SEPTEMBER 2, 2006, Opening Day

I think of myself as a professional squirrel hunter, though I have to have a day job, too, damn it, masquerading as a professor of anatomy. †

Squirrels are more or less the perfect game animal, even if they donít get the respect they deserve in these days of heavy-handed marketing for whitetails and turkeys.† However, the New River Valley is blessed with some of the best squirrel-hunting territory in North America, and I always get out on Opening Day.† I regard squirrel hunting as a religious ritual comparable to a Mass, and the first Saturday in September is what in my Catholic youth Iíd have called a ďHoly Day Of Obligation.Ē† I MUST go out and perform the Hickory Tree Ritual.

Now, early squirrel season has its drawbacks.† First off, the trees are in leaf.† This means I often can hear the little buggers but I canít see them.† Thatís bad enough but sometimes they taunt me by sitting in a hickory tree RIGHT ABOVE MY HEAD and dropping cuttings on me, secure in the knowledge that I canít see them. Sometimes they have the audacity to bark at me while they do this. It's like they're laughing.

Of course, it works both ways: they canít see me, either, and if I spot one I get to stalk him up much more easily than later in the year when the trees are bare and the rodents are on the ground. Then who has the last laugh?

The fact is that for me, Opening Day, however important, for some reason is never one in which I bag many squirrels.† Maybe Iím out of practice, maybe Iím getting lazy and impatient, maybe itís the leaves.† Whatever the reason, I seldom connect on Opening Day, despite having some prime territory all to myself.

I had decided this year that I'd "go native" and use black powder weapons more or less exclusively, so when The Day came I was up on Spruce Run Mountain with my Pedersoli 12 gauge double.  I'd charged it with 90 grains FFg and 1-1/4 ounces of #6's, using a AA shot cup in the right barrel and going semi-traditional in the left, with a plastic over-powder wad, and a lubed fiber wad.  Both were topped off by very thin over-shot wads.

Sure enough, the rats were cutting hickories, and not 20 minutes after taking my stand, a young grey showed up about 20 yards away.  I let him get clear of the foliage, and fired.  He seemed to fall off the branch but didn't hit the ground.  OK, he's hung up somewhere, I'll find him and knock him down.  This doesn't happen much: usually dead squirrels hit the ground with a THUMP! right below the branch.

But not this guy.  He MAY have been dead and hung on a limb where I couldn't see him, but I think he was winged and got up the tree to a crotch or hole and went to ground.  I walked around that tree for an hour.  No sign of him, not even with a spyglass; no blood, no hair, no indication of a hit.

This ticked me off a bit, but what the hell, even with a shotgun sometimes you don't get a kill.  I sat back down.  Half an hour or so later, I spotted a big fox squirrel on a tree well out of range, and tried a stalk, to no avail.  Later I spotted another one, and again, fruitlessly tried to get in range.

I changed spots, to another hickory about 800 yards away.  Along came another grey squirrel, this one stopping on the other side of a "hog wire" fence with 4" squares.  Sitting on the ground, right at the fence line, not 20 yards off.  In full view, giving me the once-over.  I let him have the right barrel.  NOTHING.  He scampered off as if I had flung a rock at him, and did the Vanishing Squirrel Trick.  Now, this guy wasn't touched, I'm positive.  He SHOULD have been dead, and had I used The Lightning Death, he would have been.  But he pooched away like he was in a city park and spotted someone handing out peanuts.

I was so frustrated by this poor performance, I fired my left barrel at a T-post with white paint on the top 6" or so: about the same distance away.  About 12 pellets hit the post, and had that white part been a squirrel he'd have been meat. I don't usually pattern my shotguns: for the kind of use I put them to, it hasn't been necessary.  But I have to take this thing to the range and see what it's doing. 

Itís a poor workman that blames his tools, as the saying goes, so Iíll blame my use of the tool instead.† My theory is that the powder charge is too heavy: 90 grains is about 3-1/4 drams equivalent.  It may be blowing the center of the pattern, because of course with a muzzle-loading shotgun I have to use an over-shot wad.† I'll cut back to 70 or 75 grains (2-1/2 to 2-3/4 DE) and see if that improves things.


