“I’m just here for the greens,” Alan Clemons said without looking up. I looked across the table at him, a little shocked. No doubt we were eating the best collard greens in the state of Alabama, if not the world, but still he caught me off guard. Clemons is an old newspaper guy and veteran outdoor writer whom I met years ago, long before I started down the dubious path of outdoor writing myself.
Clemons and I were sitting at the supper table on the first night of the Squirrel Master Classic, a squirrel hunting competition with Outdoor TV celebrities, young 4H shooters and outdoor media—all of which is the brainchild of Jackie Bushman of Buck Masters fame. Mr. Bushman felt something needed to be done about the decreasing numbers of young people entering into the hunting and shooting sports world.
The first Squirrel Master Classic was held in 2014, and Bushman and the event’s sponsor, Gamo Air Rifles, have not looked back since. Winner of this event is determined by your team’s count from a morning and evening squirrel hunt and your total points from an afternoon shooting competition.
Still, for all of this I was a little worried about my buddy Clemons. The outdoor industry is somewhat like a big family, and I saw Clemons as maybe the irascible old uncle in the family: He was very happy to be here, he just didn’t want you to know he was happy about it.
This family reunion in the guise of a squirrel hunt was being held at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge near Montgomery, Alabama. I’m pretty sure if you look up southern hospitality in Webster’s, you will see a picture of the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge. This lodge, which just happens to be in heart of Alabama’s famed Black Belt region, has a rich 35-year history for hosting deer and turkey hunters and now squirrel chasers. The walls of the lodge are adorned with rows of “family photos,” pictures of hunters, outdoor personalities, writers, sports figures and entertainers who have stayed here.
After Uncle Clemons had finished off his third helping of collard greens along with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and other southern delights (most families eat well at such gatherings, right?), we were assembled to get the lowdown for the next day. Leading this presentation was none other than Jackie Bushman, whom I saw as the “Dad” figure for this little party. Jackie laid out how the competition would be run and introduced all the players, Keith Higginbotham from Gamo and his crew, the various outdoor TV personalizes, the squirrel dogs we would be hunting with…and told us that breakfast was at 0500! (Really Dad? Do we have to get up that early?)
This may have been a friendly family gathering, but make no mistake, it was a competition. These boys and girls were serious about taking home the coveted squirrel trophy. I went with Travis “T Bone” Turner from the Bone Collector crew and his team, and believe me, it was fast and furious. When our squirrel dog, “Mo” would bark treed, it was off to the races.
Each and every time Mo barked, we ran to the tree…these boys were serious about taking home that trophy. Mo’s owner, Butch Morton from Blue Ridge, Georgia, was just as determined as the other team members, and he kept us on track to find those squirrels.
When the squirrel was spotted the shooting would begin. Sometimes this would result in a squirrel for the bag; sometimes not. These grey squirrels had their running shoes on and often, after a miss, the squirrel would light out in the tree tops and a lively chase would ensue. If the squirrel made it to a tree with a hole in it, the chase was over and we would go looking elsewhere. We were shooting Gamo’s new Swarm .22 caliber pellet rifle. This rifle features a 10-shot rotary magazine which makes follow up shots much faster than with conventional air rifles. This really helped with some of these speedster squirrels.
Dad Bushman had told us we had to be back at the house at 12 noon sharp for the counting and weigh-in from the morning squirrel hunt. Like any family in a competition, you can imagine the spirted exchange of razzing as each team leader presented their bag of squirrels for the morning.
Leading the charge for most of these shenanigans seemed to be our mischievous older brothers for this hunt, Michael Waddell and T Bone Turner from the Bone Collector crew. No one, not even Aunt Vickie Cianciarulo from Archers Choice TV, was spared from the razzing as a bag of squirrels (or lack thereof) was presented for inspection.
After a big southern barbeque lunch, which Uncle Clemons and I enjoyed thoroughly, the shooting competition began. Supervising the range for this was none other than World Champion shooter cousin Doug Koening. Cousin Koening and the Gamo crew went all-out for the range set up. This may have been an air rifle contest, but it was not easy.
The six 4H shooters present for the Squirrel Master Classic, our little brothers and sisters, showed us all how to do it in the shooting competition. Moriah Christian came to the Classic with her brother Luke, and at the end of the afternoon match she was the top shooter. Moriah had a grin as big as Alabama, but we were all pleased. Any family wants to see their little sisters and brothers do well.
Immediately after the shooting match all of the teams lit out for the squirrel woods like a herd of turkeys. T Bone Turner’s team was in the lead on the squirrel count, and I could tell Jackie Bushman and Michael Waddell were determined to make up that deficit. Even Aunt Vickie and Uncle Ralph Cianciarulo seemed to have the “eye of the tiger” while racing out for the evening hunt.
The evening hunt was much like the morning, only warmer, but our crew continued to race through the woods chasing Mo the squirrel dog. It was a tired bunch of hunters who returned to the Southern Sportsman Lodge that night. T Bone Turners team maintained the lead on the squirrel count and, along with our points from the shooting competition, we were presented with the Squirrel Master Classic Trophy for 2017.
Beautiful Alabama woodlands, a rustic hunting lodge full of history and great food, feisty hunting dogs, friends old and new and some wonderful young people eager to learn all they can about hunting and the shooting sports. Could it get any better?
Yes, only if all of this was a part of your family, and family passing down the traditions of hunting and marksmanship is what the Squirrel Master Classic is all about.