Resembling busy elves, seven squirrels scampered back and forth on the dirt road bordered by a mixed-hardwoods swamp in the South Carolina Low Country. As they began feeding in the predawn glow, my friend Ron Wagner whispered, “We should let ’em settle down a bit before we give ’em the bad news. Brighter light will help us aim better, too.”
Ten minutes later Ron held the .22’s crosshairs on a squirrel sitting 45 yards away. I slowly tightened my fingers on the cable release to squeeze the trigger and the bushytail fell dead, prompting Ron and me to smile and say in unison, “Merry Christmas!”
Ron and I have become regular visitors at Bang’s Paradise Valley Hunting Club in Ehrhardt, South Carolina. Like some others, this state allows hunting over bait for deer (but not turkey or migratory birds such as doves and ducks). A regularly replenished supply of corn attracts deer and other critters including feral hogs, raccoons, songbirds and squirrels. While hunting deer in December 2008, we commented that many of the stand sites seemed overrun by swarms of grey squirrels.
“No wonder my corn bill is so darn high!” joked the lodge owner, Bang Collins. “Maybe you guys can help me by thinning out the rodent population.”
Ron prefers big-game pursuits, but he relished the challenge of helping me hit the small, tasty targets with my adaptive shooting gear. We were spending our Christmas vacation in South Carolina to hunt the final week of deer season, and Bang said it made perfect timing for a tree-rat roundup. He knew that squirrel hunting would “pollute” stand sites with excessive noise, activity and human scent, but he also knew the deer would then have seven peaceful months to forget the commotion before the next season opened in mid-August.
On Christmas Eve, Bang showed us a Winchester Model 290 semi-auto .22. “I bought this gun in 1961 with S&H Green Stamps, but the 4x scope is much newer,” he said. “I’d like you to use it on the squirrels tomorrow.”
Like excited kids, Ron and I awoke before the alarm rang the next morning even though we knew no surprises waited for us under the lodge’s Christmas tree. Our gift would be several hours shared in a pop-up blind, enjoying the outdoors in ways that only hunters understand. We reached the stand site just before daylight, opened the blind and set up my gear. I used a BE Adaptive LM100 support for the rifle, and Ron aimed for me. We both viewed the sight picture on my Trophy Shot camera/monitor, which can fit nearly any scope; I squeezed the trigger via a cable release (also made by BE Adaptive).
A short time after settling into the blind we toppled the first squirrel of the day. I wish I could say all our shots proved as deadly as the initial round, but after three hours we had burned 20 cartridges to nail five bushytails. While picking up the squirrels, Ron measured the distance of our longest successful shot at 91 paces!
THE SQUIRREL SLAYER
“Only five?” Bang sounded incredulous when we returned. He knew the spot we had hunted held dozens of squirrels. We told him about our poor shooting percentage and he said, “You’ve got to do better than that, and I know who can help us.”
He phoned a gunsmith friend and arranged to borrow an accurized Ruger 10/22 semi-auto topped with a BSA 6-18x scope. We returned to the same stand the next morning and the bushytails seemed no wiser. They showed up on time and in force for breakfast. As soon as we had shooting light, Ron trained the gun on one about 50 yards away and cranked the scope up to 14x. “How’s that?” he asked with a grin.
The optics brought that squirrel in so close we could read its mind. Although I’m not fluent in squirrelese, I believe it was thinking, “Look at all this corn!”
We dropped four squirrels with our first four shots, at ranges from 50 to 75 yards. At times we saw as many as eight out in the open. Their reactions to each crack of the rifle varied; sometimes they all dashed for cover and cautiously reappeared after 10 minutes of silence, other times they fed calmly and ignored the reports as we peeled off two or three rounds.
The morning’s tally totaled 10 squirrels and 15 spent cartridges, but we only collected nine bushytails because an opportunistic hawk swooped down to carry off one of the casualties. This act of thievery surprised us since we never heard of hawks picking up carrion, no matter how fresh.
THREE’S NO CROWD
That evening as we talked about our “rodent-control project” I noticed a youngster listening with wide-eyed attention. Nine-year-old Klay Elixson had come to Ehrhardt with his grandfather Rick Hires, another regular visitor at the lodge with whom we’d become good friends. I asked Rick, and when he gave his permission I invited Klay to join Ron and me for a squirrel safari.
The next dawn found the three of us anxiously waiting for some squirrels to appear. We didn’t have to wait long. We used the Ruger and my shooting equipment, which kept everyone involved in the hunt. Ron aimed while Klay and I took turns using the cable control to squeeze the trigger. Klay displayed fine hunting skills by keeping still, spotting bushytails and patiently waiting for high-percentage shots. The scope camera proved an excellent teaching tool as we followed squirrels on the monitor and discussed why different situations and angles made for good or bad shot selections.
Sharing our knowledge and watching a young hunter enjoy himself, Ron and I probably had more fun than Klay that morning. Time in the woods with an enthusiastic kid also showed me that despite having special needs, disabled hunters can and must take responsibility for helping pass on our outdoor heritage to the next generation.