Slowly, slowly, he eased his right foot down. Easy, gently, his hunting brain told the foot. I know you want to push down and hurry on, but you can't do that. Just a little bit of weight at a time. The sole of the boot pushes down slowly, ever so gently compressing the dry leaves so as to make as little noise as possible.
With almost all of his weight down on this step, he felt a stick the size of a pencil under the left side of his foot. He carefully rolled his weight to the right and put all of his weight down without breaking the stick. Now the left foot started to come forward — slowly, gently. When this foot is finally planted, he will make two more yards in his stalk.
All of this is done without looking down at his feet. With neck craned upward, his eyes stay riveted to the place he last saw his prey. Slowly, deliberately, a yard at time. If he falters a step and makes some little crunch in the leaves, he will stop and regroup.
The hunting brain raises its voice and chastises him. What are you doing? Slow down. You know better.
If the hunter finally gets in range, the process is no quicker. Bracing against solid oak, he settles into a rest for him and his rifle. He trains the scope on the leaves where he saw the flicker of movement.
A sudden flurry of movement and he is looking at the grey squirrel he has been stalking for 25 minutes.
The thin reticle of the scope settles on the base of the ear.
The hunter starts the slow, deliberate squeeze on the trigger — slowly, gently.
Squirrel hunting in America is a time-honored tradition and a national treasure.
Legions of hunters and rifle marksmen have learned their craft and trained on the common, tasty little varmint that is the squirrel. They are usually abundant and offer many hunting opportunities. Many of our pioneer ancestors no doubt survived at times on small game like squirrels.
Now I know at this time of year many of you only want to hear about deer and deer hunting. I am just asking you to stop for a minute and think about a good place to learn our hunting skills from the ground up.
Squirrel hunting is and always will be the best place to start beginners young and old down the hunting trail. All of the basics to be learned are here: how to read sign; how to stalk and be quiet in the woods; the practice of steady marksmanship; the care and processing of your game after the hunt.
Nothing is wrong with taking squirrels with a shotgun. With thick foliage at times in the early season, it may even be recommended. For many, however, this is a rifle game, usually involving a highly accurate .22. If you are not a hunter, you will simply not understand the pull this has on our inner woodsman.
Man is a hunter. I firmly believe that, and you are not going to change my mind.
Squirrels give us the best, most attainable access to that long hunter in buckskin who walked through the woods not very many generations ago.
Again, if you are not a hunter, you may give funny looks when someone talks about dining on squirrels. On the other hand, I might want to hear about some of the recipes. Deer and turkey are great, and I like both on the table, but squirrels are my favorite. I don't know any fancy recipes for squirrels. To me, it's best to keep it simple.
I am sure it is because of how my mom cooked squirrels, but I like them fried. Parboil or pressure-cook them first — anything other than young squirrels will be tough — then roll them in flour or your favorite seasoning and pan-fry them. An alternative is to season and slow-cook them in the oven. (By the way, I have never been able to duplicate how Mom prepared them.)
I've told you before that I think we live in a crazy time in history. On many fronts, I feel it's often best to get back to basics. In the hunting realm, nothing could be better for this than squirrel hunting.
Slow down. Observe what is around you in the world.
One step at a time — slowly, gently.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va., has been a devoted outdoorsman all of his life and is a contributing columnist for The Times Free Press. You can write to him at email@example.com.