Bushytail Armageddon

Alabama’s Squirrel Masters Classic is a lesson in airgun hunting fun.

Bushytail Armageddon

With eight or 10 hunters scanning the trees, it’s tough for a squirrel to escape unless it has a good head start.

Every year in February, after deer season ends in Alabama, the woods around the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge are filled with raucous cries, hounds barking and a lot of laughter. 

Squirrels are the quarry. Call them tree rats, bushytails or whatever you prefer, but they’re plentiful in Alabama’s hardwoods. They flummox deer hunters in stands, who hear the skittering among leaves and think it’s a whitetail. Silly squirrels. But they’re a highly important part of our hunting heritage, and moreso to the future of hunting. That’s part of the theme of the annual Squirrel Masters Classic at Southern Sportsman each winter. 

Small-game hunting is where most of us cut our teeth. Remember those days of long ago (long, long ago for some of us). They involved perhaps a BB gun or air rifle, plinking cans and imagining giant flocks of waterfowl darkening the sky or a big deer bounding across a pasture. As we matured, and our mentors allowed, we upgraded to a .22 rifle or .410-bore or 20-gauge shotgun. We had more determination in mind to come back with a couple doves or quail, or a squirrel or rabbit. 

Today we enjoy more technology and improvements in our hunting tools and clothing. Consider the air rifle. The ones used in the Squirrel Masters Classic were Gamo’s Black 10 Maxxim. It’s a souped-up 10-pellet repeater with a crisp trigger, scope and Whisper Maxxim barrel. It’s quiet, and deadly on squirrels — incredibly fun to shoot and great for newbies learning about firearms safety.


Hunting Participation

Ask 10 hunters what they think about hunting participation in the United States and the result will resemble the pieces of a pie. Some will say there are more, others about the same, others will say numbers are declining. The pie might get split further, but those are the biggest slices. 

Those are all true statements, depending on where you live. Hunting might be on the rise in your state and on the decline in another. We could say that about hunting as an overall or break it into individual species. I remember as a kid hearing my father and his friends — they were in their 30s at the time — discussing how many more duck hunters there were on the public land they hunted. And I’m sure the older hunters said that about my father’s crew. Those reactions are nothing new. 

But for an overall view of the country, we can look at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey. The FWS conducts the survey every five years; the last one released was 2016, and the 2021 survey results should be out this summer. The numbers look at license sales and other criteria to determine hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, target shooting and archery participation in the United States. 

In 2016, the survey indicated that hunting participation dropped by about 2 million to 11.5 million hunters (from the previous survey). That coincided with a 29 percent decline in spending by hunters, to $25.6 billion from $36.3 billion. Target shooting with firearms, a new category in 2016, indicated about 32 million participants. Only 1.5 million indicated they hunted squirrels. About the same number hunted rabbits. Big game has overtaken small-game hunting from our great-grandfather’s era, thanks to great conservation and restoration efforts. Small-game habitat has been negatively impacted in myriad ways, too. 

Why do these small-game numbers matter? Because hunting starts with youngsters. And that involves getting them interested in safe shooting, archery, hunting, processing game and then enjoying it at the dinner table. It involves getting young hunters out in the woods and fields for fun, active, laughter-filled and successful hunts. That means small game, such as squirrels and rabbits, perhaps with a pack of raccoon hounds, or out for upland birds. Do they have to hit a squirrel in the ear with a .22-rifle right off the bat? Or drop a quail or grouse? Not necessarily. Being out learning, exploring, laughing, shooting and being safe … those all are the foundations. Success is necessary at some point, of course, but it starts with being active.


Shhhh, Be Quiet!

Thirty years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about Alabama’s then-commissioner of conservation. He related a tale about taking his teenage daughter deer hunting with him and being “that guy” who ruined the hunt. He said he constantly told her she needed to be quiet, that it would only be a little longer when she said she was bored — that she should snuggle in a little more when she said she was cold, that she’d scare the deer if she couldn’t wait to use the bathroom, and all that. 

The next time he asked her to tag along, she was the one who said no. She said it wasn’t fun and she was going with her friends. He was disappointed in himself because he realized that by constantly telling her no, don’t, we can’t, you can’t and so on, he had ruined the hunting experience. Lesson learned. 

I made the same terrible mistakes as a parent with my kids. When we went fishing, I wanted them to catch bluegills with me instead of me tossing the football. When I caught a fish, I wanted them to lip it so I could take a photo, despite my daughter crying. She wasn’t keen on doing that. When we went deer hunting, I said we needed to settle in and wait. My son finally said, “This is boring. This is what you do all day?” We still go fishing and hunting and shooting, but they’re not rock-solid diehards like me. I attribute that to me being dumb. Don’t be like me. 

Kids need action and success. They need a lot of bluegills and yanking vines for squirrels, and to hear hounds instead of, “Shhhh, be quiet.” They need to see soda cans and clay targets explode at the shooting range, instead of being told they must hold over X-amount and create an X-ring cloverleaf or it’s not a success. They’re kids. We must remember what it was like to be a kid and integrate that with our desires to teach them successfully and safely about hunting.

Bringing home a mess of squirrels is fun, but the object of the Squirrel Master Classic is camaraderie, safety and friendly competition — the rest is just icing on the cake.
Bringing home a mess of squirrels is fun, but the object of the Squirrel Master Classic is camaraderie, safety and friendly competition — the rest is just icing on the cake.

Squirrel Masters Classic Fun

At the Squirrel Masters Classic each year, teams compete for a carved, wooden trophy shaped like a squirrel. Everybody wants one. There’s no other trophy like it. I’ve hunted in the Classic four or five times, and I think every time I see the trophy I marvel at how oversized-goofy it looks. That’s just straight-up honesty. I also think about how badly I’d like to have one on the front seat of my truck as I drive home. Everyone thinks that way. They want the trophy. 

Teams are comprised of young 4-H students, dog handlers with their always-super hounds, usually an outdoors media representative and an outdoors industry celebrity or family. Southern Sportsman hosted the annual Buckmasters National Deer Classic for about 30 years, and Buckmasters founder Jackie Bushman figured a squirrel hunt with Gamo would be a great addition. Thus, the competition was born. 

The finger-wagging, joshing and “Y’all started early, y’all are cheating!” ribbing is all good-natured. But the teams are serious. Bushman has a team, as does Michael Waddell from Bone Collector. This year’s teams included the Holder family from Raised Hunting, Buck Commander and Airgun Web. More than 50 people participated this year, with teams scattering out on nearby land offered for the event. Landowners can participate, too, and lend assistance with the visitors who don’t know about a creek or hollow, or where the property lines are located. 

With the 10-shot Maxxim from Gamo, hunters can wail away at squirrels trying to timber or get to a hole. Having some extra pellet magazines loaded and in a pocket for easy reloads is a must. The pellets stay secure in the magazines, even in your pocket with all the walking and jostling. Getting the scope zeroed at the Southern Sportsman range is a must. I’ve seen some awesome long-range shots with the Maxxim, from hunters propped against a tree with a good sightline on a squirrel flattened on a limb. Whap! Who made that shot!?!? Wow! 

It’s fun. We shake saplings and yank on vines. Dogs bark and whine, clamber up a tree and look to the top. We get the kids up there, encouraging them to shoot and not be shy. Jump in the thick of it and don’t worry about missing. The hunt is a big ol’ mess of fun with good vittles and good people. The air rifles, dogs and squirrels are just icing on the cake.


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