Let's put this one in the fridge and save it for later," says Jackie Bushman, extracting a plump fox squirrel from a matted mass of standard-issue gray bushytails piled on the tailgate. "Those guys don't need to know we killed a fox squirrel this morning."
This is a devious but ingenious strategy. The refrigerator in Jackie's nearby house will keep the husky rodent cold and minimize weight loss, and nothing in the rule book states we have to reveal all our squirrels immediately. Oh yes, there is a rule book-or at least a rule sheet. As the self-appointed emcee for the "First Annual" Gamo Squirrel Master Classic opening ceremonies, Jackie read it last night to the crowd of competitors with great authority. In fact, I think he helped write it. Glad I'm on his team.
According to these rules, a fox squirrel, being roughly twice the size of its gray cousin, is worth twice the points in this invitational tournament organizers have billed as the preeminent test of squirrel-hunting skill. My group is up against five other seven-person teams all armed with Gamo air rifles. Our goal is to kill more squirrels in the hardwood lowlands west of Montgomery, Ala., than the rest of them and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt we are the supreme hunters-the Squirrel Masters. With the morning hunt now over, we have a pretty good start. Two points for the prized fox squirrel gives us a total of 11.
At the weigh-in beside the Southern Sportsman lodge just before lunch, though, we go with Jackie's plan and humbly produce just nine grays. This makes Michael Waddell and Nick Mundt of Team Bone Collector 1 downright giddy with excitement. Their team, which also includes American Hunter Field Editor Jeff Johnston, tallies 14 squirrels for a combined weight of 17.125 pounds and claims the lead. They arm-pump and chest-bump and noisily bring a rather crass atmosphere to what-until now-has been a gentlemanly unveiling of the morning take.
Johnston, embracing his role as a traitor, slaps his teammates on their Realtree-clad backs and ponders aloud finding space in his office for the Squirrel Master Classic trophy. Except, I quickly and just as loudly point out to the crowd gathered around the scales, he has no office. As a vagabond freelance writer who only yesterday was begging me to publish one of his articles so he could afford a bottle of wine for his girlfriend, he hardly has a desk. I make a mental note to remove him from the masthead posthaste.
The trophy, a larger-than-life representation of a majestic, nut-gnawing squirrel expertly sculpted from faux-wood resin, certainly deserves to go home with a better hunter than the likes of Jeff Johnston-namely, me. Its unveiling last night caused jaws to drop and hearts to covet. I hardly slept thinking of how glorious my return to American Hunter offices would be with a squirrel trophy held high in my triumphant arms. I envision it enshrined at NRA Headquarters among the prestigious Wimbledon Cup and Townsend Whelen Trophy. I imagine cheers, lavish praise, a substantial raise for the undisputed Squirrel Master Heggenstaller. Book deals and guest appearances will soon follow. This could be my big break, a chance to make a name for myself, an opportunity to secure a bright future for my family.
But while Johnston's possession of the trophy is highly unlikely, for now mine is, too. My mood suddenly darkens under the pressure and Mundt's girlish squeals of boast. He and Waddell are recapping their bumbling exploits in the woods this morning in front of a video camera, and they want to make sure viewers of the future episode realize just how skillful they are with their Gamo air rifles.
Then I remember my team's secret fox squirrel and realize we're only three behind. Jackie gives me a wink; these guys are playing right into our hands. A former tennis pro and founder of the Buckmasters Classic tournaments, he knows how to exploit opponents' overconfidence. Waddell's team acts like it's already won the competition, but with another three-hour hunting session this afternoon, it ain't over till the last fat squirrel drops.
At the noon meal, the Bone Collector boys continue their boorish behavior, piling their plates so high with fried chicken that other competitors are forced to go without. Left among the hungry is a group of 4-H kids from Alabama, who have qualified for their spots on each elite squirrel-hunting team by outshooting their fellow club members during a previous air-rifle match. I'm not surprised when a couple of them start making plans to replace the now-depleted chicken with fresh squirrel.
I survey my team, named Buckmasters after Jackie's organization and TV show, over a bowl of beans. We're lucky to have Callie Littlefield among us. The 4-H student showed she knows how to shoot a Gamo by bagging the big fox squirrel this morning. She rarely misses, which is a good thing, considering teammate and outdoor editor Jim Shepherd readily admits he can't say the same. Even better, we have Lou Riley, the CEO of Gamo, who has hunted something like four continents with an air rifle and is now thinking of concentrating solely on invasive iguanas in Florida for the bounty. Jacob Landry of The History Channel's "Swamp People" brings sheer drive to the team, pursuing every squirrel like his family's livelihood depends on it; being February with alligator season months away, it just might. I consider my place among this group of all-stars. Jackie, always looking for the competitive advantage, obviously picked me to give the other teams a false sense of hope. Right now they're thinking there's no way someone who looks as good as I do has any business in the squirrel woods, but what they don't know is I grew up sniping "squag" from the tall tops of Pennsylvania hickories.
Those other teams also include some real powerhouses-literally. In that corner is WWE Hall of Famer and "McMillan River Adventures" co-host Shawn "The Heartbreak Kid" Michaels. Rumor has it he subdued a particularly tough squirrel this morning with a theatrical diving elbow drop from a white oak. A few seats down the same table sits Travis "T-Bone" Turner, who heads up the second Bone Collector team in the tourney. His agility has me concerned. Over there is Keith Warren, from "High Road Hunting," whose nonchalant attitude as he weighed in his team's sole squirrel from the morning has me thinking he's got an ace up his sleeve for this afternoon.
