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Staff file photo / Going after squirrels during the winter is a good way to introduce hunting to those who might not have tried it before and aren't yet ready for the commitment of pursuing large game, writes outdoors columnist Larry Case.

The ravages of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic seem to have no end. I'm sure all of my brothers and sisters in camo out there are as tired of all this as I am. Besides all the missed events such as family gatherings and many other social events, if we are honest, it has taken away from our outdoors endeavors as well.

Traveling for distant hunting or fishing trips has certainly been curtailed, and related events like the SHOT Show, the NRA convention and the National Wild Turkey Federation Convention & Sport Show have all been canceled, postponed or moved to virtual status for the time being due to the nasty little bug from China.

One of the events I look forward to every year is the Squirrel Master Classic, which is held at the Southern Sportsman's Hunting Lodge in Alabama. Sponsored by the air rifle company Gamo, this event draws outdoors personalities, industry writers and editors, 4-H shooters and squirrel dog handlers from all over the country. The event is the brainchild of Buckmasters founder Jackie Bushman and was his idea on how to solve the dilemma of falling hunter numbers and bring awareness to the value of small game hunting.

Mr. Bushman looked at the problem like this: How do we get more new hunters, young and old, into hunting? What kind of hunting has easy access, lots of opportunities for success and not a lot of fancy gear required? Squirrel hunting! Many of us grew up with it and learned how to hunt that way.

Now how to have an event and draw attention to this type of hunting? The Squirrel Master Classic was born, Bushman was joined in this idea by Gamo and the rest is history.

The basic drill for the Squirrel Master Classic is this: Have a squirrel hunt in a fun competition atmosphere. Teams are made up of outdoors television personalities, outdoors writers and editors, a dog handler with a squirrel dog to find the game for them, and — most important of all — a young person from 4-H, which has a very extensive shooting program. Young people can learn and compete in several different shooting sports categories, including air rifle and pistol, .22 rifle and pistol, shotgun, recurve and compound archery, muzzle loader and hunting skills. The 4-H shooters in the Montgomery area get the extra benefit of the chance to participate in the Squirrel Master Classic.

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Photo contributed by Larry Case / Teamwork can pay off at the Squirrel Master Classic in Alabama. The traditional, in-person version of the squirrel hunting competition has been canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but a virtual edition is taking place and you can go online to see how participating teams are doing.

Gamo sponsors the event and supplies all hunters with a Gamo Swarm Maxxim pellet rifle. The Swarm Maxxim (now in a Gen2 version) is the world's only 10-shot break-barrel air rifle. 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 is necessary. Believe me — you need those quick second and third shots on this hunt because these squirrels have their running shoes on. Once they start scampering in the treetops, sometimes with spectacular leaps from tree to tree, you have to be quick or you come up empty-handed.

The Gamo Swarm Maxxim is capable of a pellet speed of 1,300 feet per second due to the new IGT Mach 1 technology. In short, Gamo put a large inert gas cylinder on this air gun to deliver speed and power unheard of in a manually operated air rifle.

As for the Southern Sportsman's Hunting Lodge, it's 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 this lodge with 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. (And the ladies in the kitchen there make the best barbecue this side of Memphis.)

In case you haven't figured it out yet, squirrel hunting is a heck of a lot of fun. These little tree rodents are found in most every state in the nation and are often plentiful on public grounds. You don't need a lot of fancy gear and expensive leases to get you going on squirrels. Another bonus here is squirrel hunting will get you in the woods and you can do a lot of scouting for those big bucks next deer season. The woods are bare right now, so rubs, scrapes and deer trails will be obvious to you. You can also look for shed antlers while you chase those bushy tails!

Grab your GAMO air rifle (or your second-best squirrel gun!), take a youngster with you and see what the February squirrel woods in your area have to offer. Post your pics on your social media channels with the following hash tags for identification and be a part of the fun: #Gamo, #Gamooutdoorusa, #Gamoswarm, #Gogamo, #huntsquirrels, #Squirrelmasterclassic and #Swarmnation.

You can also check out GAMO's Facebook and Instagram posts to see how your favorite TV show hosts are doing with their squirrel pursuits. The 2021 Virtual Squirrel Master Classic teams include Bone Collector, Buck Commander, Buckmasters, Raised Hunting, Realtree and "The Choice" with Ralph and Vicki Cianciarulo.

The traditional, in-person Squirrel Master Classic is canceled this year, but that doesn't keep us from hitting the squirrel woods. Grab the Gamo air rifle, find some sheds and scout for your buck this fall.

The COVID-19 bug can't take that away from us.

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Larry Case / Contributed photo

"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at larryocase3@gmail.com.

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