Sunday, November 27, 2011

Paying My Respects

    I set out into the woods one day last week after school to try to collect a few more Bushytails before I left for the week.  The sun was high, and the sky clear.  I decided to try the neighbor's property, because he had made a comment earlier in the season that he could see more than fifteen squirrels from his deer stand without shifting his glance.  Its too bad I can only take six.
    Just on the inside of the treeline, I spotted movement in the crowns of several Red Oaks.  All of the squirrels seemed to be mature, and I quickly set myself up with a rest on a solid White Oak.  The animal closest to me, a thick veteran of squirrel season, settled in a crotch of a tree behind a veil of dead twigs.  I waited for the alarmed yearlings to stop scampering about and chattering before I began coaxing my quarry from his perch.  A few chirps that I created with my mouth got him curious, curious enough to poke his head out from his hiding place.  He may have been a veteran of the fall woods--but so am I.
    Toting the head-shot rodent by the feet down into the creekbottom, I spotted another hefty Bushytail feeding at the base of a pine tree.  Stalking downhill, I kept a thick oak between me and my quarry, and I had the sun to my back, so the squirrel's back was to me.  Stopping at just inside twenty yards, I used an ancient White Oak for a rest, and pulled a shot off.
    At first I thought I'd hit him, because he fled scrambling, low to the ground, out of view.  As I followed, I spotted a gray back in a log jam--I froze.  Presuming him to be spent, I approached him, still with caution and alertness.  At a new angle, I could make out his head, and could tell that he was definitely not dead, but as I shouldered my air rifle to take a final shot, he shot from his hiding place, bounding high, to the backside of a thick Hickory tree.

    More alert now, I used the soft creekbottom to my advantage, stalking the squirrel's hiding place almost soundlessly.
    If you've ever chased Bushytails in the bare-boned winter woods, more than likely you've run into a squirrel that disappears behind a mature hardwood, never to show itself to you again.  Sometimes he escapes by means of almost foreign stealthiness, sometimes by squeezing into a tiny hole in a tree trunk, and sometimes still by simply freezing spread eagle against the patterned bark of an oak tree--camouflaged like a hairy Chameleon.
    As I approached the base of the Hickory tree with no response from the squirrel I hoped to find there, I knew I had been outwitted.  I stepped back, searching the crown and crotches of the tree for the one I was seeking.  Pressing my ear to the trunk, I listened for the soft scratching of the Gray's sharp claws on the bark--but heard nothing.  Standing in disbelief, my eyes averted to the sky, then to the ground--it was then that I noticed the hole at the base of the tree.
    As I did once trying to photograph a woodchuck, I quartered around the trunk, and took a prone position on the wet forest floor.  Ten minutes went by, and the squirrel never appeared.  Stiff, and wet, I got up and brushed myself off.  I made my way over to the tree, maybe to pay my respects to an animal that had outsmarted me, but I'm not really sure why.  There, laying in the entry to the den hole lay the squirrel I had chased all afternoon--lifeless.

    Maybe it was unfit, but standing there, in the fading light, I was filled with pride, and respect.  A hunter's job, or goal, is to beat his quarry at their own game--in their element, by their rules,completely beat by the odds.  I had done just that.  The Bushytail I now admired had put up a daring fight, and admitted defeat only when it was decided, and even offered himself to me when it was over.  Thinking this through in my mind, I climbed the hill back home with a much greater respect for one of my favorite game animals--he may have been a veteran, but so was I.

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