The Squirrel Chronicles: Letters to the city

©Dean Torges/The Bowyer's Edge™


Dear Adkins,

I don't have much hope for shooting squirrels when I go back to the woods where the boy lives, so I've stayed away for a while. There are squirrels enough. That's not the problem. And I don't suffer from the big game syndrome, either. Most of us bowhunters see squirrels routinely while tree-standing for deer. They appear as relaxed, easy targets. We seldom shoot at them for fear of scaring off a real trophy. We underestimate them as quarry, and we deceive ourselves every time we think "Well, I coulda killed that one if I'da wanted to."

Not me. Try sneaking through the woods on a still evening, Adkins, and tell me how many squirrels you can get on for a shot before they see you. Up close, squirrels equal or surpass deer in every category except that a squirrel's nose seems devoted to discriminating between nuts. They are nature's trip wires, laced through the woods to reveal deadly intentions, bird's, beast's or man's. Tiny targets, too, especially when compared to deer. They can be anywhere--up, down, in between--and they can pick a motionless human in thick cover when a deer can't. Don't let the size of the ear fool you either. You can sound like a squirrel to a deer, but you won't sound like a deer to a squirrel. Indeed, if fox squirrels fled like deer, instead of sometimes lingering to scold a hunter for being clumsy, they'd be damned near invincible with a bow. I don't underestimate them. Anyone who can stalk and kill squirrels with any consistency will find deer a piece of cake.

The real problem? Try sneaking while you have an enthusiastic youngster in tow. You best do it with the attitude that you won't get many squirrels shot, especially if you don't heel the boy, if instead you allow him to chase his joy, to figure out for himself what is going on, what he can and can't get away with.

Last night I was back at his father's farm, but half an hour early, before the school bus brought him home. I planned on hiking back into the second woods, figuring it was far enough that he wouldn't find me if he came looking. Lots of squirrels back there as well, and a fine woods to hunt because it's full of white oaks and hickories with just enough understory to offer some concealment.

Heading back around the farm house, I ran smack upon two straw bales. A paper plate colored with markers was fixed to their face and perforated almost to shreds. I'd given him a youth's "Little Bear" recurve and 1/4" ramen arrows days earlier. This boy is bitten, I said to myself. If he has any skin left on his shooting fingers, I better wait for him to come home because he probably wants to go squirrel hunting. So I shot judos around the barnyard 'til he showed up.

Once again he saw two squirrels before I did. Not phantoms, either. He is looking hard for them. I recognized that in him and recollected it in myself. At one time I didn't think a squirrel could scratch its ear or pick a nut without me noticing, I was that focused. Perhaps self-deceived, but I remember feeling that way, and that's a certainty. Nowadays I'm not so quick to identify a blur of movement around the side of a tree. Falling leaf? Bird? Something wind blown? A squirrel slipping away? Or I fall into such deep reveries that sometimes cuttings drop for a little while before I acknowledge them. Maybe I do see less.

We had several stalks, but no shots. One squirrel was on the ground digging, the first one I've seen so occupied this season. Soon, with the rains, the winds and ripeness, squirrels will be on the ground more than they are high in trees, sifting through the duff for mast. You move on them the same way you would a deer. One will occupy itself head down, and at intervals sit up and look around. Maybe it telegraphs its guard movement with some barely perceptible twitch or interruption of routine. Hard to say. You have to anticipate and be intensely aware. "I am feeling a little uneasy," you kinda think to yourself, if you put it in words, "and if I were him, I would be looking for me right now." Sometimes they are aware of your presence, conducting their business while monitoring you for suspicious movement from the corner of their eye. In either case, you are frozen and harmless looking when you need to be.

The boy stayed behind and eventually glued himself to a squirrel of his own discovery. He was armed with field points, but he considered himself dangerous and acted the part, stalking toes first, maneuvering himself for a shot which never came. It was like watching a hound pup work out its first track. I looked from the corner of my eye so he wouldn't become self-conscious.

We did some stump shooting on the way back, his introduction to it. Fletching flew through the woods. We alternated calling shots. The boy is newly arrived at shooting and very awkward. I had to remind myself of his tender age to keep from helping too much. Nevertheless, this was about the joy of loosing arrows and not about accuracy, so in that regard, the biggest difference between us was that I didn't run ahead to gather up my arrow in anticipation of the next shot. I told him he could, but ancient laws required that the first man to the spot had to pick up the other guy's arrow, too. You can't just turn someone loose in the woods without some instruction or a sense of history or tradition, can you? Or without encouraging them to laugh. I never picked up an arrow all the way to the truck.

I shoot well enough, but not as well as I used to. Like losing your ability to read small print, you don't notice it at first. I remember when my brother John held up a paper cup and said "Hit this." There was a time when it was important to hit things with my arrows. Now it's important simply to shoot arrows.

I see it hunting, when I am at cross purposes with myself and seem to count coup with shots across squirrels' boughs. It doesn't bother me. I recognize the darker reasons and accept them. The boy, on the other hand, wants desperately to hit what he's shooting at. He's practicing in earnest to kill a squirrel. If he stays with the bow and arrow, it'll still be years before he does.

Think I'll go back tomorrow morning, when the boy is in school.