal. The sport offered an ideal opportunity to introduce an eager, young understudy to the ways and wonders of hunting and the natural world.
For starters, to hunt squirrels was in essence to tread a historic path of wonder. The frontier settlers of the Carolina backcountry and Appalachian Mountains, who were essential in the fight against the British in the Revolutionary War, learned their marksman skills hunting squirrels with their long rifles. Icons such as Daniel Boone may have killed bears and blazed trails ever westward on the Appalachian frontier, but squirrel hunting was a part of their daily existence.
Our country’s most celebrated and decorated citizen soldier, Sgt. Alvin York, was a simple Tennessee country boy who turned the stealth, marksmanship, and patience he had cultivated as a lad hunting squirrels into heroic deeds on World War I’s Western Front. He singlehandedly took out a German machine gun nest and ultimately captured 132 soldiers on his own.
A youngster with some knowledge of historical background can take to the squirrel woods of autumn more than a little dreamy eyed, but such adventures offer far more than an opportunity to touch hands with the past. Thanks to a plentitude of game, a squirrel hunting outing has every expectation of action. It’s tough for a small boy or girl to remain perfectly still and quiet in a deer stand or turkey blind for seemingly interminable lengths of time, but being in the woods where bushy tails are raining down nuts in early fall or scampering about the forest floor after frost and leaf fall is another tale entirely.
Squirrel hunting is likely to provide the young person with ample opportunities to shoot. Talking in the form of a whisper is permissible, and the option is always available of moving to another spot even if still hunting is involved. In other words, squirrel hunting carries every expectation of action, and rare indeed is the budding hunter for whom that isn’t the ideal tonic.
Things happening in the woods translate to sustained interest, and that’s just as true in the classroom of the outdoors as it is in a traditional sixth grade classroom. Analyze the secrets of any highly successful teacher, and ability not only to hold the attention of students but to get them involved, even engrossed, in the education process will figure prominently in their approach to instruction.
The same is true in the squirrel woods, and who could ask for a finer setting in which to participate in active learning. As the man sometimes referred to as the Dean of American Campers Horace Kephart once wrote, “In the school of the outdoors, there is no graduation day.” Such is unquestionably the case when it comes to squirrel hunting, and the keys to the sport also conveniently happen to be precisely those that will serve a hunter wonderfully well no matter what his quarry.
One of the side benefits of a sporting apprenticeship in hunting squirrels is that meat from the treetop tricksters is delicious. Young ones can be pan fried, older squirrels parboiled and then baked (dot with butter) to tender goodness, incorporated into a dandy squirrel and dumplings dish, or featured in game gumbo. Lean, good for you, and tasty, squirrel meat completes the teaching process of consuming what you garner from successful hunts in grand fashion.
The Skills of a Squirrel Hunter
Among the attributes of a skilled all-around woodsman and master of wildcraft are stealth, marksmanship, patience, persistence, being able to read signs, knowledge of the habits and habitat of the game being hunted, and ability to immerse himself in his surroundings to the point of becoming almost one with the setting. All of those figure prominently in the squirrel hunting equation. Squirrel season is five months long, ranging from October through February and, like all seasons, ensures that hunting does not occur when the quarry is raising its young.
When conditions are right, the adroit squirrel hunter learns to slip through the woods like a wraith. One such setting comes when a rain from the previous day or overnight leaves the forest floor sodden and makes movement with nary a sound quite possible. Likewise, in the early season before leaf fall, a hunter learns to move about undetected using the reduced visibility, thanks to the foliage. Also helpful is an understory sending colorful, crunchy leaves tumbling downward, which has not yet been littered by frost.
For a youngster this can become almost a game of cat-and-mouse, and a good rule of thumb is to watch far more than you walk. Over time, sneaking through the woods, taking each step with care, constantly scanning the trees and the forest floor for telltale movement, and using every advantage available to mask movement, become second nature.
