My first memories of chasing squirrels were with my dad. I can remember that nice sunny afternoon in northwest Indiana, when we started down the gravel trail through the towering hardwood forest.
Of course, everything was bigger to me back then. At four years old, fallen tree trunks across the trail were major obstacles. They slowed my forward progress as my father stealthily pushed on ahead. I’m sure he was trying to put some distance between himself and his leaf-crunching child, but after I was left to navigate the fourth or fifth log jam on my own, I grew bored of being told to be quiet.
In true 4-year-old fashion, I thought it was time for a game. I picked up a rock from the path, and as my dad crept ahead, I threw it as hard as I could into the woods. The rock hit the dry, noisy leaves and rolled downhill. My father instantly snapped to attention in that direction, eagerly searching with eyes and ears to find the source of the sound. I giggled as I watched the seriousness in his stance — legs slightly bent, shotgun half raised. After a few minutes, not detecting any sign of game, he pressed on. I found a suitable stick and threw it into the woods next. Again, my father halted to stare into the forest for a clue. I did this half a dozen more times that afternoon, spacing out the intervals as to not let on to my ruse, giggling harder each time. I know it might be hard to believe, but we didn’t get any squirrels that afternoon. But I did have fun.
Family and work took up the majority of my father’s time and it would be seven years later and 650 miles south before we went squirrel hunting again. We moved south of Birmingham, Alabama, and unlike the small woodlots and treelines of the Midwest, the immense forests of the South were calling to my father’s small-game spirit. I was 11 and carried a .410 shotgun. From that first cold dawn in the hills of Oakmulgee Wildlife Management Area in west-central Alabama, squirrel hunting sparked the hunting spirit inside of me.
Fast forward 26 years, I have a family of my own, I’ve carried my own small son through the forest, constantly shushing him in hopes of seeing something, anything. Somewhere in those 26 years I’ve swapped the simple times of mostly squirrel hunting to chasing deer, turkey, hogs and an assortment of other big game. However, last February I was invited, along with my co-worker Derrick Nawrocki, to participate in the 5th Annual Squirrel Master Classic.
The GAMO Swarm Maxxim air rifle has a 10-shot magazine that gives shooters more opportunity to shoot without having to reload individual pellets. (Photo: Mark Olis)
The Squirrel Master Classic
The Squirrel Master Classic is a fun-filled hunting competition between some of the top outdoor TV hunting personalities, such as Michael Waddell, Buckmasters’ Jackie Bushman, competitive shooting legend Doug Koenig and many more. Nawrocki and I were invited as outdoor media professionals.
Each gray squirrel is worth one point and each fox squirrel is worth two points. However, you could only count two fox squirrels towards your total.
Not only is this a fun event that shows a different side of hunting than chasing monster whitetails and elk or thundering gobblers in the spring, it gets us back to our hunting roots. It also helps introduce young folks to the dying art of small game hunting. Each team would also have an Alabama 4-H student join their ranks. And to top it all off, every participant would be given an airgun for the hunt. That’s right, no shotguns, no .22LR, just a good-old fashioned airgun. Well, almost.
The GAMO Swarm Maxxim
air rifle isn’t your normal airgun. This is a precision air rifle chambered in .22 caliber and topped with a 3-9×40 airgun scope. The Swarm launches a .22 caliber pellet at 975 fps, which is deadly on squirrels.
We shot GAMO Red Fire pellets
with a diamond-shaped polymer tip. This pellet is designed for consistent accuracy and extreme penetration, while mushrooming to a larger diameter upon impact.
Head-shot squirrels were dead on impact. Body-shot squirrels in the vitals were also quick kills. Body shots outside of the vitals typically required a finishing shot, which was extremely easy to accomplish because the Swarm is the only 10-shot break-barrel airgun on the market. It comes equipped with a detachable 10-round magazine that loads into the top of the back end of the barrel.
The Swarm requires only one cock of the barrel to load the next pellet in the magazine and pressurize it for the next shot. Without the quick follow-up reloads, we wouldn’t have been able to kill as many squirrels as we did.
Doug Koening was our team leader and is one heck of a nice guy. He also has won more than 70 national and world championship shooting competitions.
Gunther, a treeing feist, put hunters on the spot with his accurate treeing and keen eyesight watching squirrels in the treetops. (Photo: Mark Olis)
Other Team Koenig members included Patrick Meitin, an outdoor writer from Idaho; Frank Melloni, a firearms instructor in New York and Pennsylvania; Ken Byers of Byers Media; Silas Frick, a 4-H student from Opelika, Alabama; Kyle Harrell (our local guide) and his 5-year-old son Kyle Jr.; and Victor Bridges and Dallas Middleton of Missouri, the team’s dog handlers. Bridges is the owner of Gunther, a treeing feist that would come in very handy in the second half of our hunt.
We competed against teams Realtree, Bone Collector, Buck Commander, Buckmasters and Archer’s Choice. Each team had a landowner or guide hunting with them to navigate the properties we’d be hunting and a dog handler with a trained squirrel dog.
All teams would leave base camp, which was located at the wonderful Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge in Hayneville, Alabama, at dawn and return at 11 a.m. After a shooting competition and lunch, teams would head back out to hunt until dark and then return to the lodge by 6 p.m.
I headed out with Team Koenig to a nearby property with steep rolling hills and hardwood creek bottoms. We entered the woods before sunrise on a beautiful spring morning with temperatures in the upper 60s at daylight.
