October 1st was a perfect day for a boy’s first hunting trip ever. The sun was out, and it was warm. Intermittent clouds kept it from being too warm. While the start of the day was later than I would have liked, it didn’t really matter. I was going hunting. With my son. And we were both carrying weapons for the first time. A rite of passage!
Instinct told me I should load my son’s weapon for him. A single shot .22 rifle. But I had been teaching him the rules of safe gun handling since long before he could even pick up a weapon. Now it was time to watch, and see that the lessons had taken hold.
I was impressed. He checked the direction the barrel of the weapon was pointing before he loaded it, to make sure there was nothing in the immediate path a round would take should a misfire occur. He placed a round in the chamber, and after closing the breech, he immediately set the safety.
Weapons loaded, we started walking up the overgrown access road between an old cutting, and a hay field. Along the way I pointed out various animal signs. A game trail used mostly by deer, as indicated by the generous amount of little pellets of scat. A little further on, huge piles of ripped soggy shreds of wood made by a hungry pileated woodpecker. At one point we found a much wider path leading directly to an ant mound that had obviously been ripped apart, and rebuilt by the busy ants many times. We suspected a bear was the cause of their frequent reconstruction.
Every now and then, as we walked along a narrow game trail I looked back at Will. Every time I did, I saw that the weapon was pointed in a safe direction, and a couple times I saw him checking the safety.
The game was scarce in my selected area. Typically there are a few ruffed grouse in the young oaks at the edge of a hay field or a few gray squirrels in the beech trees along a ridge opposite. The drought conditions had dried the stream completely, and the marshy area in the pines below the ridge often held noisy red squirrels, the occasional woodcock, or snowshoe hares, but there was nothing.
It was a long unproductive hike, through some pretty thick brush at times, and I was pretty sure William would be irritated when I told him we would be continuing the hunt in the wooded area along the cattle corn fields a little further down the road, but all he asked was that we stop at the house for a drink of water and a snack.
After a brief pitstop, rehydrated and raring to go we walked down the road towards a plot of land that had recently had extensive cutting done. I hadn’t been in there since things had been cut a couple years ago, but there was a lot of new growth in between the trees that had been left standing. The folks who had done the cutting had really done a great job.
As we walked toward the gated access road William noticed the sign warning people that hunting, fishing, and trespassing were forbidden, and suggested that we shouldn’t be hunting there. I assured him that I had been given permission by the timber company a few years back when we moved to the area and that we would be fine. Again, I was impressed.
I expected to jump a few ruffed grouse in the first hundred yards along the gravel road, but instead we were met with the chatter of an angry red squirrel that was warning other critters in the area of our presence.
I told William that now was the time we needed to be quiet, and keep our eyes and ears open for the squirrel that was now playing hide-and-seek with us.
Most people don’t understand how complicated hunting squirrels can be. They see them romping around in parks, backyards, and public woodlots all over the place; fat, plump, and sassy and seemingly in large numbers, and ask “How hard is it to hunt something like that?” William is apparently one of those people because I had asked him to sit quietly and scan the trees. Instead, he fidgeted around and looked at anything but the trees.
After 10 minutes or so, experience told me the squirrel had most likely hightailed it for parts unknown, so I motioned for Will to get up, so we could continue the hunt elsewhere, and again, the first thing he did was check the safety of his weapon.
Back out on the main tote road, we walked along keeping our eyes and ears open. I pointed out coyote scat, while he pointed out black-eyed Susans, but we were hunting, the weather was great, and we were together!
A few minutes later, I hear a dog barking behind us. I turn and look, to see a man with a boy walking down the road with a yellow labrador.
I decided to turn back and let them know where we planned to hunt, and what we were hunting for so we could all stay out of each other’s way…Turns out the guy owned the property! My boy was right! We were trespassing after all!
I apologized profusely and explained the situation. The man was very understanding, and added that he had been prepared for such occurrences, and assured me I was welcome to continue to hunt his land, just so long as I respected it, and was mindful that he and his family would be there at times as well.
