So many things mark the start of fall.
Tthe singing of the cicadas, kids heading back to school, football games and the changing of the leaves.
But to a hunter in Ohio, the official kickoff to the season begins with squirrel season, this year commencing on Sunday.
Hunting squirrels is in no way as glorious as hunting deer, as challenging as hunting ducks or as frustrating as hunting rabbits. But for many youth hunters, it is the first kind of hunting they’ll experience.
Now I reflect on those early hunting trips with my dad and brothers and even occasionally my sister and Mom as a cherished memory. But at the time, it wasn’t so rosy.
It wasn’t always easy keeping up, staying out of the nettles and thorns or staying cool in an oversized blaze orange jacket. Trying to do all that while being told to walk quietly was nearly impossible.
Most of the time my youngest brother, my dad and I would break off alone and sit down on a downed tree. This was a strategy explained to us by Dad, look for nests, stay quiet and the squirrels would be back.
While we waited, we would talk in whispered tones, usually about old hunting stories my Dad would tell us about hunting with his Dad. Normally, it wasn’t too long and my youngest brother would get antsy and want to move to a new spot but Dad would always say ‘Nah, they’ll be back, just be patient.’
Somehow, Dad always had a few snack size candy bars and licorice in his old hunting jacket that I was convinced may have been there from the year before. I always wondered if the squirrels could hear the crinkling of the wrappers or smell the chocolate but never asked.
It wasn’t too long when I started to realize while the strategy probably worked, Dad wasn’t really concerned about bag limits or bragging rights. In fact, he often said he reached a point where his idea of hunting had changed over the years and now he just ‘enjoyed being in the woods.’
This isn’t what I wanted to hear as a young hunter at all. If we were out there, it was to max out those bag limits and return home with the bounty. It was all about the bragging rights, after all, isn’t that the point?
Not for Dad.
There’s no doubt he wanted us to be responsible hunters, it was drummed into us every time we went out into the woods. We were taught how to safely cross fences, know where other hunters were and how to keep the gun dry and clean. But so much more was taught as well, survival skills, how to not get lost, first aid, knife sharpening and so on.
We learned the importance of cattails and what soybeans taste like from the plant,why corn stalks open up and how to find dry tinder for a fire.
Mixed in was an ever-present theme, how to have character. It would start with things like ‘if you shoot it, you clean it and eat it, don’t waste anything.’” Or knowing where property boundaries actually were, not just guessing to avoid trespassing on someone else’s land. But it moved to so much more, how to be a man of character.
Dad enjoyed hunting, no doubt, but more than that he was passing on all the things he had learned as well, just like generations of fathers and sons or daughters before.
Hunting is so much more than shooting an animal for sport. It’s land and wildlife management with survival and gun safety.
There is tradition in hunting that needs to be passed to the next generation that explains why we hunt and how we do it safely.
I was convinced I would never feel like Dad, to be content to not see anything or even get a shot. But I was wrong again. The experience of just being in the woods, the smell, the fresh air and the curiosities all around are more than enough. I wish I had more time to be out in the woods, I reminisce back to those early hunts and wish I could do it again.
For Dad, hunting was getting close to his family while teaching us how to have character. The camaraderie was more important than whether we had a successful hunt or not in terms of bag limits.
Hunting begins with the family and is passed on through the families. The formula can work for you, too. Take your sons and daughters hunting, even if you don’t think they’ll like it.
Believe me, they’ll listen and cherish those memories one day, just as I have.