We spread out on both sides of the creek and began to move through the hardwoods. An hour in and we still hadn’t seen a squirrel. That’s when Middleton began shaking vines that lead up to squirrels’ nests. His early attempts didn’t produce, but it got the rest of our group in on the vine-shaking action. As we entered the edge of a food plot, I saw a series of vines reaching way up into a white oak with a large squirrel nest in it.
I grabbed the main vine and began shaking — immediately a gray squirrel rocketed out of the nest and scampered to the top of the tree. I yelled, “Squirrel!” Everyone surrounded the tree with pellet rifles raised. Then the air guns started singing! The quiet shots continued until a solid thud resonated from the top of the tree. Soon after, a gray squirrel came tumbling out and Gunther was more than happy to grab it up and hand it over.
Now that we had a plan in place, we moved throughout the entire drainage shaking vines until a squirrel would hop out of a nest. Our team would surround the tree and typically drop the squirrel after several shots. What started as a slow morning ended up yielding 11 squirrels by the time we had to head back to the lodge for lunch.
Late winter can be warm sometimes in Alabama, which is fine for hunters in the Squirrel Master Classic. (Photo: Mark Olis)
While we had 11 points on the board from the morning hunt, there was opportunity to add to the score via two shooting competitions. The first shoot would pit the 4-H students against one another using the GAMO Swarm rifles. Targets consisted of balloons, clay targets and pressurized water bottles. Silas Frick competed hard for our team and earned us one additional point during the competition.
Team captains went next with another team member. Koenig chose me for our shoot, in which we were using Red Ryder BB guns. Koenig and I talked over our course of fire beforehand — he is a world champion shooter after all. There were several types of targets arranged in front of us: balloons, clay targets and can poppers — all of which were worth one point each. The balloons were the largest targets, so Koenig and I chose to work those over first and then move on to the smaller clays. We were given 30 seconds and at the shout of “start,” we began working over the first rack of balloons. We quickly moved on to the second rack of balloons. When we were down to three left, I moved on to the clays and let Koenig finish the balloons. I took out one clay before time expired.
We felt pretty good about our effort, which was enough to win the Red Ryder shootout. That added four more points to our total, which, combined with Frick’s extra point, brought our total to 16 points in the squirrel hunt. Feeling good with those numbers, we checked our airguns for zero before setting out for the afternoon hunt.
Harrell drove us to a cattle and fish farm with beautiful rolling pastures and a huge lowland section of hardwoods in the middle. He said he sees a lot of fox squirrels in this area, so our expectations were high. We quickly grabbed our gear and headed into the woods with Gunther refreshed and leading the way.
We spread out into the woods with Byers, Middleton and I working the inside edge of the woods along the pasture. Middleton signaled to a squirrel nest ahead with a vine growing up to it. I nodded my head that I would cover the tree as he shook the nest. With one shake a huge black fox squirrel sprung into the top of the tree. “Squirrel!” Before the rest of the crew could arrive on scene I had a perfect head shot and I squeezed the trigger. At the crack of the shot, the large fox squirrel plummeted from the treetop. Two points! I’ve killed fox squirrels in the past, and even have one mounted on a piece of driftwood. However, I’d never killed a black one like this. It was beautiful, and Harrell asked if he could keep it to have his taxidermist mount it. I happily agreed.
A few minutes later we kicked up another fox squirrel and dropped it. We had reached our limit of fox squirrels in 15 minutes and shifted our focus back to gray squirrels. However, the next two squirrels we scrounged up were fox squirrels. They seemed to hug the edge of open pastures and wood lines, so we decided to head deeper into the hardwood bottom where we felt the more skittish gray squirrels would be. This proved to be the right tactic and we started kicking up gray squirrels from the vine-encroached nests.
We continued to slowly pick up squirrels throughout the afternoon and as 3:30 rolled around, they were finally coming down out of the trees to scrounge for food. This worked in our favor and our buddy Gunther was finally starting to pick up the scent. It wasn’t long before he was barking at the base of a huge oak. He had two squirrels treed. We knocked those out and moved on to the next tree where he was sounding the alarm. We picked up another squirrel there and a few more after that. As we worked our way back toward the truck, Harrell suggested we go and give the section of woods where we got the fox squirrels one last try before heading back to the lodge for check-in.
We only had 20 minutes until we had to load up and head back, so we hustled into the woods in search of a few more squirrels. Gunther immediately barked at the base of a tree and what we thought was one squirrel turned out to be three. As the team had done all day long, we made great shots and collected our prizes. Gunther was a treeing machine. We walked back to the truck in the fading light with a total of eight squirrels taken in those last 20 minutes. We ended up with 17 squirrels from our afternoon hunt, two of which were fox squirrels, and a total of 19 points. Combined with our morning total and our five points from the shootout, we were sitting tall with 35 points.
Back at check-in, teams were hush-hush on how they did. We all wanted to walk home with the squirrel trophy. As the first couple teams checked-in, we had them easily beat. We were feeling good, until Team Buckmasters stepped up to the stage with a whopping 42 squirrels and three points from the shootout for a record-breaking total of 45 points. The silver lining to our second-place finish was the fact my buddy Nawrocki happened to be on the winning team. So, in the end, the Squirrel Master Trophy made its way back home to the office.
While the competition aspect of this hunt made it a lot of fun, getting back to the basics of what got me started hunting in the beginning — squirrels and simply spending time in the woods with good people — was the real reward.