Southern squirrel hunting a cherished sport
By By Otha Barham / outdoors editor
Oct. 4, 2002
October. The noise is coming from high in the white oak tree; an occasional flutter of leaves on a small limb. Tiny tidbits sift softly downward through green foliage, some making little ticking sounds as they drop onto last year's leaves. You step carefully forward, head upturned, neck cramped, straining to see. You step on the crunchy leaves only when the squirrel moves and makes racket which will cover your footfalls. The stalk has taken 10 minutes, but you are finally within range when the quarry moves into view and stretches to get an acorn.
The shotgun comes quickly to your shoulder and the load of number sixes brings the squirrel tumbling limply to the ground. You pick it up from the leaves, stroke its fine fur and admire again one of the finest and most challenging game animals of our woods. And you understand the beauty and the real meaning of it all, as did the Native Americans who took the ancestors of this squirrel for food and skins, and understood their role and that of animals in the story of earthly life. You give silent thanks, and move further along in the creek bottom.
November. The feist dog is yapping incessantly and jumping into the air, as high as any show dog. He scratches at the tree's bark at the top of his leaps, trying in vain to climb the big oak. You move beneath the tree, looking for some sign of the squirrel a tuft of hair, a bump on a limb, a windblown tail. The leaves are gone from the limbs now, having succumbed to frost and wind and gravity. There, in a high crotch, is the treed prize.
The little .22 comes smoothly to your shoulder. It speaks almost quietly and the squirrel has to be pulled gently from the dogs grasp. Once more, as a life evolves through death toward life again, you give thanks. And you move on into the woods.
This is southern squirrel hunting. A sport that established many southerners as hunters. I can't recall a southern hunter putting down squirrel hunting. For it is a sport that holds its own with any other. Stalk-hunting squirrels successfully requires similar stealth and patience to stalk-hunting deer. Each squirrel stalk is different. Each one has its own particular set of circumstances and problems which must be considered. A day of stalk-hunting squirrels in a river swamp or on a timbered ridge is like making a dozen mini-hunts for bears in Alaska or North Carolina. As we slip along deer paths in search of gray squirrels, we are not unlike the African hunter searching the bush for the great Cape buffalo.
And squirrel hunts provide a wealth of memories. I like to recall the day, at 16 years of age, when my mother dropped me off at the edge of a small Mississippi swamp before daylight. She was to return for me three hours later. I eased beneath a big beech tree not far into the swamp and sat leaning against its trunk. At first light an anxious gray squirrel crossed a prominent limb above a tiny stream which passed by the base of my tree. I toppled the squirrel off the limb and let him lie.
In a few minutes another squirrel surprised me by taking the same path, and my 12 gauge dropped him beside the first one. I had been considering my good fortune only a short while when a third squirrel emerged from the woods beyond and crossed over that same limb. Three shots, three squirrels. I considered moving now that I had shot three times in the same spot, but something made me stay put.
The morning was still young when squirrel number four came over my lucky limb. Four for four. That morning, before my mother stopped for me out on the road, I took six squirrels off that same limb and picked them all up in a spot the size of an automobile.
As I dropped them one by one into my game bag, I surveyed the limb carefully and discovered the key to my success. It was the only aerial route into the great beech tree, which held a bounty of ripe beechnuts. I had stationed myself in the best spot in the woods to harvest early morning squirrels.
Every squirrel hunter has made such hunts. But some of the fondest memories are of the aura of the hunts. Is it not the sounds and smells and feel of our wooded environment that is the essence of squirrel hunting; the essential spices that bring out the taste of the main dish? Who can resist the stark, white trunks of beech trees that lean over creek banks and hold their frost-killed leaves all winter? And tall, green pines with soft, brown carpets beneath. And everyone's favorite, the brilliant yellows and oranges of October hickories?
The squirrel hunter who gazes entranced into those bright hickory leaves anticipates that sound; the distinctive, staccato scratching of a squirrel gnawing away at the thick, tan wood surrounding the treasured hickory nut kernel. There it is. Up on the ridge there. Do you hear it?
(Otha Barham's book, "Here Where We Belong," contains 55 of his outdoor stories and is available for $12 plus $1.85 shipping from Old Ben Publications, 3100 38th Street, Meridian, MS 39303. Non-Mississippi residents subtract $0.78 tax)