My colleague Phil is a squirrel hunter and an expert canoeist, and we had discussed the practice of hunting squirrels from a boat.† This is legal in Virginia (if you use a shotgun and have permission from the people who own the land on the banks) and a very productive way to do it, since you cover a lot of ground with relatively little effort.†

Squirrels, especially in the early season, are often vary naÔve about boats.† Especially on the New, they see them routinely, but (almost) never have any experience with boat-borne danger.† I used to hunt a stretch of the Little River this way, and in the early days doing that, on a squirrel float I was guaranteed to get a limit of Chicken of the Tree, if I didnít lose them when they hit the water.† Squirrels donít float.† You have perhaps 10 seconds to get them with a net, and if you donít manage it, they become fish food.† I try to maneuver my boat under them so they fall into the water near the boat, and to have my hunting partner ready with the long-handled net, but of course there are always ones that do what you donít expect, and Iíve lost more than my share.

I stopped hunting on the Little River a year or two after the public parking lot and the canoe ramp was opened by the City of Radford.† When you have to hump a 16-foot boat and all your gear 100+ yards from the parking area and up over a dam, it tends to discourage the uncommitted; but easy access greatly increased the traffic on the Little River, both of pleasure boaters and hunters.† Unfortunately this change had the effect of causing landowners to post the banks on both sides of the river.† Worse, the increased hunting greatly thinned out the squirrel population and educated the survivors that boats were bad news, and hunting there became pretty much a waste of time.

Phil said he knew of places on the New that were awash with rodents, so we met at 6:00 AM in the Food Lion parking lot for a squirrel float that we planned like a military operation.† We were to float a total of seven miles, from the put-in point at Glen Lyn Town Park to the take-out at Shanklinís Ferry in West Virginia, a mile or so over the line.† Since neither of us have WV licenses and especially since their squirrel season isn't open yet, Phil had engaged in some extensive discussions with the game wardens on that side of the line about the legality of our casing our guns before we crossed out of Virginia; and of whether they would be unhappy with us for taking out with game taken legally in VA.  Nobody really knew the exact answer, itís something of a grey area in the law.† Their opinion was that it would certainly have been legal for us to take a deer in Virginia and transport it through west Virginia; and although small game wasnít specifically mentioned in the law, it seemed to them there was no reason why it wouldnít be legal.† So, in any event, we established our good intentions with the West Virginia authorities, and in the end it wasn't a problem.† We saw more cows than we did game wardens.

From the Food Lion lot we drove in convoy to the beautiful Bluestone WMA in Summers County.† Bluestone WMA is waaaaaay the hell and gone back of nowhere, about an hour from where we started.  On the drive into the take-out point we saw a few deer (Phil almost collected one with his GMC) and a couple of fox squirrels.  We had Phil's squirrel dog, Pet, with us. She nearly leaped through the windshield, but was restrained and reassured sheíd have her chance when we were on the water. My truck was the recovery vehicle, so we parked it at Shanklinís Ferry and drove upriver to the put-in Glen Lyn Town Park. 

We finally got into the water about 8:30. † I had brought my faithful old Mossberg 500 pump shotgun, which, though battered and scarred from 15 seasons, is as reliable and deadly as ever.† I was toting some high-brass steel 4ís for the squirrels, and some steel BBB just in case we saw some geese. No lead shot: steel kills squirrels just fine, Iíve found, and since the goose season was open, I didnít want there to be any question about my intentions.† So steel it was.† As we pushed out into the river, several flights of geese came over but we passed up on them as we were still fairly close to the town park. This turned out to be a mistake: they were well within range as they thundered overhead like a flight of B-17ís coming back from Schweinfurt.† We should have taken some, they were the only game we saw all morning.

The day was cool and foggy.† As a result, the squirrels were sleeping in.† There was nary a one in sight along the banks, in the whole trip.  The only ones we saw were as we drove in and drove out of the WMA, by which time the fog had begun to burn off.† Pet was immensely frustrated (probably more than we were).† We had to content ourselves with gorgeous scenery and a †bit of rapid running.

Now, I donít do whitewater.† I did a lot of dangerous stuff in my 20ís in the military and figure that now, as I complete my sixth decade on the planet, there isnít any reason to risk my life if I donít have to.† Running rapids falls into that category, but there you are: this was a hunting trip, and so it fell into the exception of ďhaving to,Ē even though I ended up getting skunked.

