Hours after my oldest daughter, Leah, arrowed her first whitetail at age 12, I realized I’d helped her do something I’d long preached against: hunt deer without first hunting squirrels. But at least she hadn’t gone straight from hunter-education class in March 1997 to the deer woods that September. She’d been tagging along with me on goose, grouse, turkey, small-game and deer hunts since age 3 and she’d hunted turkeys with her 20-gauge shotgun five months earlier.
Or was I just making excuses? The fact remained she’d bypassed squirrel hunting for deer hunting. Baby Boomers like me never imagined such shortcuts 40 years ago, believing we must work our way up to deer, but “deer first” is today’s norm—and it’s not just the grumpy old man in me talking.
According to “The Future of Hunting and the Shooting Sports”—a 2008 report by Responsive Management—78 percent of today’s hunters hunt whitetails each year while only 16 percent hunt squirrels. True, the report shows squirrels (22 percent) outrank whitetails (20 percent) as the animal today’s hunters first sought, but that’s only because Baby Boomers dominate the hunting ranks.
Maybe all that chafing guilt helped motivate Leah and me to visit my uncle’s farm when squirrel season opened the following September. Right or wrong, she owed squirrels her due, so we slipped out the farmhouse’s kitchen door before dawn and scaled a limestone ridge that’s rich in oaks.
As dawn lit the woods, we crested the ridge and dropped beneath the skyline then hunched below the ridge’s spine and still-hunted toward the property line. We paused occasionally to raise a mouth call and imitate barking squirrels. If nothing else, we showed we meant business.
After an hour of stealthy walking and frequent stop-and-watch sessions, we hadn’t seen or heard one squirrel. I felt frustrated, even discouraged, when we reached the property line’s fence. We leaned against a big red oak to discuss our next move.
Then a squirrel barked 100 yards behind us. We had just been there! Maybe we had aggravated him in passing and he now felt safe rebuking us. Or was it taunting?
“Let’s sneak back,” I suggested. Leah probably thought we were wasting time but followed anyway. We reached the site but no squirrel. We waited. Five minutes passed, then 10. Finally, I spotted a gray squirrel perched in a hickory, its tail flicking nervously. As I pointed Leah toward it, the squirrel leapt to another tree. Leah lined up her rifle, searching for a clear shot.
Leah whispered certainties that she had gotten it. We stalked ahead then she propped up her rifle against a maple as I circled toward our last sighting. Seconds later Leah spotted the squirrel 10 feet above us, sneaking sideways on a nearby tree. Her .22 cracked. The squirrel rolled from the branch, hung briefly by a rear leg and fell with a thud.
She hurried toward it, grabbed its gray tail and hoisted the squirrel proudly. I hadn’t seen a smile so bright and pretty since her first deer a year before.
Do This at the Range
Start range sessions with an understudy rifle
that mimics your deer rifle. You likely haven't fired a round in earnest in months, and no doubt your skills are rusty after the winter/spring layoff. So don't beat yourself up, waste expensive ammo or grow frustrated. Use a rimfire to concentrate on breathing, relaxing, squeezing the trigger and following-through on meaningful shots. Then move to your centerfire rifle of choice.
Bore-sight a new scope at close range.
Weighing 55-70 pounds, shorthairs push size limits, but they can make charming house pets if not overly hyperactive. They may not require as much exercise as setters or pointers, but probably need more than any dog on this list.
Move off the bench.
In preparation for hunting, a bench rest is good for one thing only—assuring your rifle is zeroed. There are no shooting benches in the woods, so why use one for practice? Instead, fire from the prone, sitting, kneeling and offhand positions most likely used while hunting.
Become proficient with artificial shooting rests.
The best field-shooting position can always be enhanced with a backpack, a pair of shooting sticks or a proper sling. Practice shooting with all three, make them part of your "kit" and never leave home without them.
Identify problems with rifles and ammo now.
Extractors break. Scope erectors grow weak and stop taking adjustments. Ammo misfires. Now, not November, is the time to wring out problems with equipment.
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