By Larry Dablemont
Years ago when I was younger and a limit of squirrels seemed much more important than it does today, I was quietly sneaking along a creek bottom in late October, watching the treetops for any movement which might reveal a young squirrel.
There was a sudden commotion in the branches above me and a squirrel came tumbling out of the tree limbs overhead. He brushed against me and fell at my feet. I scarcely had a chance to get a good look at him before he was off and running as hard as he could run, his tail high in the air. He had been watching me so intently he had lost his grip on the branch high above.
I brought my shotgun to my shoulder, but I just couldn’t squeeze the trigger. I knew that poor squirrel felt like a real loser falling out of that tree right on me, and I just couldn’t take advantage of his bad luck. But the main reason I didn’t shoot was... I had learned from my dad and grandpa that if you shot a squirrel or rabbit running away from you with a shotgun, you’d ruin the meat in the loin and hindquarters.
I learned much of what I know about hunting from those first squirrel hunts when I was a small boy of only 11 or 12; patience and persistence and marksmanship, and the ability to stalk and to observe…to feel the ambience of the woods. Dad figured squirrels were just made for teaching a youngster how to hunt, and we went often. I learned much from those bushy-tailed teachers. But too, Ozark families depended on wild game to help keep grocery bills down.
Dad and I hunted squirrels along the river quite often too, from our old wooden johnboat. In October, the bass and goggle-eye were always hitting, and we could fish and watch for squirrels along the bank. Only trouble was, in slower eddies the leaves would get so thick you had to make several casts to keep from hauling in leaves on a hook. You couldn’t use lures with treble hooks. We would use the small spinners to sink and bob up and down along a rocky substrate below shoals. Then you would be fighting a 12-inch smallmouth and a fat young fox squirrel would be fleeing up a sycamore tree headed for a hole to escape in. Dad would often say that trying to do two things at once meant you would likely fail to do either efficiently. But back then I didn’t learn that easily.
An experienced squirrel hunter will usually choose a .22 rifle with a scope, and make head shots which insure the meat is perfect. But I never had a scope to use. I only had my Iver-Johnson 16-gauge when I would go down to the bottoms just off the river and walk a faint trail where gray squirrels were abundant. Occasionally I'd spot one by moving slowly along, but when I'd reach a certain spot on a rocky hillside, I'd find a comfortable boulder and sit still enough to be taken for a part of the rock.
Within 30 minutes, gray squirrels would have forgotten there was an intruder, and begin moving about. When one presented a good shot within 35 yards or so, my shotgun would roar and then the forest would be still again. I learned if you stayed put, marking your downed quarry and leaving it, that in 10 or 15 minutes things would return to normal again and squirrels would begin to scurry about. But at that age, I couldn’t sit still long.
I loved to explore new woods and there was always much more to see, as other wildlife passed through and birds flitted through the nearby branches and migrating waterfowl passed heading south. When things were slow, I’d lay back on some big flat rock and nap, dreaming of hunting moose and bear in Canada someday.
Later I learned that two hunters could effectively find squirrels if one hunter became the eyes and the other became the feet. Hunter number one moves slowly along, watching the branches as best he can but traveling at a quiet snail’s pace. Usually he won't see squirrels that have already heard him. When he's well down the trail, he stops and waits and hunter number two advances in the same manner moving on past his partner to take a new position.
Squirrels react to a moving hunter by moving themselves, well concealed by a tree trunk or branch. And while they are concentrating on the moving hunter, they expose themselves to the hunter who is still, and watching. When two hunters hunt together, that walk, watch and wait method is the best way to find squirrels in the foliage of the early fall…a perfect method for a father teaching a youngster to hunt.
Today I carry in my game vest a handful of freezer bags, and soon after a squirrel is dropped, I skin it with the old method of cutting just below the tail and then pulling the skin forward over the front legs and head by using the tail, then stripping the remaining skin back over the hind legs. Then I cut off all four feet and the head, remove the entrails and place the cleaned squirrel in the bag. You learn not to clean a squirrel hours after you kill it.
So here we are with a beautiful warm fall and plenty of squirrels. It is an opportunity to test your marksmanship with a small bore rifle, or the chance to take a youngster to the woods… where he can learn about a better way of life than most kids see in this day and time.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.