Small Game, Big Thrill

The big fox squirrel suddenly appeared on the side of an oak about 35 yards in front of me, and I froze. She moved quickly to the ground, headed in my direction. When she was screened by a couple of trees, I slipped the cow's knee off the lock, brought the cock back full and shouldered the gun. As if posing for a picture, she ran up on a piece of downed wood and stopped, 25 yards away, sitting upright on her haunches. Peering through the steady rain to align the front bead, the only sight on the gun, I squeezed the trigger and the flintlock fired instantly, knocking her to the ground, dead before she hit.

An hour later, I reached the break of a steep slope further into the woods and paused to admire a small, gorgeous, orange maple tree, decked out in fall colors and looking like a burning candle. Beyond the tree I caught a flicker of movement in a tall black locust. I eased forward, my attention riveted, and saw a gray squirrel moving on a limb thirty feet up. Again, the gun fired instantly, and the gray tumbled to the ground, twitched a moment and then was still. As I moved forward to retrieve my prize, I felt a thorough satisfaction, even though my hunt was over. I'd set my personal limit at two squirrels for the day, and they were in hand. Plus, I had another reason to be pleased. I was hunting with an original flintlock smooth rifle, 28 gauge or .55 caliber, and these were the first squirrels taken with it. Even more satisfying, the hunt took place on a very rainy day, and my skills had been up to the task of keeping a flintlock ignition working under trying conditions.

Looking back on many years of hunting, it is plain to me that such experiences have been the mainstay of my shooting career. Many deer and several turkeys, both legitimately considered "big game", have fallen to my guns in that time, but small game hunting has been the bedrock of my hunting experiences. It was where I began, and continues to this day to be an important part of the pleasure.

Having no father available to teach me the art of shooting, I taught myself as an adolescent and teen. Three friends and I made up a real Gang of Four, and we spent many pleasant days roaming the fields and woods of western Kentucky in search of our quarry. The only game available to us in those young years were rabbits, squirrels, quail and dove, and we hunted them with high enthusiasm as each season rolled around. Transportation was a problem, since we were all too young to drive for several years, so we walked or rode our bicycles for many a mile. For a bunch of untutored kids, we did surprisingly well, and learned the ropes quickly. My hard-pressed mother was always very glad to see game added to the pot in those lean years, and I did a lot of hunting for that purpose. Little did I realise at the time what a lasting impression those times would leave.

Even after six decades, I can clearly remember the first squirrel taken, the first darting bunny rolled. Scenes scroll across my mental screen as I think back about those days.... tracking bunnies through heavy snow and shooting them in the head with a .22 rifle... hundreds of early morning hunts in the hot, damp squirrel woods... seeing a friend shoot a bunny across a valley and being surprised how long it took for the sound to reach me after having seen the shot fired and the bunny tumble... finding a large number of rabbits sitting in a field drenched from a recent rain to the point that water covered a large part of it, and watching the water splash as they darted out of their forms... running out of shells in the middle of a hot and heavy dove shoot because money was damned near impossible to come by... killing three quail with three shots on a surprise covey flush... the amazement I experienced when I shot my first truly huge swamp rabbit....memories, so many memories.

Since transportation was such a problem, I took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to spend time in hunting country. A trip to my grandparent's home stands out. Rabbit terrain surrounded them, and I would spend a few days with them whenever possible, to take advantage of it. One special day I hunted a wooded hillside, pasture land at the bottom, woods over most of the slope, isolated small weed fields up on top. I hunted for an hour or so with little success, and then a dog came to me through the weeds. He was a smallish dog, black, long haired, of that particular breed known as Heinz 57... a mutt. He seemed to be in good health, well fed, active and friendly, so I assumed he belonged to someone in the area. An unimpressive dog, for sure, but he knew how to hunt and he loved it. We spent the day harassing the rabbits with good success, and in a few hours my coat was heavy with nearly a limit of rabbits. I had never hunted with a dog, before, and it took a while to work out the method, but then we were a deadly team. My grandmother being what grandmothers were in those days, she had insisted I take along some sandwiches in my coat pocket, so I took a lunch break at mid-day. Sitting on a fallen tree trunk, I shared my lunch with my new-found friend. After about 20 minutes, much to my young amazement, out popped a rabbit from under the tree trunk right by my feet, and away he and the dog went. Being very quick and too young to have learned what is impossible, I snatched up my gun and rolled him before he got quite out of range, while still sitting on the log. One more bunny for the coat, and a lesson learned, a memory created. My new friend refused to follow me home at the end of the hunt, and so he and I parted late in the day, and I never saw him again.

