The stark, leafless hardwoods that crown a ridge just north of Forest Service Road 144 in the Kentucky portion of the Land Between the Lakes have splintered the midday sun into a jagged patchwork of toothpick-like shadows across the forest floor.
Slightly downhill and just beyond the range of the .32-caliber muzzleloading rifle I’m cradling, a gray squirrel scurries and then stops near the base of a weathered oak. I bring the antique-model firearm to my shoulder and then lower it. It feels like a toy, lacking the heft and size of the .50-caliber flintlock muzzleloader I sometimes use for deer. It’s not a toy or an antique, but a replica that’s “authentic in look and feel,” according to Connecticut-based Traditions Firearms. The company is one of the few that makes small-caliber, sidelock, black-powder rifles, including the “Crockett” model I’m holding—named in honor of Davy Crockett, the famous Tennessee frontiersman, folk hero, three-term congressman, Alamo defender and, I assume, squirrel hunter.
The little gun is a pleasure to shoot and surprisingly accurate, within limits. I bring it back to my shoulder and find the target in the iron sights. Too far.
I can feel the heft of one plump, young gray squirrel in my game pouch. I’d like to bag another to fill out a planned meal of fried squirrel and buttermilk gravy, creamed potatoes and biscuits.
The woods are cold, the temperature barely above freezing. But there is no wind. By contrast, the splashes of sunshine are surprisingly warm, a reminder that winter sun is a precious commodity. February can be harsh and unforgiving except on those rare days when it unveils its kinder side. It is a dazzling day to be in the woods.
I am hunting alone. Deer and ducks are done, their generous seasons having closed in January. Squirrel and grouse remain available, their long seasons extending to the final day of February. But this is of little interest, really, as most hunters are finished for the season, having already gained what they sought from the woods, be it wild game, solitude or something else.
The squirrel woods used to be the place where young hunters honed their woodsmanship skills, which are not unrelated to life skills: Patience. Listening. Watching. Being careful. Knowing when to act and when to wait. Making good when an opportunity presents itself. This still may be the case, but I doubt it, given the availability and popularity of whitetail deer hunting and the flood of photos featuring elementary- and middle-school-age hunters with their first deer that swamp social media sites and fill my office email inbox every fall. There’s nothing wrong with launching a hunting career from a deer stand, but to miss out on the skills acquired and lessons learned in the squirrel woods is to lessen the foundation.
Non-hunters might be surprised to learn that hardwood winter squirrels are not as social as the ones that prowl city parks, suburban neighborhoods and college campuses and have learned to associate with (and tolerate) humans in exchange for an easy meal. The woodland critters are skittish and cautious but, like their park-roaming cousins, also curious creatures.
It might also come as a surprise to learn that squirrels bark. Not like a dog, of course, but more like a growly squeak. Whether this is social chatter or a warning shout I do not know. Game calls are now available that imitate a “squirrel bark.” The one in my pocket resembles a small bellow. Shaking or squeezing it produces the sound. I’ve never gotten a squirrel to respond to a call, but I know they will. Several years ago I was hunting with famed Kentucky outdoorsman Harold Knight. Squirrels were scarce, or so I thought until Harold gave me a lesson in woodsmanship. He hopped on a stump, cupped his right hand to the side of his mouth and chattered in squirrel talk punctuated by the squeaky bark. Squirrels answered in kind. Until that moment I thought my father was the only person who could work that kind of outdoor magic.
The gray squirrel that might complete my meal springs from the base of the oak, dashes in my direction, and then stops, jumps, stops again, lurches forward, and then scurries onto the trunk of a lamppost-size tree in that spastic, now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t way that squirrels have of moving through stark, open woods. I cap the rifle, lock the hammer, aim, squeeze the set trigger, and then touch the front trigger. Two will be enough.