I've written about squirrel hunting quite a bit in the past, and I hope I haven't bored you. 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-around 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 because 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 by going after squirrels. In the squirrel woods is where we learned how to be hunters, picking up all of the basic skills needed to pursue everything from bushy tails to greater kudu, and you can, too.
Squirrel hunting was made for first-time hunters. You can hunt them almost everywhere - any forested area is likely to hold squirrels. East of the Mississippi, there are an estimated 384 million acres of woodland; a lot of this is on public land such as national forests or state wildlife management areas. As for private land, many times property owners will give you permission to hunt for squirrels when they might not for deer or turkeys. As a result, expensive leases are not required to be a squirrel hunter.
In addition to stalking and tactics, squirrels will teach you other basics 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, bears, turkeys and squirrels. The latter 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 bombproof shelter they'll run to when all else fails, and it may be their sleeping quarters during bad weather.
Squirrel hunting doesn't require a lot of special gear, either. 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; you can 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 choose to take, plus they supply a seat cushion. A small game or bird vest is also handy.
Any .22 rifle you can shoot accurately out to 50 yards will do well, as will most any shotgun - and you don't necessarily need a 12-gauge and three-inch magnum shells; a 20-gauge will do fine, or even a .410 for the younger hunters.
Let me take you back to when I was 10 or 12 years old. On the opening day of squirrel season, I spring from my bed, where I am sure I got no sleep. Getting ready entails no more than pulling on some blue jeans and 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 shells in my pocket. I follow Dad out the door, 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 months for this, and now it is here. The realization 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 wonder: Was Dad really as excited as I was on those opening mornings? Or was he just playing along for a skinny kid who 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 that once upon a time the opening day of squirrel season was a big deal - I mean like as big a deal as the start of buck season. It was not unusual for the surrounding woods to ring with hunters' shots on opening day. I remember 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 granddads into the squirrel woods, more so than today. In some areas, like my native southern West Virginia, small game such as squirrels might be the only game in town. Deer were not found all over the state, and wild turkeys were not as plentiful either.
Saturday is the start of squirrel season in West Virginia. It has already begun in some states in the Southeast, including Georgia and Tennessee, and others will soon follow, with Alabama on board this Saturday. Would you consider an early morning trip to the misty woods this year? Maybe it has been a long time for you as 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.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.