Also on December 18th, I did not fire my rifle.
Also, I've never shot a squirrel.
How can all this be possible? It was an odd day.
So, to start out, I headed off to the woods after dropping my daughter at school. The day started off well, as I walked the border of the woods and the cornfield, I flushed a grouse that flew off over a small rise. I noted where it set down and excitedly clicked the selector on the hammer of my Savage 24D over to the shotgun and snuck over the rise. But as I did, questions began firing in my head.
I have a small game license, and grouse is small game. But I need a special tag for pheasant and waterfowl, and when I bought the license, I figured I wouldn't have a shot at any flying things, and now here was a grouse... not a waterfowl and not a pheasant... did my small game license cover those?
As I pondered that question, the grouse flushed from the tall weeds and started flying by at about twenty feet. I pulled back the hammer and drew a bead on the bird.
But as it flew by, that question nagged at me and froze my finger fast. I lowered the barrel and watched the bird fly off across the field.
As I'm teaching my kiddos to shoot, I'm making sure they fully understand the rules before they even get to handle a loaded gun.
Safety. Safety. Safety. One of those rules is this:
If you're unsure, don't take the shot.
Aim off? Don't shoot. Not a clear shot? Don't shoot. Uncomfortable with the distance? Don't shoot.
So when I was unsure of the legality of the shot, it only seemed natural to not shoot.
This particular WMA (Wilderness Management Area) is quite hilly, so the hiking was a little strenuous. I started seeing lots of signs of squirrels, but they seemed a little old. Maybe from the day before. Maybe a few days?
Tracks and digging. Sure signs of a squirrel!
Heck, I'm still learning to track. I've spent plenty of time outdoors, but never really cared to figure out which tracks are what and where they're coming and going. Now, in learning to hunt, I'm discovering that knowing how to track, even as a newbie, is a very important skill to learn and hone. You can sit in an area for a looooong time waiting for squirrels and rabbits to appear. But knowing when you're IN their area can save many frustrating hours!
I wandered deeper into the steep terrain and saw more and more signs of squirrel. This was either a place littered with them, or the home of a very busy little critter. I picked a spot to sit and wait, but after almost an hour, had seen no sign of anything.
Every time I've been out, there have always been plenty of woodpeckers. One of the benefits of spending time in the woods is seeing things that are kinda rare in town. Multiple species of woodpeckers has been one of the delightful finds.
I started walking again, and came across some familiar tracks...
There were adult tracks and kid tracks and they seemed pretty fresh. Maybe from the day before. The kid tracks were going up and down the steep hill as the adult tracks marched straight across. Like a puppy following an older dog, taking three times the steps and covering the same distance.
But then, the adult tracks started going back and forth at right angles to the kid, like they were making some huge checkerboard on the hill. It was quite confusing. So much so that as I was walking through one of their board spaces, I nearly stepped on the very thing they must have been searching for.
A little Gray Squirrel almost perfectly centered between the criss crossing human tracks. Judging from the eye cloudiness, it looked pretty fresh. They must have shot it near dark last night and had not been able to find it.I considered briefly just leaving it where it fell, but it seemed like a gift to someone learning to hunt. After all, without having to shoot anything, I now had a squirrel to put in to practice all of the things I've been reading about, or watching instructional videos about. How to skin. How to gut. How to quarter. I left a little offering of tobacco as I had seen my Lakota friends do, and said some prayers of thanks to the squirrel and the universe for my good fortune and found a nice fallen log a few hundred yards farther to rest on while I planned what to do with my "practice squirrel".
I thought about trying to skin it there, but it was a little frozen. In the end, I decided to just take it home. I'd let it warm up in the car on the way back, and try my hand at skinning and quartering when I got back.
I sat for a bit considering the adventure thus far. I think I'd need to be a bit more specific in what I put out into the universe as to what I want to achieve.
When I first started, I didn't expect hunting to be too easy. I figured I wouldn't be able to just walk through any woods and get the daily limit in an hour. But after a few outings of seeing nothing, I asked that I'd like to see SOMETHING.
And there were birds... all kinds of birds.
OK. Be more specific. I'd like to see a MAMMAL.
The next trip, there was the little dead mouse.