As for marksmanship, when hunting with a .22 rifle — that’s the gun of choice once hardwood trees have shed their leafy mantle — pinpoint accuracy is essential. A finely tuned rimfire rifle in a steady hand can bring off such shots, especially in the steady hands that are one of the sometimes overlooked blessings of young people, with consistency. That type of accuracy translates, over time and with burgeoning confidence, to similar performance with rifles of a much higher caliber. It also involves intimate familiarity with the hunter’s gun, something of a level of importance that should never be overlooked.
Patience and persistence are bywords in any type of hunting, and squirrel provides an ideal progression for a budding hunter to acquire those key traits. The patience part is pretty obvious, but when chasing bushy tails, it is made appreciably easier by the fact that changing geographical locations or adjusting tactics from a “sit and wait” approach to slipping through the woods is always possible.
As for persistence, the simple fact of a great likelihood of action with almost every outing makes “persisting” — going on another hunt — far more appealing than, say, a series of turkey hunts with minimal action. Both patience and persistence are products of maturation to no small degree, but action makes acquiring these vital elements of being a complete hunter much easier.
As for recognizing and reading signs, that’s one aspect of the sport where a knowledgeable and dedicated mentor can really loom large. It comes in myriad forms — noting nut cuttings and readily identifying the types of trees involved, spotting den trees and their entrance holes, locating nests and being able to ascertain whether they are in current usage, noticing the spots where squirrels have burrowed into the ground late in the season searching for previously buried nuts, observing mushrooms with telltale signs of feeding, seeing places where corncobs have been dragged from a nearby field into the woods for a feast, and even being able to distinguish what animal has disturbed the forest understory. Is it a squirrel, turkey, or deer?
Collectively, all these learning activities find the hunter gaining a growing appreciation of preferred squirrel habits and habitat. They are quite versatile in terms of the type habitat they will use, and Eastern gray squirrels, American red squirrels, and fox squirrels have somewhat different requirements. The observation that is integral to hunting awareness on this front grows, and in time, the young hunter almost subconsciously begins to absorb the wisdom of signs and habitat. Better still, this observation involves far more than just squirrels — a healthy awareness of nature in all of its facets — songbirds, trees, and bushes, perhaps other game animals — results.
In reality, every moment of woodland exposure allows a young hunter to be a human sponge, one soaking up not just the attributes of squirrel hunting but the endless joys of the wilds. It’s a process that properly followed proceeds seamlessly from rank beginner, maybe not even old enough to carry a gun, through enthralled apprentice and from fascinated adolescent to a full-fledged hunter. At least that was true with me and my personal experience, which is part of why I believe, strongly, in starting kids down the hunter’s path in proper fashion.
Although many decades have come and gone, I can still envision that brisk October morning, with those sentinels of autumn, hickory trees still clad in their golden raiment, when I killed my first squirrel. So powerful is the memory, so enduring the moment, that I have every confidence I could return to within 50 yards of the location on national forest land where it happened. Within a couple of years, Dad was allowing me to hunt alone, and fall afternoons would find me rushing home from school to head to nearby woods. I was in my 30s before I shot my first deer or wild turkey, but I had enjoyed precisely the kind of learning curve every girl and boy who is to become a hunter for life should have. In short, I’ve been wonderfully blessed.
Maybe our longtime Palmetto Poet Laureate — that marvelous sage of the Santee — Archibald Rutledge, put it best. He started his three sons out with .22 rifles and small game hunting, and in an essay entitled “Why I Taught My Boys to be Hunters,” he wrote, “It is my fixed conviction that if a parent can give his children a passionate and wholesome devotion to the outdoors, the fact that he cannot leave each of them a fortune does not really matter so much … Because they know and love the natural world, they will always feel at home in the wide, sweet habitations of the Ancient Mother.” To that I would merely add, after the fashion of old-time country preachers, “Can I hear an ‘Amen’?”
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who is the author of some 20 books and the editor and compiler of many more. His latest work is Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir.