There is something indescribably pure about squirrel hunting. Deer hunting can bring derangement and dishonesty, but squirrel hunting offers less latitude for feuds and exaggeration.
Then again, I have a cousin who bucks the trend. Countless afternoons, after we’d hit the woods and meet back at the truck, he would wait till everyone lined their squirrels on the tailgate and then announce, “I got five,” and plunk down a meager two squirrels.
“What? Looks like two,” I’d point out.
“Noooo. Three slipped out of my coat while I was coming up a gully.”
“Noooo. Three got hung up in high branches.”
“Noooo. Three fell outta the hole in my game bag.”
“Noooo. Three were covered in wools and too nasty to clean.”
“Noooo. Three of’em were blasted to Hades so I left’em in the woods.”
OK, I’d like to walk back the comment about “latitude,” but there is still something special about squirrel hunting; an enduring element entirely unrelated to trophies and glory.
I have spent many fine fall hunts with who I consider the world’s greatest squirrel hunter — Jimmy Yates, Helena, Ark. Let me make a blanket statement: Not a single time did I ever hunt with Jimmy when I spotted a treed squirrel before him. Never.
For a few years we lived a mile apart, right on the edge of the St. Francis National Forest. All we had to do was walk across Jimmy’s backyard and disappear into the woods — a squirrel hunting dream.
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At the time, Jimmy had a rat terrier named Buck that was a phenomenal squirrel dog. She loved Jimmy and harbored a burning hatred of squirrels. He’d tell her to hit the woods and she’d take off whimpering with the pain of anticipation, and invariably have a squirrel treed within a few minutes. If she didn’t tree, you could be sure the squirrels weren’t moving; it was that simple. Between Jimmy’s shooting and Buck’s nose — my freezer was stocked without fail.
Hunting produces timeless moments — and squirreling hunting is no different.
There is a particular squirrel hunting afternoon with Jimmy stamped on my memory: It was a cold December day, not bitter, but chilly enough for a couple of layers and a vest. Buck was stove up from running the day before and Jimmy wouldn’t let her come with us. We rode a 4-wheeler a couple of miles into the woods, parked it, and started walking a trail, heading to a general sweet spot. Jimmy, who loved dipping even more than hunting squirrels, pulled out a can of cherry Skoal and stuffed what looked like half the container behind his lip.
The aroma hit me hard: “Dang Jimmy, that smells good.” He extended his arm and dangled the container in front of me. I got the dry-mouth as images flashed across my brain from the last time I’d tried tobacco: 15 years earlier.
My grandfather was a loose leaf devotee — I’m talking a true disciple of Levi Garrett. When I turned 12, we shared a pouch of Levi Garrett on a porch swing — a real Norman Rockwell moment. Problem was, he never told me not to swallow the juice until 10 minutes into the lesson. With my throat on fire, I left my grandfather on the swing and went to the barbershop with my older brother, who was entirely unaware of my new habit. While he was in the barber chair (getting some ghastly 1980s haircut), I vomited on the couch — it was an unreal amount and looked like someone had knocked over a stockpot full of soup. Then I bolted for the door and staggered off down the road, leaving my brother to deal with the outraged barber.
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Anyhow, enough with the barbershop confessional; back to the hunt. With Jimmy’s can of cherry Skoal beckoning to me, I ignored all the stop signs, and tucked away a dime-size pinch. I may as well have shoved a time bomb in my mouth.
Further into the woods we went, listening and looking for squirrels, waiting for any sign of movement.
And then it began. Something happened in my body that was beyond flesh-and-blood. Cherry Skoal turned every fiber of my being inside out. I spit the Skoal out, dropped to the ground and lay there spread-eagle on my back — muttering, gasping and moaning — while cold sweat poured out in waves. Jimmy was stunned and looked at me like I’d suddenly parachuted out of the sky. He just stood there gaping and watching the freak show. “Green. You’re turning green. Green,” he finally uttered in total disbelief, followed by a chain of expletives.
“Jimeeeeee. Jimeeeeee,” I whispered. “Get the 4-wheeler. Hurrreeeeee.”
And he was gone.
I knew the 4-wheeler was a little over a mile away and I figured Jimmy would be back in about 15 minutes.
So it was odd when after only 10 minutes, I heard two shots. Then another 10 minutes and another shot. Then another 10 minutes and a couple more shots. But I just thought some claim-jumper was hunting nearby.
Well over 45 minutes had gone by when I finally heard the engine. Jimmy pulled up beside me and helped me off the ground. My limbs were jelly, but at least the stupor was gone. I crawled across the 4-wheeler, and was shocked to see four squirrels neatly lined up across the back end. “That was you shooting? You kept hunting while I was dying back here?”
“Hey, they started moving while I was walking back,” said Jimmy with a satisfied grin.
I tip my hat to Jimmy Yates — the world’s greatest squirrel hunter. He did leave me for dead after poisoning me with cherry Skoal — but he brought back four squirrels and they ended up in my freezer.