"Hey! Those dogs are treed!"
Walker Scott jumps with excitement as he shouts this. Walker is the 4-H shooter on our team, and he is 9 years old.
Our group takes off like a herd of turkeys. We are splashing through shallow water, tripping on vines and going as fast as we can through this creek bottom. We have to get there fast, and our squirrel dogs, Bojangles and Sage, are in a barking frenzy telling us to hurry. They know the squirrel they have treed may not stay put. We have to get there and start slinging lead with the Gamo air rifles. Sometimes we get the squirrel; sometimes not.
We are at the Squirrel Master Classic near Montgomery, Alabama, and we are having a big time.
The Squirrel Master Classic is the brainchild of Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters deer hunting association, magazines and outdoors television programs. In 1986, a 29-year-old Bushman acted on an idea he'd been developing since he was a teenager. The Montgomery native had grown up exploring the great outdoors and hunting with his grandfather, and he wanted to take the camaraderie of the hunting camp to a national level. He envisioned a deer hunting association that would encourage a feeling of community, sportsmanship and wildlife conservation while promoting a positive image of deer hunters everywhere.
In 2014, Bushman had another brainstorm that led to the inception of the Squirrel Master Classic. The decline in hunter numbers for the past several years is no secret. Bushman felt, like many of us, that one way to generate more interest in hunting with young hunters is to bring back an emphasis on small game.
Time was when most of us started hunting with squirrels, rabbits and other small game. As deer and turkey populations increased, many young hunters skipped the small game stage and started on deer and turkeys. That may not be a bad thing, but small game is where a hunter often learns the basics such as gun safety, woodsmanship, tracking and finding food sources for game, as well as dressing and preparing game for the table. Being taught all of this on rabbits, squirrels and game birds is a good way to start.
Bushman's idea was to have a squirrel hunt in a fun, competitive atmosphere. Teams are made up of outdoors TV personalities, outdoors writers and editors, a dog handler with a squirrel dog to find the squirrels for you, and most important, a young person who is a 4-H shooter. Thanks to 4-H's very extensive shooting program, young people can learn and compete in several different shooting sports categories: air rifle and pistol, .22 rifle and pistol, shotgun, recurve and compound archery, muzzle loader and hunting skills. In the Montgomery area, 4-H shooters get the extra benefit of participating in the Squirrel Master Classic.
Gamo Air Rifles sponsored the event and supplied all the hunters with a Gamo Swarm Magnum Viper G3i pellet rifle. This is a 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 you have to reload.
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.
The Gamo folks were giving us a chance try out the Swarm Magnum Viper G3i before it hits the shelves later this year. I think everyone loved this little air rifle; it was accurate, had plenty of power for taking small game, and it was easy to cock the break-barreled action. That made it nice with so many young hunters in the mix.
The rifle, which will be available in .177 and .22 calibers and comes with a 3-9x40 Gamo scope, has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $269. You can learn more by visiting gamousa.com and entering "Gamo Swarm Viper Gen3i" in the site's search function.
The Squirrel Master Classic is held at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge, a hunter's haven in the famous Black Belt region of Alabama. I'm pretty sure if you look up Southern hospitality in Webster's, you will see a picture of the Southern Sportsman. This lodge has a rich 35-year history for hosting deer and turkey hunters and now squirrel chasers. The walls of the lodge are adorned with rows of pictures of hunters, outdoors personalities, writers, sports figures and entertainers who have stayed here.
(By the way, the ladies in the kitchen at Southern Sportsman make the best barbecue this side of Memphis.)
As for the competition, teams of squirrel chasers run the Alabama hardwoods in two shifts, morning and afternoon. The competition was fierce between the team leaders, including Bushman for Buckmasters, Nick Mundt and Michael Waddell for Bone Collector, David Holder for Raised Hunting and the Buck Commander crew.
This year I had the pleasure of going with the team led by Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo from "The Choice with Ralph and Vicki" hunting show. These guys are true professionals. They have been mainstays on outdoors TV for 25 years, and it was a pleasure to run the squirrel woods with them, their son AJ, his girlfriend Aubrey Miller and cameraman Eddie Roberts. Along with our dog handlers — Jarrod Hughes with Bojangles and Jamie McCarson with Sage — we were a determined bunch of squirrel chasers.
All morning we raced through the woods, following the barking of Sage and Bojangles when they would tree a squirrel. If the squirrel was spotted, a hail of pellet rifle fire would ensue. Usually the squirrel would light out for parts unknown and a wild chase through the jungle began. Sometimes we collected the squirrel, but often he would make it to a den tree and we would start all over.
At noon we all met back at the Southern Sportsman for the solemn weigh-in ceremony. As the entire crowd watched, Bushman counted and weighed each team's bag of squirrels for the day and added any bonus points they may have collected for a fox squirrel.
I am sad to report that your humble outdoors correspondent was not on the winning team. The Raised Hunting team took first place with 52 squirrels in two half-days of hunting, topping the Bone Collector team by one squirrel — just like last year! Congrats to the Raised Hunting clan!
Though we may have lost the competition, like Bo and Sage and the other squirrel dogs, we were tired but happy. A day spent in the woodlands chasing squirrels with friends and feisty hunting dogs, mentoring young hunters in a great tradition and just enjoying the outdoors — does it get any better than that?
Maybe, but I haven't found it yet.
Lord willing and the creek don't rise (and if they will have me), I will be back next year for another crack at the coveted Squirrel Master title. Don't get too comfortable with the trophy, Raised Hunting; the Bone Collector boys, Buck Commander, Ralph, Vicki and I are all gunning for you with a Gamo air rifle.
By the way, I understand that before leaving the Southern Sportsman, Walker Scott said, "Dad, we are getting us a squirrel dog!"
Atta boy Walker, atta boy.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.