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.
I’ve spent a great deal of my life in the woods as well — my second monitor at work, when it’s not in use, scrolls through photos of the Cumberland Plateau, the Stone Door Trail, the Hiwassee River, the Duck River, and other remote places from back home, to keep me sane in this damn city — but I’ve never, not once that I can recall, wanted to kill something out there. It’s a mindset I just can’t wrap my mind around.
Thinking about it, other than insects, I can only think of one thing I’ve ever killed in the woods, a water moccasin that was determined to fight it out for the right to sit in a canoe on the aformentioned Duck. And I felt bad about killing that damned thing for a long, long time. And unlike the squirrels, which never do more than bark at me, that damn snake was actually trying to hurt me.Report
Chris – it’s certainly not for everyone. I was raised with it and I learned a long time ago that you just can’t explain it to people.Report
I went to Heritage High School, so your headline instantly evoked some weird Columbine-like associations.
I’m not a hunter myself, but I’m not at all opposed to it, so I enjoy reading about how you experience it.Report
That is so funny, I just finished writing something that reads a lot like this. Although, the content is completely different.
This is really well written, Mike. Thanks for sharing. I don’t like the murder piece, but I’m happy that you ate it, I guess.Report
When I was growing up all my mama’s people were Okie farmers and for a while their main cash crop was pecans. Squirrels were competitors and my uncles hated them just as much as a lion hated hyenas. I was eighteen before I knew there was a season on the little things. All my kinfolk were good hunters. One of my uncles went out with twelve shells one day and came back with thirteen squirrels. The only thing they hated more than one squirrel was two making babies. And, they go good in all kinds of stews.
Today I don’t hunt, not because I find something wrong with it, but because I don’t want to have to pay attention in the woods. Sometimes I wonder around with all the grace of a drunk elephant and others I am Buddha sitting on a mountain and listening to the wind.Report
Sort of a similar experience here. It was rabbit that I always hunted when I was young.
These days, I am more of a fisherman (or so I like to tell myself).Report
I’ve never understood hunting as well as I do after reading this piece. I never had qualms with it from a moral perspective, but it was always something I looked at slightly askew, if not fully mocking, as a born-and-raised city boy. I don’t know that I fully get it now, but I think I’m a lot closer to. Great, great piece.Report
Your story reminds mind of bird hunting where I grew up. As others have noted, either you “get it” or you don’t.
A quick one of mine: I was hunting with my Dad. We were moving west along a talus slope, he, about 40 yards up hill and slightly ahead me , when I heard the “tinkle” of something moving across the rock slope. I turned around and saw the biggest mule deer ever running directly away from me. Silhouetted against the sky, I could see all the points of the antlers. I stood, mouth agape, as I watched him run behind the curve of the slope. When my Dad asked me why I didn’t shoot, I could only respond “Couldn’t”.Report