SO - How about not just any mammal, but an actual squirrel.
And here we are, sitting with a dead squirrel in hand.
Fine. I'D LIKE TO SEE A LIVING SQUIRREL OR RABBIT WHILE I'M HUNTING!!!
Even before I got the thought fully formed and decided upon, I caught sight of a bounding dark blur off to my right down the hill.
I looked closer, and there - in all its tiny, fuzzy glory - was a living, breathing, bounding Gray Squirrel. Hopping through the snow. Maybe twenty yards away.
My jaw dropped and I froze long enough for the animal to hop onto a tree directly in front of me. I raised my rifle and tried to sight it in.
It turns out that with a crossbow scope on a rifle, it is tough to get a quick sight picture. This has to do with many factors, not the least of which is how far your eye is from the first optic. Turns out, though the scope worked pretty well for target shooting, it took a bit more time to get a good lock on the target than the squirrel was willing to give me. By the time I started lining him up in the cross hairs, he flicked his tail and bolted around the tree 180 degrees. I peeked over the scope to see him giving me an even better shot on the other side of the tree. Again, I fiddled too long trying to get my eye lined up with the scope lined up with the squirrel, and as I started to squeeze the trigger, he flicked his tail again and shot up the tree and out of sight.
I waited and watched for twenty minutes.
I circled the tree - not an easy thing to do on the steep hill.
I tossed things to the opposite side and scanned every inch of the tree. But the squirrel had vanished. After an hour, my phone alarm rang letting me know it was time to head back to pick my daughter up from school.
Well. Another prayer answered. I had seen a LIVING squirrel while I was hunting.
I'd have to get even more specific for my next outing. But as long as I'm having fun out in the woods, I'll still consider every outing a good learning adventure.
When I got home, the Boyo was still at school and it was getting dark, but my daughter volunteered to join me in seeing what we could learn from the little dead squirrel I brought home.
I got my first solo skinning experience, and have to say, it wasn't hard either physically or mentally. As a former medic, I'm not too squeamish with blood and guts on people. But I am such an animal lover, I had wondered if I'd be able to take apart a critter. After all, my only experience up to now was handling meat from the store. Already pretty clinical and removed from the actual animal.
Turns out I was fine with starting "from scratch". As I was skinning it out, I wondered if my girl would get grossed out. But much to my delight, she was ok with it, too. As I cut into the bowels and started removing organs, I was telling her which parts were which and how remarkable that it was that humans had the same parts. She grew more and more curious until she asked to put on some gloves and handle the pieces herself.
We took apart the squirrel and found the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, diaphragm, intestines... we even opened up the stomach and found it full of chewed nuts. It was extremely educational and interesting for both of us!
We quartered it, although it had been shot through the front shoulder, so that meat was pretty much gone. I considered cooking up the hind quarters, as it seemed to smell alright. I kept the skin and brought the back legs in for further learning.
I cut meat off the bones, and while it didn't smell rotten, it also didn't smell like any other meat I usually handled. Beef, pork, chicken and turkey... I can tell by the smell if it's good or not. This smelled kinda like chicken... but also kinda not. Since I had no frame of reference for what squirrel should smell like, and had no idea how long it had been dead, I decided not to risk cooking it and having a bad experience. So everything but the skin was left outside for our local carnivores. Red Fox, coyotes, crows, all come to visit us. In the next couple days, we even saw one of our local deer munching on the skull. Yes, they are omnivorous.
Karen was thankful that I didn't choose to cook it up. She's still a little hesitant about squirrel and rabbit as it is. Best to have it be as fresh as possible!
As I reflected on the adventures of the day, I started to feel like God, or Wakan Tanka, or the Universe, or whatever karmic higher entity there is, is slowly working me up to my first kill. Letting me learn things slowly. Step by step. Tracking, stalking, patience... especially patience. Sitting still and quiet in the woods and letting things happen. It occurs to me that hunting is a mix of skill, luck, and continuous learning. You can be the best hunter in the world, and yet it still takes some luck to be in a the right place at the right time to intersect with an animal. That skill part comes in handy when you can increase your odds, but still.
I think I need a scope designed for a .22. Other than that, I'm anxious to see what comes next in this adventure.