A trip to my paternal uncle's place for a few days of squirrel hunting nearly fizzled out, because rain began and continued during the entire visit. Disappointment was running high, because I had been planning and anticipating this trip for several weeks. Finally, against all good advice, I decided to hunt in the rain even if I saw not a single squirrel. Happily, that wasn't the case, because the critters were as active as ever, even in a steady, moderately hard rain. I had to depend almost entirely on sight for the hunting, since the rain was so noisy, but that was little problem. Soaking wet, wiping rain from my eyes repeatedly, continually surprised at my success, I spent the day wandering among the huge oak trees in that woods, knocking down squirrel after squirrel. In those early days a hunt's success was measured by how nearly you took a legal limit, eight squirrels. This was a very successful one. My uncle, a very experienced squirrel hunter, could hardly believe what had happened, so this hunt taught us both a lesson.

It's difficult for me to explain why small game hunting gives me such pleasure even today. Certainly, nostalgia claims a large share of the credit. Even after the passage of many years, those simpler times during which small game hunting became part of my life help make up the picture. Times in which no one paid the slightest attention to an adolescent walking the streets with a long gun over his shoulder, when no farmer objected to boys hunting on their land, and when a youth could walk into any sporting goods, hardware or grocery store and purchase ammunition with no questions being asked.

Simplicity is also a part of it, I think, maybe the most significant part. There is no need for expensive, complicated guns or gear, and the game is straightforward and low pressure. Forget about the wind, the stalk, the whiz-bang strategy, just do it.

As much or as little time can be invested as one chooses, and getting prepared is as simple as picking up your gun and shooting bag and heading out the door. Casual, if you want to make it so.

Forget about sitting in the dark and cold, waiting for shooting light and the movement of big game. Sleep in, wander afield whenever you wish, and move about at your pleasure, you won't disturb the quarry under most circumstances. Chat with your hunting buddy, smoke 'em if you've got 'em, hunt as slowly or as quickly as you like, the bunnies don't care.

Possibly the central core of my hunting pleasure is just being afield, being a natural part of the cycle, watching the amazing variety of wildlife, game and non-game, on display. Small game hunting provides all that in abundance. Squirrels in the dark, steamy August woods, rabbits when all is brown and apparently lifeless and the cold wind cuts to the quick, doves in bright, hot September....each species fits into its natural niche. The pursuit of each in its appropriate time exposes us to a different season of the year, offers a different opportunity to educate ourselves about the natural world, if we just keep our eyes and minds open.

For the past thirty years all my hunting has been done with black powder, and a majority of that with a flintlock of some type. For the last twelve, a large part of it has been done in period clothing, moccasins, leather leggings, rifle shirt. Both these things have been embellishments to an already marvelous life-long activity, and have added more pleasure than one would suppose. The satisfaction of taking small game with the old guns while dressed in the old clothes is one which can be understood only by those who have tried it.

As Chuck and I approached the edge of a small pond in the pasture, I noticed a small downed cedar tree. I said, "If there's not a rabbit in that tree top, there's no justice in the world". Chuck stepped over to it and gave it a kick...and out popped Mr. Cottontail in full afterburner mode. Around the edge of the pond it streaked, and as my smoothbore came to bear, I saw, then heard Chuck shoot, saw dust kick up behind the rabbit. I swung in front of it and slapped the trigger, at the same time thinking it was a long shot across the pond, 30 yards at least. That satisfying klatchpoofboom followed instantly, and the bunny rolled ass over appetite, never to move again.

That was the only rabbit we shot at, that day, one of two we saw in about 3 hours of kicking likely spots. It was enough to make an already great day into a perfect one. Wandering the rolling hills of the farm in full 1778 kit, surrounded by blazing fall colors and emerald green pastures, we didn't need much else, but the bunny was the icing on the cake. Chuck summed up both our feelings quite well when he said, as we paused in our search of an elevated hillside which gave us a view of the hills rolling into the distance, "This is what Kentucky is all about".

A tender young rabbit is soaking in salt water in the fridge, and now I'm faced with the worst part of any rabbit hunt, the decision as to whether chicken-fried young bunny or rabbit and dumplings would be better. Happily, I enjoy them equally. No matter how I fix it, the eating will bring a long string of memories scrolling through my mind, memories of marvelous days afield, shots scored, shots missed, long-gone times, places and friends.

The game is small, but the thrill is big when you go afield in pursuit of such trophies, most especially if you are relaxed enough in your approach to life to allow yourself the leisure of doing it the old way.

Copyright © B. E. Spencer 2001 All rights reserved.

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