If I’m lucky I’ll live as long as my dad did. If I’m luckier, I’ll remember and benefit from all the simple life lessons he taught me in the woods…squirrel hunting.
I missed it when it happened two weeks back, but September 1st was the first day of squirrel season.
Now, there aren’t as many active squirrel hunters out there as there once was. We’ve grown way too sophisticated to go to the woods and shoot, skin, clean and fix a dinner of fried squirrel. It’s easier and more socially acceptable to simply go out for food.
But there are still a few – those whose dad or granddad took them at some point in their life to the woods and taught them how to shoot, how to clean, and how to cook, and a whole lot more. There was no Dr. Phil, and none needed. Just you and your dad and a shotgun. Let me share.
For nearly all of my life I’ve been one of those few. My dad saw to it, from an early age. But that’s all different now. He died in May of 2011, and the first thing I miss now in September is a call or comment from him pertaining to going to the woods.
Pop loved to squirrel hunt. And up until what seemed a few weeks before his death he was still telling me stories of being in the woods when he was a kid, shooting six grays out of one tree the first year he and my mom were married, and how he was back at the house and had ‘em cleaned and ready for the skillet before she was even out of bed. You don’t forget stories like that.
When I was ten he started taking me, without a gun, of course. He was adamant that until I was old enough to understand the responsibilities of carrying a gun that I would not. And for some reason fourteen was his magic number.
Dad was a wizard in the woods because he paid attention to every sound, every breeze, and he knew every species of tree…oaks, hickories, walnuts and beech. He was quiet as an Indian. He could literally walk through the woods behind you and you’d never know he was there…because he knew when to be in the woods.
If it was hot and dry he wouldn’t go…because walking quietly was impossible with brittle leaves and sticks. Squirrels are highly sensitive with their hearing and eyesight. Many a day I’d beg to go to hunting and he’d quietly tell me, “It’s too dry. Wait until we have a rain or a heavy dew. Then we’d go, when we could walk without sounding like an elephant.” Those were his exact words.
He was also the most patient person I’ve ever known…that is, in the woods. He’d fuss and fume at you for leaving a weed in the sweet corn patch, but when he was hunting that was his time to savor and enjoy. And that’s just what he did.
He’d pick a likely tree and sit down at its trunk, scanning the tops of the adjacent growth, looking for any telltale sign of a squirrel – rustling bark, the flash of a bushy tail, cuttings from a hickory nut hitting the ground. He’d sit there for two hours if he was so inclined, confident that eventually squirrels would come out to feed.
Me, if I didn’t see something within five minutes I was on my feet and wanting to move. Dad would just give me that scolding look which meant, “Sit down and be patient.” That’s hard when you’re fourteen.
He knew what to shoot, and he knew when to shoot. One of the lessons I learned early was that not every squirrel was ready to harvest. Dad was keen to notice if they were mature enough to shoot, leaving those from a late spring litter to grow to size.
And once he spotted one, he was good to wait until he had the best, responsible shot. A clean, one-shot kill was what he wanted…humane, and don’t spoil any meat.
Me, as soon as I saw one flashing in the top of the tree I’d be blasting away. After all, I reasoned, that’s why pump guns hold three shells. Dad would just look at me with that corrective stare, because if you missed you wouldn’t have another shot for at least a half hour…often longer.
“Wait until you have a clean profile to shoot at and hold six inches in front of the squirrel’s head,” he admonish. “That way you get a clean kill and don’t spoil any meat.”
As we grew older together Dad taught me the most valuable lesson of all in the squirrel woods – that sometimes you don’t have to shoot anything at all!
The last few hunts we took together he’d go along, but sometimes without a gun. Part of the reason was his unsteadiness. And Dad was adamant about not carrying a loaded gun if you weren’t in full control of all your faculties.
I’m convinced, though, that he was watching me more than he was for squirrels. I’m sure that Dad took great delight in seeing me become patient, stealthy, responsible, and exercise the kind of caution I developed when I began to hunt with a scoped .22 rifle. A rifle round carries so much farther than that of a shotgun, “…and you never know where it’s going to land if you miss,” he’d say.
I know he also appreciated that I grew to be very selective in the woods, only taking shots I was sure of, and only killing that which I intended to use.
The last time he went to the woods with me I told him, “Dad, let’s go to the woods…without a gun. Let’s just sit and enjoy the day. Let’s do some good hard thinking.”
He looked at me with a smile, sharing an understanding nod. His lessons of patience, appreciation, responsibility and respect for all things living had finally come full circle.
“Make sure you ask Matt, too,” he said, referring to my oldest. “Is he a good hunter?”
“He’s a little impatient, but he’s learning,” I assured him.
“Good,” he smiled. “You don’t need me, then.”
I’m not going hunting this year. I don’t have time and it’s too hot. Dad never went hunting until the air grew cool or we’d had the first killing frost.
“You can’t enjoy the woods when the sweat’s dripping off your nose and you’re swatting mosquitos,” he say.
It’s hard to think about squirrel season without thinking of him…without having him. It’s hard to live without someone who taught you so much, even when you know the lessons so well. Good lessons.
Lessons from the squirrel woods!