I try to relax; after all, the MVP of my team doesn't seem to be a lick worried. Right now he's outside taking a well-deserved nap. He has four legs and a nose that can tell what a squirrel's plans are for tomorrow. TC is an award-winning, top-bloodline American treeing feist-a squirrel dog. Of course the other teams have dogs of similar championship status, but my money's on TC. He treed a squirrel just five minutes into the hunt this morning and looked a bit embarrassed that it took him even that long.
"TC don't lie," says the gamey little dog's owner, Ronnie O'Neal, a half-hour after we enter the woods to start the afternoon session. "He's sayin' another one's up there, so look real close."
Jacob just shot a squirrel out of this cedar, but TC remains staunch as a statue, paws planted on its trunk. His sharp yips penetrate the dense branches, and I spot a wisp of movement in a shadowy fork. Surrounded by seven aspiring Squirrel Masters, plus a dog, the hoary rodent chooses to flatten itself against the tree and remain motionless. But it cannot control the tips of its long tail hairs, and the breeze points out its presence.
"Yep, there he is," I say, raising the .177-caliber Gamo Whisper Fusion Pro. "Get ready!"
We've learned that a shot squirrel isn't necessarily a dead squirrel, and I want to make sure I have backup. My team needs to capitalize on every opportunity if we are to have a chance at that stately trophy. The Gamo cracks, and the squirrel falls a few feet but catches itself on a springy cedar limb. Like a PH saving his client from a charging buff, Lou fires almost immediately. The squirrel somersaults to the ground-spurring a third to claw its way to the top of the tree. A barrage of pellets from the rest of the team is on its way instantly. Squirrel No. 3 from the same tree lands with a soft thud on the moist ground, and Shepherd is all smiles. We let him claim this one.
"Told you TC don't lie," beams Ronnie, but TC is too busy to hear the compliment. He tears down a muddy road, makes an abrupt left, runs a short zigzag and barks treed. Jackie and Callie are right behind him, and Ronnie soon adds the fourth squirrel in the past two minutes to his bulging game bag. TC doesn't wait and is off again.
A hundred yards later, we collect a pair of grays from a giant sycamore. Then Jacob nails one with a long shot to a high oak branch. Now Lou's working on one in a gum tree while I'm lining up on another. Air rifles seem to pop every 30 seconds, and things become a blur. Jackie has one pinned down but yells that a second is jumping between treetops to his right. Jacob cuts it off. TC is going wild. Jim and Callie both shoot. Then Lou bags another. The air becomes thick with lead. We're in the zone. Squirrels are everywhere. I've never seen anything like it. One nearly jumps on my back in a blind flight to safety. I give a brief chase but TC barks treed in the other direction, so I choose the sure thing. Jackie beats me to it, but 10 minutes later I get my turn. Then Callie and Jacob, Jim and Jacob, me again, Jacob again, Lou, Jackie, Lou again ...
"Fifteen minutes left," hollers Jackie amid the chaos, the adrenaline raising his voice to a banshee scream. "Let's get another one quick!"
TC notes the urgency of the situation-victory hangs in the balance-and draws on his stamina to send a couple more squirrels up the tree. We get them both. I notice Ronnie, whose moustache is as white as a squirrel's belly, now leans on a stout stick to help support the substantial weight we've added to his vest.
When it's over, not a second past 5 p.m. according to the rules and Jackie's watch, I have no idea how many squirrels we have taken in the last three hours. A sack full, to be sure. But will it be enough to topple Team Bone Collector 1? I also remember Shawn Michaels' team was only two squirrels behind us going into the afternoon session. If those guys got into 'em like we did, it's going to be close.
Back at the lodge, everyone plays their squirrels close to their vests. Ever the sportsman, Jackie lets the other teams present their afternoon hauls first, announcing with fanfare the final weight of their combined bags. It quickly becomes apparent no one has managed to do as well as they had in the morning. One team tries to blame its poor performance on a runaway dog. Maybe next time they'll know to keep up. Another whines something about being sidelined by snakebite. Like we care.
Jackie's eyes narrow as Bone Collector 1, the current leader and last remaining team to weigh in before we get our chance, swaggers to the scales. Boy, these guys are cocky. Waddell and Mundt, used to the luxury of high-end resort hunting, burned an hour of tourney time taking a nap. Or so they say. I believe it when Johnston confirms the story because, well, Johnston is just plain lazy. Still, they've managed to kill another 12 squirrels, giving them a total of 26 and furthering their lead over the rest of the field.
Their celebration is over before it starts. My team is cheering louder than they are, and Bone Collector knows it has been crushed. When Ronnie staggers on stage, squirrels spilling from the burlap sack slung over his back, our victorious comeback is obvious to all. But just to be sure, Jackie, in an open display of official fairness, counts every single squirrel.
"One ... two ... three," we chant along with him. A few squirrels on the scale quickly turn into a mountain. "Fifteen ... 16 ... 17" ... Waddell's eyes widen ... Johnston shakes his head. The squirrels keep coming. "Twenty-four ... 25 ... 26!" When the needle on the scale bottoms out, the Heartbreak Kid looks like he's about ready to roll Jackie with a suplex. Undeterred, our team captain presses on. "Twenty-seven ... 28!"
And then Jackie raises Callie's fox squirrel. It's the final blow. Team Bone Collector is on its knees. Johnston asks me for my autograph. By the time Jackie finishes, the leaderboard shows our team has bagged 38 squirrels in six hours of hunting. Scratch that-39 with the fox squirrel. I'm not kidding. There is an actual leaderboard!