Written by: Scott Vance
It was a gorgeous October afternoon, and the crisp fall air had moved in overnight. The leaves were turning brilliant hues of garnet and yellow and that “feel” was unmistakable for someone who had been deer hunting for over 30 years. It was time to deer hunt, and I was ready to go! Only one thing, I really wanted to spend time with my little guy that day.
“Hey Dman, let’s go sit in your new box blind this afternoon,” I said, as he rounded the corner with a toy sword. “Uh, well, yeah OK dad, can we take some snacks and games?”
My son Damon was 5 years old, and while he had a keen interest in being outside, I knew he was far from ready to shoot a firearm capable of killing a deer. However, I also know the take one, make one mantra when it comes to hunting, fishing and shooting. I wanted him to hunt with me to learn the ropes and, hopefully, witness his dad in action.
As we drove to our hunting property, Dman talked non-stop. He was excited, and by the time we got out of the truck, he was ready to burn off some energy. On the walk to the stand, we saw deer tracks and a big hawk that screamed his welcome in our direction. Once we got in the stand, it all started to unravel.
Damon’s grandpa built him what we call the Taj Mahal shooting house. It is a 4X10 fully enclosed, insulated, carpeted, sound proof shooting house complete with retractable Lexan windows. It was cozy as the fall sun cast a warm light, and I wondered how long Dman would be awake. We had been there 10 minutes when Dman looked at me and said, “dad, can we get out and walk around?”
“Well son, we can, but we are a lot more likely to see a deer if we just sit still over a nice food plot like this one,” I responded. “Ok dad.” Five minutes later, Dman asked again to walk around to try to see a deer. By this time, I’m was getting a little frustrated. “No son, if you want to kill a deer, we’ve got to sit here and wait.”
He looked down with sad eyes and zipped his jacket up. After 45 minutes, I was just starting to feel like a deer could walk out when Dman looked up and said, “Dad, I would really like to get out and walk some.”
This time, I felt pretty frustrated. I had given up most of the fall hunting season already coaching him in baseball and going to conferences for work. I really just wanted to enjoy a nice sunset and see some deer.
“Damon, don’t you want to kill a deer?” I asked. Why did you come with me if you didn’t want us to kill one?”
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Daddy, I came because I wanted to spend time with you.”
As the tears streamed down my face, I gave him a big hug and told him I’d meet him at the bottom of the stand. As I watched him carefully climb down the steps, I thanked God for giving me a swift reality check and asked him to forgive me for being a selfish fool. I’m certain God was smiling as we spent the rest of the evening walking along the field edges and talking about baseball.
It was that day that I decided we needed a squirrel dog.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of following my grandpa through the woods as we “hunted” for squirrels. Looking back, I realize he had little intention of actually finding and shooting a squirrel on those trips, but as a three or four-year-old boy, it was as if we were on a great African safari. We had a little feist dog who mostly just followed us around, but occasionally, would stumble on a squirrel. Those are memories I will treasure forever and a big part of why I became a hunter, angler and conservationist.
When I was young, the deer and wild turkey populations had not rebounded in the mountains and foothills of western North Carolina where I grew up. The majority of people still pursued squirrel and rabbit as their primary game. Simply knocking on the door and respecting a landowner’s property was usually enough to gain full permission for small game hunting.
Times have changed in terms of access and the game we pursue. Deer and wild turkey have both made unprecedented comebacks across our nation due largely to the efforts of hunters and wildlife agencies. At the same time, access for hunting is ever more difficult. The number of people pursuing small game has plummeted as they choose deer and wild turkey as their primary quarry.
Along with these changes comes the loss of a vitally important introduction for young and new hunters. Small game hunting affords the opportunity to learn so much about the outdoors, wildlife and hunting safely. Most young and new hunters are missing this introduction in today’s deer focused hunting community.
Don’t get me wrong; I love to deer hunt. It’s one of my favorite pursuits. However, I truly believe that squirrels and eventually rabbits are much more conducive to creating a lifelong, safe and ethical hunter. No one gets too upset about missing a squirrel, and nearly all public lands offer at least a decent opportunity for small game.
Squirrel hunting also requires very simple equipment and apparel. During the warm days of early fall, a good pair of tennis shoes, old jeans, a dark colored jacket, and a .22 caliber rimfire rifle or small gauge shotgun are all you need for most squirrel situations. I always recommend a blaze orange cap, just so other hunters clearly know your location. Squirrels are plentiful and, in most locations, you’ll find that they aren’t pursued by many people. Early mornings and late afternoons on days with little or no wind will be your highest activity times for bushytails, If you are lucky enough to bag a few, they are excellent table fare. Fried squirrel quarters with gravy ranks right up there with some of the best food you’ll ever consume.
This fall, make yourself a promise. Take your son, daughter, nephew or niece—or even the neighbor’s kid—squirrel “hunting” with you. As you watch them enjoy the woods without being particularly quiet, sitting stone or the pressure of harvesting a big buck, you’ll remember and appreciate what got you started in this great pursuit as well.
As I pass through the seasons of life, I realize that killing an animal or proving that I’m a great hunter is much less important to me. As a mentor and a role model, I recognize that the most precious things that I can provide are my time, full attention, knowledge and the deep love and respect I have for the resource and God‘s wonderful creation. My job as a mentor is not to ensure that someone harvests an animal. My job is to make sure they leave their experience with me in the outdoors with a deeper love, respect, admiration and knowledge for all that it offers and that they cherish the life they can lead by glorifying God’s creation.