I watched the gentle landscape as the plane made its descent into the Montgomery, Alabama airport. I studied the patches of woods and fields and imagined my buddies and myself moving through the timber following a couple of feisty squirrel dogs. I was returning to the Squirrel Master Classic event and the Southern Sportsman’s Lodge. I was coming home.
Now in its sixth year, the Squirrel Master Classic is the brainchild of none other than Jackie Bushman of Buckmasters fame. Jackie, along with Gamo air guns, came up with the idea as a way to boost interest in small-game hunting. It's the kind of hunting many of us started out with, and what many see as a way to interest more young and first-time hunters.
Unless you have been living under the proverbial rock, you know that hunter numbers in the United States have been declining drastically. In 1970 over 40 million people bought a hunting license, and today that number is probably less than 12 million. What are some ways that would bring more new hunters, young and old, into the fold? Squirrel hunting? Squirrel hunting with dogs? Squirrel hunting with dogs and kids? Thus, the Squirrel Master Classic was born.
So here is how the Squirrel Master Classic actually happens. Each team is comprised of an outdoor TV personality like Jackie Bushman with Buckmasters, Michael Waddell, Travis “T-bone” Turner and Nick Mundt (all of whom are of the Bone Collector series fame), or it could be Tyler Jordan and David Blanton with Realtree camo, or maybe Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo from the Archer’s Choice TV show. Also on each team is an outdoor writer, a squirrel dog handler and a 4-H Shooting Sports young person. The 4-H shooters we had this year were great kids and the young lady on our team, Danielle Chapman, was a real shooter! We hunted this year with a Gamo Swarm Magnum, a new offering from Gamo in the form of a .22-caliber air rifle. Our verdict: The air gun had plenty of power for squirrels and any other small game you would want to hunt.
If you have not had the pleasure of following a good squirrel dog through the woods, please don’t deprive yourself any longer. The hunters can stroll through the woods at their own pace. No need to tell kids or any new hunters to be quiet and sit still. Everyone enjoys watching the animated canines as they race through the timber looking for the bushytails. Once a squirrel is treed, the dogs bark to draw you to the location, and everyone gathers around the tree to locate the squirrel (sometimes this is no easy task). If the squirrel is spotted there is plenty of time for the shooter to get set up for the shot. It’s a very safe scenario and the gun does not even need to be loaded until you get to the tree and everyone is set. Sound like a great way to introduce young people or any new hunter to the sport? I think so.
Besides the actual hunting, a major part of the Squirrel Master Classic is the shooting competition held in the afternoon of the second day. Gamo sets up an intricate course of targets, and the 4-H shooters compete alongside the outdoor personalities and writers. I shot in the Daisy Red Ryder BB gun competition, and shooting against Waddell, T-bone, Bushman and the other TV guys was some kind of fun.
When all of the smoke clears from the squirrel hunt and the shooting competition, the team with the most squirrels in the bag and the highest number of shooting points wins the coveted Squirrel Master Classic trophy. The winner this year was the Bone Collector team with Michael Waddell and Nick Mundt. Tired squirrel dogs got to rest in their beds while a tired bunch of hunters got to attend the awards banquet...which includes the to-die-for southern cooking that the Southern Sportsman’s Lodge specializes in.
No doubt you have heard of the Three R’s in the movement to boost our depleted hunter numbers. Recruit to gain new hunters, young and old, and bring them into the fold. Retain, to hold on to the hunters that we presently have. Finally, reactivation: There are many hunters out there that, for one reason or another, have fallen by the wayside. How do we achieve all this? I agree with Jackie Bushman and those that make the Squirrel Master Classic possible: Head back home, where everything began, and renew our passion for hunting squirrels!
It can be much easier to find a place to squirrel hunt than for deer or turkey. Landowners will often allow pursuing bushytails on their land when they might balk at other types of hunting. Squirrels don’t require a lot of fancy equipment to get started in the sport. Squirrels can often be found in good numbers on public land, and the season in many states is long. Once you've double-checked your state's laws, go for it: Grab a kid or an adult that may be interested in starting hunting and go take a walk in the fall and winter woods. I predict something else will happen here. You are going to have fun. That’s right, hunting is supposed to be fun. Many of us started out hunting squirrels and other small game and it was fun. Many of us did this before we got so wrapped up in deer and turkeys and started taking it all too seriously.
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I will be at the Squirrel Master Classic next year to see old friends, make new ones, and follow those wonderful little squirrel dogs in an Alabama Creek bottom. You don’t have to come to Alabama to experience this, you know; you can have your own Squirrel Master Classic right in your own back yard. All it takes is a few squirrels, an air rifle, a trusty .22, or your Dad’s old shotgun, and any nearby kid that wants to go hunting.
Go do it and discover something you thought you had lost, the pure joy of a day in the woods and the wonder of it all through a child’s eyes.