We walked along and chatted a bit before we both reached the trails we had intended to hunt…A snowmobile trail crossed the road. The cornfield my son and I had intended to hunt to the left, and the marshes the land owner and his nephew planned to hunt to the right.
Will and I slowly worked out way up to the edge of the cornfield. For me, that was what it was all about. Acres of stubby cut cornstalks, on brown ground. Trees of various shades of red, orange, yellow and green lined the perimeter. The blue sky was clouding over, and the sun shone brightly behind the gray clouds. The calls of blue jays and crows came from the surrounding woods. Somewhere far away came the moan of a chainsaw, and from somewhere a little closer the banging of a carpenter’s hammer echoed all around.
As we walked along the edge of the field, I showed William the large hawthorn tree that had survived the wood harvest, its berries a cheerful red against the greenery around it. He asked if the berries were edible. I told them they were. He asked me to hold his gun, and as he passed it to me, he once again checked the safety, then reminded me the gun was loaded, and the safety was on. Then he selected a good looking berry to sample. As he nibbled the little hawthorn berry his face lit up, much the way mine likely had when I had plucked a few from the very same tree more than five years ago, as he discovered that the little berry packs a big apple flavor.
He quietly munched a few before I suggested we move along. A look of surprise came over his face as he spotted a gray squirrel hopping along the cut rows of corn looking for spilled grains to add to his winter larder.
William asked if he could shoot, I nodded. He took aim, and the squirrel bounded over a few steps. When the squirrel stopped, Will took aim again and fired a shot. It was a rushed shot, more than 40 yards away, and William had never fired a gun before some target shooting last month because he had previously been too small to handle the weapon safely.
Although the shot was rushed and went just over the squirrel’s head by less than an inch judging from the impact the round made in the soil beyond, it was still a great shot. Had it been a larger animal, like a deer, he would have claimed his prize.
We scanned the trees around us, and sure enough, the squirrel was spotted high in the leaf canopy leaping from tree to tree. When he paused again, even further away, again, William took his shot, and it was unclear if he had missed or not. If he had, it was just barely.
Less than a second later, I fired with my 12 gauge shotgun with light target loads, hoping to prevent the loss of a wounded animal. After three quick shots, leaves and twigs rained down in a circular pattern around the still fleeing squirrel, but still he vanished.
We searched the area for any signs that the squirrel had fallen dead from a neighboring tree. We discussed that sometimes things like this happen and that while unfortunate, in the end, should the squirrel die after being wounded, it would not go to waste. The woods were full of scavengers that would happily make a meal of our lost prey.
We even discussed how this unfortunate occurrence could have been avoided. Had his first shot not been rushed, he may very well have made a clean headshot kill. Had he been a little more patient on the second shot, perhaps the squirrel may have calmed to our presence, and allowed us to get closer, for a clearer, less obstructed shot.
The message was harsh, but the tone was compassionate. I had made similar mistakes in the past, and I would likely make them in the future. The goal was to help him understand that killing for food is a dirty business, and sometimes things go wrong.
As we walked the edge of the field I found the old apple tree I had hoped would still be there. Standing on my tip toes I could just reach 2 beautiful mid-sized apples from the tree planted generations ago. There were a few splotches on them, but I knew how they would taste. William was surprised that something so sweet was growing wild in the woods.
The hunt was nearing its end. It was possible there would be a ruffed grouse a little further ahead. I had seen them there before, but not often. The cars on the busy main road could now be seen, as well as heard, as we neared the thin band of trees that hid the old stone wall that separated the front field from the back.
A few feet from the main road we unloaded our weapons and started walking home. The walk home seemed much further than it really was, we were tired. Talk of the next hunt, and how things would be were already underway, as a spotted our mailbox several hundred yards ahead.
This hunt was over, but I am willing to bet there will be plenty more to come!