There was plenty of water thanks to recent rains, and thanks to Philís paddling skills (not mine, I just did what he told me to do and tried not to wet my pants) we negotiated all of them without incident; including Shumate Falls, which is a fairly nasty place if you come up on it wrong and arenít aware thereís a big drop on the other side.† We went around on river left, without a hitch, though Philís canoe is a good bit tippier than my square-stern Old Town, and I was sitting in the bow instead of the stern.† I neither fell out nor disgraced myself as a paddler.

To Pet's dismay, even she didn't spot a single rodent on the banks or in the trees.  Pet can see squirrels a hundred yards away, and she can track them by scent on the ground.† Iíd hunted with her before, and she really is something to watch.† Sheís getting a bit old and a bit slower, but she is a sure-enough squirrel dog.† She once got written up in the Roanoke Times!† Once or twice we stopped to let her sniff around, and though she acted like there were squirrels in the vicinity, she never actually found one.† Hit the ramp at Shanklin's ferry about 12:30, where we loaded the boat into my truck and off we went, nearly running over a nice fox squirrel on the way out. By that time the fog was burning off and the squirrels were coming out to play, but of course we were out of luck.  We should have taken some of those geese: they were the only shots offered.

Yes, that's why they call it "hunting."

SEPTEMBER 15, 2006

Well, after two Saturdays in a row that turned out to be duds, I figured things HAD to get better.  So yesterday I went up to Spruce Run Farm again, with my Mossberg and a bunch of high-brass lead 6ís.† Given the miserable performance of the Pedersoli on Opening Day, I don't plan to use it until I figure out what I'm doing wrong.

I went back to the same spot as Iíd gone to on Opening Day.† This is a big hickory tree in a grove above a spring, about 30 yards from my favorite deer stand.† The hickory nuts are ripe and the rats are cutting them for all they're worth; in the early season there's no better place to be with a shotgun than under a hickory tree. †Spruce Run Farm has both fox squirrels and grey squirrels in abundance, and I was gunning for a big fox squirrel with a white nose, to make a display mount for my office.†

I got onto my stand about 6:40, just as legal shooting time began. The weather was beautiful, not too cold and not too warm, and as the morning progressed a big bank of fog †slowly crept up the hillside at a leisurely pace.† I watched it come, blotting out my view of the cows, and eventually enveloping everything in a white mist dense enough that I couldn't make out my truck 200 yards down the slope. †By and by it rolled on past as the slope warmed up and the air carried the fog above the tree line where I was sitting.

A doe began snorting at me, from roughly the place where I shot the Snow Doe last winter: I'll introduce myself to that deer in December, I think.† That corner of the farm has to be my favorite spot in the world, along with the stretch of water downstream from Whitethorne boat ramp.† If I have my way, my ashes will be scattered there some day and Iíll become part of the acorns and hickory nuts eaten by the descendants of the squirrels living there now.† Iíll recycle myself as my favorite game animal.

About first light I heard a noise above me.† A small grey came mooching through the trees about 30 yards away.  After two fruitless trips, I was energized enough to violate one of my cardinal squirrel-hunting rules: I fired without seeing the head.  This is a sure-fire recipe for disaster in the form of a cripple or a miss.

Luckily, it was a clean miss. I was so close that the pattern was far to dense, and all I managed to do was to shower down a bunch of leaves above the branch where the squirrel was hopping around.† He took off on after-burners, of course, and I wistfully pegged another shot at him as he scampered away, which was an even worse miss. It was beginning to look like a repeat of last week.  Then a little while later I shot at another one...another miss!  This was getting very discouraging.

