Squirrel Hunting: lessons and Respect
One of the things I love the most about hunting are the lessons that hunting teaches. And perhaps what I love about squirrel hunting is that the lessons occur out of the spotlight. There is no glamour surrounding squirrel hunting. There are no celebrities to take the lead. There are no high fives by family and friends back at the house or photos shared in the local newspaper. There are just the woods and the hunter and the life and death of the squirrel. The lessons are deep and rich and intense. Intense yes. Intensity is a natural part of a lesson that includes both life and death. Fortune has blessed me with a large circle of mentors that have ingrained a deep seated respect for animals I hunt, the animals that give their lives to feed my family. As much as I have learned from my teachers, the lessons that happen in the woods when no one else is there often hold the most meaning.
“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching” ~Aldo Leopold
October 11th: Paying Attention
While respect may be the biggest lesson of all, there are many small lessons that occur along the way. It is the smaller lessons that often pave the way for the hunter to be successful or not. On the afternoon of October 11th, I set out to spend some time in the woods at one of my favorite sitting spots. Life was being its usual hectic self and all I wanted to do was sit in the woods and relax. This spot is only a hundred yards or so from the highway and so when hunting squirrels there, I almost always carry a shotgun so that I have a greater choice in safe shooting directions. As I walked alongside a brushy grown-up fencerow on the edge of a field, I passed an area where a small grove of hickory trees stood. The sound of large hickory nuts falling and hitting the ground caught my attention. I had no thoughts of stopping here. The ground beneath the hickory trees is nearly solid poison ivy and the leaves were still on. I paused briefly to listen and then walked on. Then I paused again. I thought about the sitting spot where I was heading. I thought about the poison ivy behind me. Opportunity was knocking. I turned around and went back. I walked through a deer trail opening in the thick brush along the edge and stepped into the semi-open woods. The sound of hickory nuts hitting the ground continued. Slowly I moved up until I was in shotgun range of the falling nuts. A ruckus broke out and a young fox squirrel was being chased by a very pissed off red squirrel. The fox squirrel scampered over to another tree and paused. It paused long enough for me to raise my shotgun, aim, and shoot my 6th squirrel of the season. That left the red squirrel sitting on a branch chattering at my presence in the woods. I don’t think I had ever shot a red squirrel before because they are so small, but they are listed in my state’s regulation book as legal game. I decided I would shoot if and only if the perfect shot developed. The red squirrel kept chattering until I looked right at it and stepped closer. It ran around the backside of the tree. Then only its tiny head appeared as it peeked around the back edge of the tree trunk. That was my perfect shot. Squirrel number 7 for the season. I did continue on to my sitting spot, took a nap and saw no squirrels.
October 31st: Scouting while hunting
There was nothing much remarkable about this day’s hunt except for two things. One was that I did come home with one squirrel but only after being in the woods for five hours. And two, this hunt would lead to what would be my craziest squirrel hunt ever on the following day. I started my day on the east edge of one of my favorite deer hunting spots. I wanted to avoid going deep into the woods because I knew the bow hunters would be coming soon to hunt the rut. I like to leave the thick deer sanctuary alone until our deer gun season comes in at the end of November. With a strong west wind, I figured I could hunt the very east edge of the woods with no problems. During deer gun season, I see squirrels along this edge all day long. On October 31st, I sat for two hours, contemplated life and saw not one squirrel. It was time to take a walk. I headed further to the east to an open mature woodlot belonging to my neighbor. I found a nice oak tree dropping nuts, sat down for two hours, contemplated life and saw not one squirrel. When I stood up to leave, three, yes three squirrels started barking from behind me. The problem was that through the trees I could just see the road that runs along the backside of the farm and the house across the road and I was carrying the rifle for the first time this season. I was not going to shoot a rifle toward the road. No way, no how. So I took note of the location and started walking back to the house away from the road. I took a short break along the way and sat down in another small oak flat. It was there, 5 hours after I started the day’s hunt, that I got squirrel number 8 for the season. This was the first one of the season with the .17hmr.
