I could not deny it felt like coming home. When the car turned down the lane to the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge, I knew I would see old friends and feel right at home. I walked up on the porch, opened the door, walked into the front room and it really felt like I had been here just yesterday.
The Southern Sportsman, near Hayneville, Alabama, does not seem to change much.
Deer and turkey mounts adorn the walls, and the comfy couches and easy chairs seem to entice you to sit a spell and soak it all in. I always wander toward the kitchen to say hello to the ladies who do all cooking there and to pay homage to the rows of pictures on the wall. From back in the day, celebrities from sports, entertainment, politics and other walks of like are shown. All of these people have hunted here and enjoyed the hospitality of this historic hunting lodge.
Many of them were here hunting with Jackie Bushman, father of the Buckmasters deer hunting organization (and its associated magazines and television programs) and creator of the Squirrel Master Classic.
Eight years ago, Bushman was looking for a way to attract hunters back to their roots - small game, where a lot of us began our hunting journeys. Bushman's idea was to have a squirrel hunt in a fun but competitive atmosphere. Teams are made up of outdoors television personalities, outdoors writers and editors, a dog handler with a squirrel dog to find the squirrels for you and - most important of all - a young person who is a 4-H shooter. The 4-H shooters are really the reason the event exists, because the ultimate goal is to introduce young hunters to the world of small game.
Airgun manufacturer Gamo sponsored the event and supplied all the hunters with a Gamo Swarm Magnum pellet rifle. The Swarm Magnum is the world's only 10-shot break-barrel air rifle, and the 10X Quick Shot magazine allows the shooter to load 10 pellets in the magazine, insert it into the rifle and fire 10 quick shots before reloading.
Believe me, we needed those quick second and third shots on this hunt as these squirrels had their running shoes on. Once they started running in the treetops, sometimes with spectacular leaps from tree to tree, you had to be quick or you came up empty handed.
Out in the squirrel woods, Nick Mundt and Michael Waddell of the "Bone Collector" TV show looked a little frazzled. They were working the action of their Gamo air rifles as fast as they could, aiming to the top of a very tall oak tree and pulling the trigger. Unfortunately for them and the rest of our team, they weren't connecting with their target, a very fast and very agile gray squirrel who was showing off with treetop acrobatics. This squirrel was good, he was fast and he wasn't sticking around to get shot at anymore. This little tree-dwelling rodent was gettin' out of Dodge.
Full disclosure: I could have been shooting, too, and I should have been, but I was trying to take pictures and video, so I was no help with the squirrel. One of our dog handlers for the day, Shane Mason, stood watching the whole show with some dismay and offered words of encouragement such as: "Boys, will one of you please hit that squirrel!"
This little vignette was being played out in a beautiful piece of country not far from Hayneville - the town is about a half-hour southwest of Montgomery - and we were the guest of Neal Pettus, who as our guide showed us around some wonderful squirrel woods.
As with most good things, the Squirrel Master Classic is always over much too soon.
At the end of the second day of hunting, everyone gathers round and the squirrels taken by each team are counted. There is much anticipation as Bushman is joined by Lawrence Taylor from Gamo in counting each squirrel. Our team was feeling pretty confident because we had taken a record 33 squirrels the day before. When it was all done, however, it was not to be. While our hard-charging Bone Collector team had taken 59 squirrels in two days, the Raised Hunting team brought in a whopping 60!
There were many high-fives and much back slapping, not to mention some very happy but tired squirrel dogs.
I went back to the lodge and walked through one more time before leaving. The big buck and turkey mounts, as well as the pictures of football players and country singers from the past seemed to say "See you next time." I assured them I would be back.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.