I moved down the hill to another big hickory about 300 yards away, and sat. About 15 minutes later a small grey came out, and this time I didn't miss.  It bounced out of the tree and started flopping around, so I fired a finishing shot to "fringe" it with the pattern, so as not to mess it up too much.  This one turned out to be a female "fryer," who's now in the fridge.  I sat back down.†

Shortly thereafter came out a big fox squirrel with a white nose, just exactly what I was really after.  I took my time, forcing myself to wait until, eventually, he hopped into clear view.  I firedÖ.and off he ran!  I debated whether or not to tear out my remaining few strands of hair at that point.†

I was pretty sure I'd hit him, though, based on the way he was running.† I went over to the spot where he'd been, and while walking there I found that midway between use there was a rusted and completely invisible old hog-wire fence.  It was low enough that I could step over it but sighting along the line between our two positions, it was clear that the shot charge had to pass through its mesh.† What should have been a clean kill, with the squirrel centered in my pattern was turned into a not-so-clean hit because much if not most of the charge was deflected.  It was like using a cylinder bore gun or a ďspreaderĒ load.

I was sure Iíd made a hit, if not a kill, so I searched the area for some sign.  But heíd done The Vanishing Squirrel Trick and was nowhere to be seen. Neither was there any hair or blood or anything else, even where he'd been when I fired.  There it was, I'd wounded him and he was up a tree somewhere and lying doggo.† I was pretty honked off at that moment, and pretty mad at myself for not having seen that damned fence.† I was sure† I'd never see him again, and all I could do was hope that he wasn't too badly injured.† Squirrels do recover from minor gun shot wounds: my hope was that heíd be in that category. I went back down at the place where I'd shot from, pretty depressed and wishing Iíd gone somewhere else.† By this time it was getting late enough in the morning that I'd decided not to spend a whole lot more time in the field, as I had something else to do, but I wanted to give it just a little longer. 

About 40 minutes later, just as I was getting ready to leave, I heard a WHUMP!!!! and something fell to the ground just under the tree I thought my fox squirrel had run up.  It was him.

I walked over.  My shot had broken his left hind leg, and clearly caused him serious internal injury.  He must have been lying on a branch: as he weakened from internal bleeding and shock, he slipped off and fell to the ground with that unmistakable noise.  He was pretty well dead when he hit: his heart was still beating, but there was no eyeblink reflex, and in a few seconds he was completely gone.  I felt a good deal better, even though it had been me whoíd put him in that state.† Iím glad I waited, though I have to confess I never expected him to practically fall on my head, as it were.

It was a nice mature boar squirrel, who was clearly...ahem...ready for the ladies.  He had a tail 18" long, at least, and best of all, the white nose you see in some southern fox squirrel color morphs.  As planned heís now at the taxidermistís shop.† Iíll put him on display in my office for the pretty little vegans to admire when they come to complain about how my exams are unfair because I only accept the correct answers.

This animal will represent all of the squirrels who have fallen to me, and even more so, the few who've got away.  He fits into both categories.† Heíll be a reminder to me of how sometimes things don't go as planned.  I wish it hadn't taken him so long to exit this life, and he'll remind me how I'm responsible for that, too.

November 3-4th, 2006: Opening Day of Early Black Powder Season

The Hope That Springs Eternal Within The Hunter's Breast was disappointed (again) last weekend.  Unlike a friend of mine who seems to have found the magic button this season, things just keep going the same old way for me.

Saturday was the opening day of the early BP season east of the Blue ridge (opens here next week) so at 2:15 AM on Friday I fired up the F-250 and headed north on I-81 to Amherst VA to Three Oaks Farm.  I have killed about 5 deer there in the past few years, always in the early BP season.  It is also Squirrel Central: the "farm" is about 40 acres, almost all of it covered in white oaks, the rest in red oaks and a few pines.  It's alive with squirrels, and as you might think it has a bunch of deer on it, too.  The pre-rut chasing season is on, and things are heating up.

I had decided to use my “new” .58 caliber Navy Arms Hawken, one made by Ithaca in the early 70’s, that I bought this year from an auction site in pristine condition for a song.  I'm beginning to think that there's a jinx on new guns: upon reflection I realize that never make a kill with a new gun until the second or third season with it!  I can think of only one exception to this phenomenon in my life.

In any event, Friday was a bow hunting day.  I had brought my crossbow along, and at 6:10 AM I was out at “my rock,” a place on the farm where I’ve killed four of those five deer.  Although I did them all with a BP rifle, all of them were well within crossbow range in those dense woods, so if one came by, I could stick him.

