Every year in February, after Alabama deer season ends, the woods around the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge are filled with raucous yells, barking dogs and lots of laughter.
The squirrels are the quarry. Call them tree rats, bushy tails, or whatever you like, but they’re plentiful in Alabama’s hardwoods. They baffle deer hunters in the stalls, who hear the slither through the leaves and think it’s a whitetail. silly squirrels. But they are a very important part of our hunting heritage, and even more so for the future of hunting. That’s part of the theme of the annual Squirrel Masters Classic at Southern Sportsman each winter.
Small game hunting is where most of us cut our teeth. Remember those days long ago (a long, long time ago for some of us). They involved perhaps a BB gun or BB gun, banging on cans and imagining giant flocks of waterfowl darkening the sky or a large deer bounding through a pasture. As we matured, and our mentors allowed it, we moved on to a .22 rifle or a .410 or 20-gauge shotgun. We had more determination in mind to come back with a couple of pigeons or quail, or a squirrel or a rabbit.
Today we enjoy more technology and improvements in our hunting tools and clothing. Consider the air rifle. The ones used in the Squirrel Masters Classic were Gamo’s Black 10 Maxxim. It’s an upgraded 10-pellet repeater with a sharp trigger, telescopic sight, and a Whisper Maxxim barrel. It’s quiet and deadly to squirrels – incredibly fun to shoot and great for novices learning about firearm safety.
Participation in the hunt
Ask 10 hunters what they think about hunting participation in the United States and the result will look like pieces of cake. Some will say that there are more, others almost the same, others will say that the numbers are decreasing. The cake can be further divided, but those are the largest portions.
Those are all true statements, depending on where you live. Hunting may be on the rise in your state and declining in another. We could say that of the game as a whole or divide it into individual species. I remember as a child listening to my father and his friends (they were 30 at the time) discuss how many more duck hunters there were on public lands than they hunted. And I’m sure the older hunters said that about my father’s crew. Those reactions are nothing new.
But for an overview of the country, we can look at the US Fish and Wildlife Service survey. The FWS conducts the survey every five years; the last published was in 2016, and the results of the 2021 survey should be available this summer. The numbers look at license sales and other criteria to determine participation in hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, target shooting and archery in the United States.
In 2016, the survey indicated that hunting participation dropped by around 2 million to 11.5 million hunters (from the previous survey). That coincided with a 29 percent decline in hunter spending, to $25.6 billion from $36.3 billion. Target shooting with firearms, a new category in 2016, indicated around 32 million participants. Only 1.5 million indicated that they hunted squirrels. About the same number hunted rabbits. Big game hunting has surpassed small game since the time of our great-grandparents, thanks to a great conservation and restoration effort. Small game habitat has also been negatively affected in myriad ways.
Why do these small game numbers matter? Because the hunt begins with the young. And that involves getting them interested in safe shooting, archery, hunting, processing the game, and then enjoying it at the table. It’s about getting young hunters out into the woods and fields for a fun, active, laugh-filled and successful hunt. That means small game, like squirrels and rabbits, perhaps with a pack of raccoon dogs, or looking for upland birds. Do they have to hit a squirrel in the ear with a .22 rifle early on? Or drop a quail or a grouse? Not necessarily. Being out there learning, exploring, laughing, shooting and being safe… all of those are the foundation. Success is necessary at some point, of course, but it starts with being active.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about Alabama’s then conservation commissioner. He recounted a story about taking his teenage daughter deer hunting with him and being “that guy” who ruined the hunt. She said I was constantly telling her that she needed to be quiet, that she’d just be a little longer when she said she was bored, that she should snuggle up a little more when she said she was cold, that she’d scare the deer if she didn’t wait to use the bathroom and all. it’s.
The next time he asked her to go with him, she was the one who said no. She said it wasn’t fun and that she was going with her friends. He was disappointed in himself because he realized that by constantly telling him no, don’t, we can’t, you can’t, etc., he had ruined the hunting experience. Lesson learned.
I made the same terrible mistakes as a father with my children. When we went fishing, I wanted them to catch bluegill with me instead of me throwing the soccer ball. When I caught a fish, I wanted it put on my lips so I could take a picture, even though my daughter was crying. She wasn’t interested in doing that. When we went deer hunting, I said we had to sit back and wait. My son finally said, “This is boring. Is this what you do all day? We continue to fish, hunt and shoot, but they are not diehards like me. I put it down to being dumb. Don’t be like me.
Children need action and success. They need lots of blue gall and vines for the squirrels, and hearing bloodhounds instead of “Shhhh, shut up.” They need to see soda cans and clay targets explode on the shooting range, instead of being told they must hold back the amount of X and create an X-ring cloverleaf or it won’t be a hit. they are children. We must remember what it was like to be a child and integrate that with our desire to teach them about hunting successfully and safely.
Squirrel Masters Classic Fun
At the Squirrel Masters Classic each year, teams compete for a carved wooden squirrel trophy. Everybody wants one. There is no other trophy like this. I’ve hunted in the Clasico four or five times, and I think every time I see the trophy I marvel at how big and ridiculous it looks. That is pure honesty. I also think about how much I would like to have one in the front seat of my truck as I drive home. Everybody thinks that way. They want the trophy.
Teams are made up of young 4-H students, dog handlers with their ever super hounds, usually an outdoor media representative, and an outdoor industry celebrity or family. Southern Sportsman hosted the annual Buckmasters National Deer Classic for about 30 years, and Buckmasters founder Jackie Bushman thought a squirrel hunt with Gamo would be a great addition. Thus the competition was born.
The finger wagging, the banter, and “They started early, they’re cheating!” joking is all kind. But the teams are serious. Bushman has a team, as does Michael Waddell from Bone Collector. This year’s teams included the Holder family from Raised Hunting, Buck Commander and Airgun Web. More than 50 people participated this year, with scattered teams on nearby land offered for the event. Landowners can also get involved and provide assistance to visitors who don’t know about a creek or hole, or where the property lines are.
With Gamo’s 10-Shot Maxxim, hunters can chase away squirrels trying to pull wood or reach a hole. It’s a must to have a few extra shot magazines loaded and in a pocket for easy reloading. Pellets stay safe in magazines, even in your pocket with all the walking and jostling. Zeroing the scope on the Southern Sportsman range is a must. I’ve seen some amazing long range shots with the Maxxim, of hunters leaning against a tree with a good line of sight on a squirrel squashed on a branch. Oh! Who made that shot!?!? Wow!
It’s fun. We shake young trees and uproot vines. The dogs bark and whimper, climb a tree and look up. We take the kids there, encouraging them to shoot and not be shy. Get right into the thick of it and don’t worry about getting lost. Hunting is a big mess of fun with good stuff and good people. Airguns, dogs, and squirrels are just icing on the cake.