September 22, 2016
I once saw a T-shirt emblazoned with the following: "Real Hunters Hunt Squirrels." A reunion with an old hunting partner and a local celebration of "good ol' boys" style hunting helped me realize the truth in that simple declaration.
The reunion was with my cousin, Jim. He and I were inseparable during our early teenage years. We fished, we hunted, we trapped — we were the princes of my father's farm. But then we got our driver's licenses, we discovered girls, and our lives diverged. He eventually migrated west, where he had opportunities to hunt "glamor game" such as elk, mountain lions and bears. My path was more mundane, closer to my roots, and limited to the game birds, rabbits and squirrels that lived within miles of where we grew up.
Eventually, when we both grew older, we reunited. A death in the family led to a late-night phone call that prompted an exchange of emails, and our bond was re-established. Conversation exchanges of, "We need to get together sometime," led to "Let's set a date," and finally to, "When will you be here and what do you want to do?"
The surprising answer from Jim, the owner of trophy elk mounts, Boone and Crockett deer entries, and bear pelts that cover an entire wall was, "I want to go squirrel hunting."
Arrangements were made, and permissions were gained to hunt my father's former farm woodlands. Soon, a bright September day found two strangers trying to find common ground in a pickup truck pulling a cloud of dust down a gravel road. Things were familiar, but awkward. At the old gateway we parked the truck, stretched aging joints, and lost 40 years as we loaded .22 long rifles and eased through the gate into what had been our teenage kingdom.
The trees were all in the same places, just taller and thicker at their bases. The wind sounded the same as it tussled through the leaves. Without a word, we split paths at the big locust tree. I moved across the hillside, he took the ridge. My eyes found familiar patterns in the branches, my feet followed paths I didn't know I'd memorized.
At one point I stopped and looked through an opening in the trees, and as on dozens of days decades before, I saw Cousin Jim paused, looking through the trees for me, to coordinate our movements. He briefly looked startled. It wasn't because he didn't expect to see me; it was because he, as was I, was confused for a second to see a much older guy standing where his teenage cousin had always stood.
The hunt went well. We got five squirrels, three for me, two for him. Old knees and poorly conditioned muscles gave out sooner than enthusiasm, but we made enough shots and missed enough to fill the drive back to his motel with laughter and stories we thought we'd forgotten. His final comment as he slammed the door and leaned on the truck's window sunk in.
"I've hunted elk and deer and bear and lions from Arizona to Alaska, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed hunting as much as I enjoy hunting squirrels with you."
I figured that was to be our one-time reunion, a cap to two lives on differing courses, but I was wrong. There were subsequent phone calls and emails to relive that golden day, and in passing I mentioned a local event, an annual squirrel hunt among a group of friends I know, where they designate one morning each year to determine who reigns as "The Squirrel King."
They divide into two-man teams that can hunt anywhere in the county. All teams meet for a group breakfast, and then head into the woods at 8 a.m., with a strict noon rendezvous. Some team members arrive in face paint and full camo, with bull-barreled competition rimfire rifles equipped with $500 scopes. Others show up in overalls and chore boots, carrying .22 rifles they've owned since they bought them with money earned baling hay as teenagers.
The breakfasts are legendary story-telling events, fueled by decades of hunting camaraderie. Egos are deflated as deemed appropriate, and encouragements are given via the harsh harassment common between old friends. Promptly at 8 a.m. the teams disperse to their respective hunting grounds in a flurry of pickup truck tires flinging gravel in all directions.
Some head toward carefully scouted nut groves for hunts following predetermined paths. Others might park behind a relative's barn and casually stroll through a windbreak to see what they can see. A few follow carefully orchestrated campaigns through multiple woodlands during the allotted time. At least one team was found asleep against the sun-drenched bases of adjacent trees.
BY INVITATION ONLY
At noon all teams arrive at the rendezvous point, usually with legal limits of squirrels in hand. Points are awarded for bullet holes: Three points for a clean head shot. Two points for a single body shot. One point for more than one bullet hole anywhere on the body. Judges' decisions are final, but often debated and frequently second-guessed.
Squirrels are dressed after judging, and then everything dissolves into good-natured arguments over squirrel stew and adult beverages. The event eventually dissolves late in the afternoon with shouted taunts and insults, and promises of setting things straight and proper at next year's "Squirrel King" hunt.
That easy-going type of squirrel-hunting competition seemed to appeal to Cousin Jim. "That's what I want to do next," he said during a recent phone call. "I want to do a Squirrel King hunt. I got to thinking that everything I like about hunting, I can get from squirrel hunting. Time in the woods, marksmanship, stalking, stealth, playing with camo, tinkering with different guns and scopes and loads, and especially the harassment thing. Squirrel hunting just has less pressure and expense so I can relax and actually enjoy all the reasons I like to hunt."
I apologized, and said that the Squirrel King hunt was a closed event, by invitation-only, among a pretty inclusive group of diehard hunters.
"Oh, I don't want to hunt with them," he said. "It would be fun, and I'd probably be one of the top guys that day, but what I want is another day in the woods with you. But this time we'll keep score and really find out who's the better shot."
We're comparing calendars and re-arranging schedules. It looks like it's going to happen. I'm going to order two of those T-shirts to commemorate the event. And maybe I'll grab a paper crown from the local Burger King, re-lettered "Squirrel King" — for me to wear at the end of the day!
Squirrels Unlimited is a nationally focused organization with the mission statement, "Dedicated to the recognition and promotion of the squirrel as one of mankind's greatest gifts" bannered across the homepage of its website squirrelsunlimited.com.
"One night after a Ducks Unlimited meeting, we got to talking about how deer, turkey, pheasants and waterfowl all had organizations to promote their sports, but that nobody was helping squirrels and squirrel hunting," says SU president Joe Wilson. "We were sort of joking, but the longer we thought about it, and considered what a role squirrel hunting had played in our lives, we decided to actually create the organization."
Apparently, they were not alone. Squirrels Unlimited has really taken off.
"There's an amazing interest in squirrel hunting," said Wilson. "A lot of older guys who've got their deer and turkeys are getting back to their roots, back to the squirrel hunting they did as kids, and finding out that it's the experience of hunting that they enjoy as much as the size of the animal or the amount of money they have to spend on a hunt."