Unfortunately, the deer didn't cooperate.  Nary an animal did I see that morning except a buck chasing two does about 300 yards away.  It was damned cold in Amherst: about 25 degrees on Friday morning, with a heavy frost.  I had to come in for a nap and a warm-up about 9:00, since I’d been up so long.  But I went back out that afternoon, and still nobody came calling.  My usual luck bow hunting.  My partner Rick said he'd had a six-pointer come up within 20 yards of him, but couldn't get a shot before the deer moved off.  He also said that I'd kicked one out between my stand and his when I went in.  Maybe: I never saw nor heard one that morning.

I think I may have to re-think the whole question of the bow.  It too seems to be jinxed.  I’ve bow hunted for at least a decade, and have used that Excalibur Vixen crossbow for about five years and the only thing I’ve killed with it has been a squirrel.  Not really a good return on my rather sizable investment in that gear.

I knocked off the bow hunting at 4:30 PM, not wanting to take the chance of having to track a deer in the dark.  I'd brought my squirrel gun along, because a colleague wants to do some anatomical studies on grey squirrels, and had asked me to shoot some for her.  I was happy to oblige so I spent the last part of the day doing that on the front porch of the main house.

Saturday I ditched the bow, and loaded the .58, went back out to the rock.  This time I didn't see any deer again, so after a brief warm-up at 9:00 I went back out at 10:00 to a different spot, about where Rick had seen the buck.  As I was walking in, Wayne, another member of the group, was dragging out a doe the size of my Border Collie.  Wayne claimed this deer was a lactating mother, and that she'd "...had another one with her, half her size."  I found this hard to accept, the deer couldn't have weighed even 75 pounds alive.  I don't know why he was dragging it, he could have put it in his pocket.  He'd shot her with a Remington in-line using saboted rounds, and had made two holes in her big enough to put your fist into, but apparently she was still kicking, so he fired a third shot!  I later saw the carcass, and you couldn't have told the damage from what would have been caused by a .30-06.  My big-bore BP rifles do very little damage, but obviously the sabot rounds are something else again.

I left Wayne to drag his kill up to the house, and went into the woods.  This time I did see deer, sort of.  A buck chasing a doe flashed past maybe 50 feet behind me, pounding their hooves like Percherons, and moving about 40 miles per hour.  They shot by like a pair of race cars, and by the time I had turned around to look, they were already headed over the curve of the hill and out of sight.

I gave up on that spot, and went to another location overlooking the creek, with a large cornfield on the other side.  This is traditionally a hot spot, and Wayne (whose claims may perhaps be discounted a bit) says he has a "..90% success rate" in that spot.  Maybe so: Wayne isn't known for being picky about the shots he takes, and Hail-Mary efforts are par for the course with him.  Sometimes he gets lucky and makes those 200-yard shots with his muzzle-loader, and sometimes he doesn't.  I expect I only hear about the lucky shots.

By that time it was about 2:00 PM.  I set up on a ridge over the creek, maybe 50 yards from the edge of the field.  The field itself is about 100-150 yards wide, and there's a steep wooded hill on the other side, maybe 250 yards from where I was sitting. 

Wayne was right about it being a hot spot.  Sure enough, at 3:55 two big does came out of the woods on the far side, and began mooching around the field.  I sat and watched them for 45 minutes,  willing them as hard as I could to just come in to the middle of the field, which would put them barely within range.  From time to time I thought about sneaking down the hill to the creek, and popping one from the cover of the bank cut; but the carpet of oak leaves was as dry as potato chips and I couldn't move without making a racket.  Once or twice I experimentally shifted a foot, scuffing some of the leaves to see what would happen.  Immediately the larger of the two does, an old wise lady with a Roman nose, immediately popped her head up and looked in my direction.  No way she could see me: I was doing my stump imitation and I couldn't even see myself.  Nor was she able to smell me, the wind was in my face.  She wasn't alarmed, but she didn't get to be big and old by being stupid, and clearly whenever she had learned that whenever she heard a noise she should look for whatever made it.  Satisfied that she was in no danger, she’d put her snout back into the forbs and keep feeding, occasionally popping up her head for a quick look-around, but not really worried.

