One day a couple of years ago, Jackie Bushman and Michael Waddell were sitting around reminiscing about how much fun they had as kids learning how to squirrel hunt. Back in the day it was grab a pellet gun, hit the woods and hone your hunting skills on those wary bushytails. No one squirrel hunts anymore, they lamented. Now you put your 9-year-old in a deer blind and expect her to sit still all day and shoot a deer at dusk. You skip all the woodsmanship stuff and jump right into big game. Wouldn’t it be great, one of them said to the other, to just get together with some friends and hunt squirrels again, like we did when we were kids?
And thus the Squirrel Master Classic was born. Bone Collector and BuckMasters got Gamo USA on board to supply the airguns, and they created an event that brings together hunting personalities, media members and champion squirrel dogs in a single-day, winner-take-all squirrel hunting competition. They brought 4-H on board to help promote the importance of small game hunting to the younger generation, and gathered us all together at Southern Sportsman lodge in Alabama’s famed Black Belt. Anytime I can hunt in this game-rich region of my state, I jump at the chance.
The second annual Squirrel Master Classic kicked off Wednesday night, as I was assigned to Team Hard Core Hunting TV with hosts Kevin Meacham, Keith Burgess, Chris Ashley and Cody Kelley, along with 16-year-old Phillip Saylor from 4-H, AirgunWeb editor Rick Eutsler, and dog handler Butch Morton. We didn’t know it yet, but Phillip and Butch’s dog Moe would turn out to be the MVPs of Team Hard Core!
The other teams were headed up by Michael Waddell, T-Bone Turner, Jackie Bushman, MRA Hunting’s Shawn Michaels and World Champion shooter Doug Koenig. As the rookie team, Team Hard Core had our work cut out for us.
There was a lot of pride at stake in the room, and the smack talk flowed freely as Jackie spelled out the rules: Each team would weigh in their squirrels after each hunt (morning and evening). Highest squirrel count won, with total weight being the tie-breaker. Fox squirrels counted double, but only one was allowed per team.
When he announced the last and most important rule — no sandbagging and no cheating — allegations began to emerge as illegal contraband surfaced. Lead-Belly Squirrel Feed weights were found in T-Bone’s suitcase. A Squirrel-A-Flater air pump was discovered in Shawn Michaels’ room. And a case of ready-to-use Frozen Squirrels was confiscated from Waddell’s possession. The crowd worked itself into a frenzy as good-natured accusations flew.
Eventually we settled down, split into our teams and discussed strategy (our brilliant plan: everybody shoot until the squirrel is down) before turning in for the night.
Dawn broke on the coldest day of the year as we finished up breakfast. Team Hard Core loaded into two trucks and followed guide and lodge owner Jim to a promising-looking stretch of hardwoods. Most of us were armed with Gamo Whisper G2s, a break-action single-shot air rifle shooting lead-free .22-caliber pellets. The guns proved themselves accurate and easy to shoot over the course of the day — and I'd forgotten how nice it is to go hunting without needing hearing protection! One member of the team carried the brand-new Gamo Coyote PCP .22 Cal., Gamo’s precharged pneumatic gun. It’s both beautiful and easy to shoot, with zero recoil and no need to cock the gun between shots.By nature, this makes it a little more accurate and gives it a little more oomph than the G2. We designated it our “long range” gun if a long shot was called for.
It was frigid, with temperatures barely breaking into double digits. Butch turned out Moe, a champion feist, and before we knew it he had his paws on a tree barking up a storm about 100 yards away. We were off, racing through the woods to catch up with Moe before the squirrel got away.
A few shots later (who’s counting?), we had our first gray squirrel of the morning. It was early, and we were pumped to have gotten on the board already, considering the cold conditions.
We hit two or three other patches of woods over the next four hours. The squirrels were holding pretty tight in the cold weather, but we managed to kill every squirrel we laid eyes on, with the exception of one fast gray who fell mostly dead from a tree, but had just enough strength left in him to dart down a creek bank and disappear into a hole, never to be found.
On the second-to-last spot of the morning, we pulled out a fresh dog, a smaller feist named Mexico, who led us crashing down a steep hill to a large tree. When the squirrel leaped from one branch to the next tree over, we hollered in unison: “Fox squirrel!…There’s two of them!” The coveted heavy fox squirrels did the old round-and-round-the-tree routine for a minute, but we eventually dropped one and decided to let the other one go. With a contest limit of one fox squirrel for the day, there was no sense shooting a second one.
Back at the lodge for the 11:30 weigh-in, we were feeling pretty good about our four gray squirrels and one fox squirrel, and for good reason — we had the highest squirrel count of all the teams until Team Bone Collector 1 pulled up (late) and weighed in 10 gray squirrels. That was going to be hard to beat.
After we filled up on pulled-pork barbeque and peach cobbler, we bundled back up and hit the woods. Moe was back in action, roaming the woods and running us all over creation and back again.
It was still bitterly cold (for Alabama), and the squirrels were denned up and reluctant to move. It made for a difficult hunt, with lots of ground covered and only a few squirrel sightings to show for it. Once again, we shot every squirrel we laid eyes on, but only managed to bring in four squirrels. That was just enough to tie Bone Collector 1’s morning total. Our only hope now, and it wasn’t much of one, was that they’d had a terrible afternoon and hadn’t killed anything.
It was dark by the time the crowd gathered for the final weigh-in. Doug’s team weighed in first. They’d gotten skunked in the morning but managed to shoot quite a few squirrels in the afternoon — not enough to be in contention for the title, though. Shawn Michaels weighed in next, submitting a couple of grays and a second fox squirrel — a clear violation of the rules. We weighed in and tied Shawn’s total, but his fox squirrel violation bumped him from contention. Bone Collector 2, led by T-Bone, had a tough day and only submitted five squirrels total.
Hard Core still held out hope that Waddell had gotten skunked, but it was not to be. Bone Collector 1 pulled five squirrels out of their vests, crushing our hopes for victory and pulling into the lead. Jackie Bushman and Team BuckMasters put up a solid effort with nine squirrels for the afternoon for a total of 13 for the day, but it wasn’t enough to catch up. Waddell had won it.
Michael and fellow Bone Collector Nick Mundt hoisted 4-H shooter Sarah Phillips onto their shoulders for a victory lap around the range with their team members — Realtree.com’s Stephanie Mallory, Gamo’s Fedor Palacios and dog handler Danny Williams. The rest of us, agonized by the sting of defeat, congratulated the victors and retreated to the dining room to drown our sorrows in pork chops and fried okra.
Bellies full and toes finally warmed, we sat down for the awards ceremony and whole-heartedly applauded Gracie and Hope, Danny’s two squirrel dogs. They graciously allowed him to accept a plaque and trophy on their behalf.
As Team Bone Collector 1 gathered at the front of the room to collect the coveted carved wooden squirrel trophies and hoisted them over their heads with glee, I couldn’t help but chuckle and think about my 10-year-old daughter at home, and how she was going to give me a hard time for not bringing that trophy home for our mantel.
And then I thought about how much fun she would have next week when I took her out in the woods with that new Gamo Whisper G2.