Fall squirrels

I loved hunting squirrels as a kid — and still do. Squirrels are perhaps the best training experience for hunters at an early age, allowing one to learn the basic hunting skills necessary for success.

I still remember the glowing excitement I experienced as the first day of squirrel approached way back in the 1960s. All my friends and their fathers would be out — squirrel was the first serious season for the hunting community and young hunters cut their teeth chasing the wily bushytail.

I’d be anxiously watching the weather, praying for an early October frost. Two weeks after such a frost the leaves would be falling heavily, and the fewer leaves on the trees the better the squirrel hunting would be.

Still inexperienced, squirrels were “big game” to me. Shooting even a single bushytail was a matter of great importance and the limit was something I only dreamed of. Dad saw my anxiousness and, I’m sure, smiled at my enthusiasm. I methodically sorted all my equipment the evening before, checking especially for my compass. I was told we’d be hunting Polly’s Run, a branch off Sugar Run, and once I hit the ridgetop I wanted to be sure and head south to get out. Even at that age I knew things get confusing on those high, look-alike ridges and trusting your compass was the only safe thing to do. Dad had drilled that into me at a very early age.

We rose early and enjoyed a great breakfast of bacon and eggs. A faint glow was just lighting the skyline when we parked. Dad would work up one side of the valley and I the other. I was quivering like a young puppy scenting his first pheasant — and just as eager.

I followed the streambed up a faint trail a 100 yards or so, and never having hunted this valley before, sat down. No sense blundering about in the dark. I was carrying an old single-shot Stevens 12-gauge that kicked like a mule. Dad had hacksawed about 6 inches off the barrel to open the choke up and soldered a Daisy air rifle BB on top of the barrel.

I was sinfully proud of the gun — it was, after all, my first shotgun. Despite its kick the shotgun was light, short and handy. With the open choke its pattern was wide enough to make up for my lack of skill on moving targets. Some practice shooting at cans and old plastic baseballs had my confidence level on high. Boy, just let me see a squirrel, I thought.

It slowly grew lighter, the trees gradually taking shape around me. This appeared to be a good spot to sit. Several hemlocks stood nearby and at my feet were several of the big, golden leaves I recognized as hickory.

I wasn’t expecting to see game for some time, only the tree tops were clear against the brightening sky, the ground remaining shrouded in shadows. A thin fog veiled the forest that morning as well, lessening visibility. I opened the shotgun and slipped in a load of 1¼ ounces of Remington high brass 7½ shot. This load, Dad assured me, would dispatch a squirrel effectively out to 35 yards. Snapping the break-open action shut, I made sure the safety was on and leaned back against the oak, watching the day be born.

My hearing was excellent back then and I was quietly listening to the birds waking up, the drip of water droplets on the leaves and the scurry of a mouse underneath a log just in front of me.

Suddenly, without warning, a loud crash shook the branches above me. I jumped convulsively, my heart racing wildly. What in the world?

I jerked my head up, raising my shotgun defensively, in anticipation of I knew not what attack. Several large branches above me were waving up and down, a few leaves fluttering slowly earthward. Then an indistinct shape flew through the air and crashed onto another branch above causing it to shiver and shake.

My mouth flew open in surprise. It wasn’t an airborne monster out to devour me, but a grey squirrel! It had leaped several feet downward from a big hollow beach tree, landing noisily on the limbs above me. The squirrel then raced along the branch, leaping again to land in a nearby large hickory tree.

A hurtling squirrel’s weight crashing down on the leafy branches only a dozen feet above me was totally unexpected, and seemingly as loud as an atomic explosion in the pristine quiet of dawn. Like any young boy, I was also a little nervous sitting in the dark in the big woods.

I stared open-mouthed at the two squirrels dashing up and down the hickory. They had appeared as if out of nowhere and I couldn’t believe my elusive quarry was suddenly in front of me. The whole experience didn’t seem real at all. The shock and suddenness of this encounter had effectively paralyzed me — but not for long.

Trembling, I raised the shotgun, centered the first gray and fired. Down it came. I fumbled for a shell, missing the second squirrel, to my disgust. I calmed down and nailed him the following shot and was shocked when a third squirrel materialized out of nowhere. A little shaky, I managed to bag him, too.

Gathering my trophies I sat down in disbelief. Things happen so fast! Awestruck, I admired my harvest and felt the richest person on earth. What a rush and thrill. It still didn’t seem possible, but there my squirrels lay, all mine. Oh, what would Dad say? I couldn’t wait to tell him; I was bursting with pride.

When he appeared a few minutes later to see what all the shooting was about, the picture-perfect morning was complete. What a memory to cherish. Father and son at the break of day, an experience to last a lifetime.

Today, there is little emphasis on squirrel hunting. It’s a shame, for no other sport teaches kids the basics as well. You learn patience, stalking, marksmanship, tree identity and animal anatomy. For a young hunter, squirrels also provide priceless memories. Not only that — they taste great out of the pot.

Take your kids squirrel hunting. It’s a quiet and relaxing sport, when the leaves are beautiful, the weather cool but not frigid and a day afield a simple pleasure. You can’t go wrong.

(Wade Robertson is an award-winning outdoor writer whose articles have been published in Pennsylvania Outdoor News, Pennsylvania Game News, Fur, Fish & Game and other publications. His email is wadewrites3006@gmail.com.)