Those two matronly does cruised the field for better than half an hour, nibbling here and there but never coming close enough for me to dare a shot. They kept hovering about 125-150 yards out.  Wayne would have taken the shot, I have no doubt; but not me.  I was using a round ball gun, and even though I was pretty sure I could hit one, I wasn't sure I could hit one where I wanted to, and the last thing I wanted to do was gut-shoot one and have to track it.  So I sat there, frustrated, and watched helplessly as eventually they slipped back into the woods and off to some other business.  With my .30-06 either or both of those does would have been an easy shot, but not with that Hawken.

Part of it was the moon.  It's full this week, and was bright and shining all of both Thursday and Friday nights.  Whenever this happens, it's a sure thing the deer will be up all night, and bed up around 4:00 AM, long before I'm in the woods.  Also, I'd seen a bunch of deer when I rolled into the driveway at 4:15.  That's always a bad sign:  they're on their way home from a night of carousing.  What with hangovers and the after-effects of the wild sex parties they hold this time of year, they don't get up until about 2:00 PM the next day.

The squirrels are rutting, too.  I watched a lot of chasing, and a few serious episodes of squirrel porn whenever one of the gals allowed herself to be caught.  The females squeak loudly when getting bred.  I don't know if this is from pleasure or pain.  One hopes the former.  But every time one of the males mounted, the female would go "Squeak-squeak-squeak," like a little furry Jenna Jameson. 

So, things are still slow but I'm hoping will heat up later this season.  Rick's truck blew a brake line and we left it at the farm, which gives me a good excuse to go back and try again.  I'll tell She Who Must Be Obeyed that I have to drive him up there.  Maybe I'll play hooky again this Friday.

January 8, 2007: SKUNKED!

The 2006 deer season is over and for the first time since 1992 I am deer-less.

Part of it was bad luck, the sort of thing you expect to have now and then: a deer coming in when it's too dark to see the rifle, let alone the sights; a deer spotting me from 50 yards away before I spotted it. 

Part of it was due to losing one of my major hunting grounds last year to a sale.  Revalry Farm was small, but one of the most reliable spots I ever knew, a close to a guaranteed kill as it gets in this business.  I'd killed at least 10 deer out there in 12 years, but then it got to be too much for the owners, so they sold out last year. This season I couldn't hunt it any more.  Worse, Spruce Run Farm has been leased up next year, so I'm going to lose another pretty reliable location.

Much of it was the weather.  Late Fall and early Winter were like south.  On the last day of the late BP season, the temperature was in the 60's, in January...and the deer of course are all in their winter coats, disinclined to get overheated by prowling around aimlessly in the heat. I can't remember a day this season, from first to last, that wasn't much warmer than usual.  Last year I shot a doe on December 16th in the snow; this year I could have gone water-skiing in the puddles left by the heavy rains. Part of it was this year's very large acorn crop, which meant they didn't have to forage far and wide. 

Some of it is surely my own fault, though one of the head-banging things about this hunting business is that you never know when you're doing it wrong, or what you did wrong; you know why things go well, but not why they don't.  Certainly I made my usual share of dumb mistakes, but having averaged two deer per season for the past 14 years I like to think I'm not entirely incompetent.  Maybe I read the wind wrong now and then, maybe I made an incautious movement when I shouldn't have, maybe I blundered on my way into a stand once or twice; I'll never know. 

But adding clumsiness together with the other factors, the stark fact is that I didn't connect.  Oh, I saw deer: and when I did they were either way out of range, or exempt from killing.  Spruce Run farm didn't get any damage permits this year, as it has in the past decade: I'd sit there and have a parade of does walking past 30 yards away, as untouchable as Vestal Virgins because it wasn't a "doe day."  When it was a doe day, they'd be off to Florida the night before and I'd see nothing, or they'd be three hundred yards away running flat out. 

Something else is going on.  I'm not the only person who's been skunked this year.  I've talked to local hunters and  they've had the same experiences.  I have to say that my general (and highly unscientific) impression is that this year there is far less animal activity of any kind than usual: squirrels and small birds, even.  They're usually around all the time, but this year I'd sit in spots where I normally see dozens and there were few to none.  Maybe the coyotes are having an effect.

Well, there is always next year.  I'll spend the lean months until fishing season opens cleaning gear, fiddling with guns, and doing the meaningless tasks that I always do, waiting for next year.  One thing about hunting: every day is a triumph of hope over experience.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. Ecclesiastes III:19