shadow is a dead gift. It is nothing more than a dark lump, moving along the shadow of a great red oak that covers the ground like a fallen log. I can not help smiling. This time of year, you rarely see a whole squirrel, and I’ve learned to look for little pieces that point to the whole: a tuft of tail in the crotch of a tree, a bump on a log. And I couldn’t count the number of squirrels I’ve shot down when their moving shadows caught my eye. It can happen anytime in the squirrel forest, but it happens most often on a day like this, in late winter, when the trees are bare and the woods are wide open and the long shadows of the trees cast the I usually.
The shadow fades, the squirrel must have moved to the other side of the tree, and now a bright orange stripe catches my eye. My 12-year-old son, Jack, is also on the go. This is the first year I’ve let him hunt outside of my immediate reach. He is no longer shoulder to shoulder with me at the base of a large oak tree, he is making his first solo forays into the woods. I remember mine well: a 100-acre forest was a magical world, and a .22 rifle in hand charged every step, every moment, with promise. I suspect that Jack feels all this too, although it may take him 30 years to realize it.
The little things
I don’t think there is a better way to end a hunting season than to spend a few mornings hunting late winter squirrels. Some of us never lose our taste for chasing tree rats through hardwood trees, but I guess a lot of us close that chapter as we go, and climb, we tell ourselves, towards deer, ducks, moose or any other game. It seems to suit our adult tastes. That’s too bad. The occasional squirrel hunt is like riding a bike with no hands or making out with your wife in public. If you think those days are over, all the more reason to frown.
And squirrel hunts in late winter bring gifts we might have missed as kids. Devoid of leaves, the forest was bare and open. You can see the crumbling brick chimneys of old farmhouses, the swaying of the earth, every branch and twig, a rabbit’s bramble hole, the deer’s bed still warm to the touch. You can also see the past if you look in the right places.
As I sit in silence, a highlight reel plays in my mind, flashing scenes of the season’s best that are now drawing to a close. From here I can see the open bar of Black Creek, its banks full of cypress tusks. I shot a 9-point whitetail there earlier in the year, the latest in a heart-stopping trio of males that crawled along the creek almost nose to tail, like cows headed for milking. The seepage under my feet reaches Meadow Branch, which empties into the creek a couple of stone’s throws to the northwest. Jack and I were there before on ducks, then sniffed at a row of Canadas that lined the treetops. Forgettable shots, yes, but what I won’t forget was how Jack nearly fell out of his bucket and fell into the creek with a huge yawn at dawn leaning back. I can see the clearing where the beagles ran rabbits. The greenbrier thicket where I killed the first meat doe of the season. All this from my winter perch. All things revealed.
But I can barely see Jack now. He moves in and out of view, a flicker of orange and tan that appears, then disappears, then reappears, like the windows of a passing train. He is dating. I start to whistle at him, then hold my breath. He knows these woods. It’s time for him to stretch his wings too. It’s his last hunt of the season. Soon it will be time to put away the rifle and get out the fly rods. Within a month there might be tarpon in the river and ancient daffodils towering around crumbling brick chimneys.
The shadow sprouts fine gray fur and a tail, and now weaves its way along a fallen log, just as I’d hoped. I follow the animal through the telescopic sight, and when it stops, the sight collides with my racing pulse. I breathe, then let out half a breath. It’s funny, but when a squirrel heads my way, it never feels like a minor game.