November 1st: Respect
The very next day, I went back to hunt the seemingly abundant squirrel population near the road on the backside of the farm. Instead of tromping through the woods to get there, I drove around, parked on the gravel road, slipped quietly into the woods along a well used trail and found a nice big oak tree to sit against. I was set up closer to the road than the day before and I would make sure any shot I took would be away from the road. Even with my quiet entrance to the woods, it still took a bit of time for the woods to relax around me, but in about 30 minutes, a grey squirrel meandered past 30 yards away. My rifle hit its mark and squirrel number 9 of the season fell to the ground. Unless I am ready to leave, I tend to just sit awhile before going to collect any dead squirrel. Several minutes went by and another grey squirrel started softly barking at me in front and off to my right. It was a little awkward turning to the right to shoot and my first shot missed. But as squirrels often do, it just ran to another branch and sat still again. I shot again and the squirrel fell from the tree but when it landed, I knew I had messed up the shot. It paused for a brief moment to grab at its jaw with its tiny paws before running off. My heart sank. I hate wounding an animal. I had no follow up shot with the rifle as I watched it run through the woods and disappear.
For the next 30 minutes I sat quietly. I got up to leave and picked up the one squirrel I had shot cleanly and set it on the ground next to my pack. And then not because I thought I could find it, but because it was the right thing to do, I took my rifle and went looking for the wounded squirrel. I had no expectations of finding it. Zero. But my heart told me to go look anyway. Respect runs deep inside me. The last place I saw it was a small beech tree along the well used trail. My approach was slow and cautious with a lot of start and stop. When I was about 30 yards from the tree, I saw a squirrel move up in the scrawny branches maybe 20 feet from the ground. At first I thought it was just another squirrel and decided that I would go ahead and shoot it if I could. But when I settled my scope on the squirrel’s head, I could see the injury to its jaw. The shot would be difficult with lots of small branches near the squirrel but I moved to where I thought I had a chance and a safe backdrop. Using a nearby sapling to steady my gun, I took the shot and missed. The squirrel ran down the tree, hit the ground and ran up the trail away from me. But it was still a wounded squirrel and it stopped. I had to walk a little closer to find it camouflaged among the leaves on the ground and it saw me and took off again. It stopped again. I had nothing to steady my shot but tried an off hand shot and it took off again this time into the woods. The squirrel went around the backside of a rotted tree that had broken off about 20 feet in the air and disappeared. Once again and very slowly I moved up to where I last saw the squirrel. From about 15 feet away I peeked around the rotted tree trunk and there it sat in the hollowed out base. When I moved to get a better angle for a shot, it saw me and scurried up inside the hollowed out tree trunk. Dang! I was so close to getting this squirrel.
The sun was getting low and it was about 45 minutes until sunset. I backed up into a small clump of brush about 20 feet from the hollow tree, sat down and I waited. Fifteen minutes later, I saw movement. When I moved my gun to take aim, the squirrel went back up into the tree but in just a few more minutes, it stuck its head out for a look. I took a deep breath, said a little prayer and took yet another shot at this squirrel. Again the squirrel took off on a dead run through the woods. This time it went about 15 yards straight into the middle of a swamp, flipped upside down and died. I estimated it had traveled about 100-120 yards from where I originally shot it. When I waded into the swamp to pick up the dead squirrel, I was amazed at how it could have made that final run with the trauma that had occurred to its head.
And there I stood in the woods all alone. There have been occasional wounded animals in the past that I have not been able to recover and I’m sure there will be again. We can strive to be perfect hunters but we are no more or less perfect than the hawk or the coyote and they sometimes wound too. But on this hunt and for the prize of one small squirrel, the lesson rang loud and clear. That squirrel’s life deserved my respect. My mentors taught me well. The woods have taught me well. And when my hope of finding this squirrel was all but lost, my heart remembered the lesson of respect and what was the right thing to do.
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