I load my rifle, put on my game bag and lock my truck 30 minutes after sunrise. After walking a few yards I bend down to hide my keys in a clump of mustard weed growing near the road. Proceeding up a steep hill, covered in tall grass, my pants are wet from dew by the time I reach the top. I should have worn my knee boots today. Pausing at the fence line I take a deep breath and steady myself. As my senses sharpen my body makes the transition from suburban office worker to Great White Hunter. I look into the woods and see sunlight filtering through hickory, maple, oak and sycamore. This is one of my favorite spots in the Taylorsville Lake WMA. My truck parked at the entrance will keep other hunters away. They will find another location and I wish them luck. This is public land but for the morning these woods are all mine.
I stalk for a dozen paces and pause to listen. My ears pick up plenty of sounds and my brain separates each for identification. After spending the last thirty years in the woods I know most of them but there are still always a few that bewilder me. Was that a chickadee? At the same time my eyes are scanning the tree tops for movement. The conditions are perfect. With no wind any movement is likely an animal. I watch for the bend of a branch or a leaf shaking in an unnatural way. A few birds cause my heart to quicken before they make themselves visible and I silently wish them away.
Continuing to move and wait, move and wait, it takes me nearly an hour to cover 500 feet of ridgeline. I am not surprised that I haven’t seen what I am looking for yet. They are late sleepers. Soon they will come out of their nests though, moving from tree to tree and then cautiously dropping to the forest floor to find acorns. I think I hear a bark. Then I realize it is a blue jay. I’ve been fooled by them many times and again and this will surely not be the last. I glance down the hill towards Beech Creek and catch a glimpse of a heron fishing in the shallow water. Something about early birds runs through my head.
Finally I spot movement to my right. A long, bushy tail flashes across a branch of a cedar. It’s a fox squirrel, larger cousin of the Eastern Grey. He makes his way to a hickory tree forty yards away. I’ve seen them do this before. He is following the ridge line and if I don’t stop him he will soon be out of gun range. I reach into my pocket and squeeze the bellows on my squirrel call. It gives a loud bark and stops him in his tracks. Instead of going forward he moves upwards towards a better vantage point. Now is when the fun starts.
Stepping like my dad taught me, Indian-style, heel to toe and checking the ground ahead for twigs, I move forward cautiously. Luckily the dew has softened what few dead leaves remain from last fall. Stalking when there are leaves on the trees is a lot easier than stalking in the winter. There is plenty of foliage to hide my approach. Regardless, I am dressed in camouflage from head-to-toe. Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and an old H.S. Strutt ball cap. This morning I added a few stripes of black to my face. My war paint.
Fifty feet from the hickory tree I stop and position myself against a maple. The old Marlin feels good in my hands. I’ve been hunting with it for two decades. Every nick on the walnut stock was well-earned. The .22 rounds are perfect for my kind of squirrel hunting. I double the range that I would have with a shotgun and they are quiet enough that I don’t scare away every other squirrel in the woods.
I finally spot him in a crook of the tree. I could hit him there but he might not fall and I am not interested in climbing today. I could wait him out but I feel impatient. I try an old trick. I pick up a rock and throw it to the other side of the tree. The sound spooks him and he leaves his spot. Now he is on the move again. He heads down a branch and I hit the call one more time. He pauses and the .22 finds its mark. His body stiffens and he tumbles to the ground.
I quickly go to where he fell and bend down over his body. This is the moment when I question what I do. For those brief seconds I am a murderer. A destroyer of life. I ask his forgiveness and promise to honor him. It probably seems silly, but that is my ritual. I rise with the squirrel and place it in my game bag. I take a few moments to enjoy my success. It feels good. I am back in the woods, in a place I love, drawing on skills that were passed down to me and that I learned myself through careful practice and by learning from my failures. I am also living a tradition. Squirrels are a huge part of my state’s hunting culture. Most of us who grew up in the woods hunted squirrels first. We learned how to stalk and how to shoot straight. And if you aren’t squeamish, a squirrel eats pretty good.
I hunt for another half hour but I really don’t have much interest in killing another. I’m not greedy. Today was about a relaxing morning in the woods, not about how many I brought home. My mission has been accomplished. Plus it is getting hot. Summer has come early this year. I can feel the sweat on my neck and I know it’s time to go. The squirrel I took will be consumed in the next couple of hours. Most of it by me and a few bites for the dog. I like giving him wild game. It’s my apology for not taking him along and it’s healthy, lean meat.
I’ll chase squirrels once or twice more this spring and then retreat indoors for the summer. June, July and August are brutal months here. There will be more hunting in the fall, squirrels included. I find myself coming back to this game over and over. In a lot of ways it seems the most like ‘real’ hunting I do and the best way to keep in touch with my roots. In the 30s my family members relied on squirrel to keep meat on the table. So for me it’s not just about hunting, it’s my heritage.