The best birthday I ever had was the summer I
turned 8. Our family was living in a big, white house in New Prague, Minn.,
where my father was the depot agent at the old M&STL (Minneapolis and St.
Louis) railroad. After supper that evening we all went
into the living room where mom had a cake with eight candles stuck in the
frosting and a few wrapped presents on the table with the cake.
After the cake was cut and everyone finally had a piece in front of them, (something which takes more darn time than it should when you have an anxious
birthday boy chomping at the bit), I was given the go ahead to open presents. I opened the
gift from mom and dad first. It was clothes. Not what an 8-year-old likes to
see, but I smiled and thanked my parents for the gift. Then I unwrapped the
present my twin brothers had wrapped for me. It was a soft-cover book on how to
trap everything from muskrat to mink and fox to coyote. I was a budding trapper
and the information in that book, made me a better trapper. I still have the
Then I picked up the gift from Pa.
About the size of a pound of butter, but heavier, I knew what was in the
package before I ever tore the paper open. A whole brick of .22 Shorts. Remington's. Five hundred rounds.
That's a lot of ammo for a kid shooting a single-shot, bolt-action rifle. Pa
could see what I was thinking. He walked up to me, draped one of his long arms
around my skinny shoulders and said, "Buck, I think it's time you buy that
lever-action Marlin you have been wanting up at Arnie's
"I can't yet Pa," I said. "I'm still ten dollars short of
what Arnie is asking."
"I know that son, so I will lend you the money you are short. Just remember,
this is a loan, not a gift," he said.
That's the way Pa was when it came to his three
sons buying guns and later their first cars. He would help if he could, but it
was a business agreement and Pa expected to be
paid back and paid on time.
Young Clancy Buys Marlin .22
If memory serves, I think Arnie down at the hardware
store had a $40 price tag on that sleek Marlin lever. My entire fortune at the
time was $28. So Pa had a little discussion with Arnie,
who promptly knocked the price down to $35. Pa kicked in his $7 and I
walked out of that hardware store feeling mighty lucky to have the rifle, but
even luckier to have a father who would go to bat for me!
Squirrel season opened in mid-September, which meant that I had just less
than three months to familiarize myself with the rifle. Since we lived in town,
I could not shoot the rifle every day, but I had the rifle in my hands
every day and when Pa and I had a chance to go out to the gravel pit and plink
cans, the lever-action already felt like an old friend in my hands. When it
came time to do some shooting we did not have sleds or sandbags on shooting
benches on which to rest our rifles. We just tacked a paper target on an old
fallen tree trunk, leaned up against a stout healthy trunk, got comfortable
with the position, cocked the hammer and more often than not, hit the target.
Some guns just seem to fit an individual better than others and that's the way
it was with me and that fine Marlin. From the first time I ever had it in my
hands, the gun just felt like it had been in my hands since birth.
It's different today, but back when I was a kid growing up in the 50s and
60s, squirrel hunting was what us guys (and a few
girls) did on fall weekends. Every kid I knew hunted squirrels, and those who
did not were looked at a little suspiciously by the rest of us. Monday morning,
before classes started, we would all get together and swap stories about
squirrel hunting over the weekend. There were even a couple of teachers who got
in on the Monday morning "who-got-what" sessions.
As we had the past two seasons, my Pa and I sat side-by-side when we hunted
squirrels. That was alright with me. I learned a lot about how to slip into the
woods as quiet as morning fog, sit down against the rough hide of a big oak and
just sit and listen to a new world greet the fresh day. That half hour before
and after sunrise, is still my favorite hour of the day. And although you do
not need to get to the woods in the dark, in order to shoot a few squirrels,
you will see more squirrels if you do. Evenings are OK, too, but early morning
is far-and-away my favorite time for squirrels.
My father was a good teacher. Not once did he ever give me the idea that
squirrel hunting is easy, or is just good "practice" for when you hunt bigger
game. No, Pa and I hunted squirrels because we genuinely enjoyed hunting them.
It was not until much later in life that I would learn that many hunters do not
even consider the lowly squirrel to be worthy of their time and effort. Too bad for them.
Kids Should Start Out Hunting Squirrels
But what really gets to me is when 8-, 9- and
10-year-old children start right out hunting deer. Can a boy (or girl) of that
age be anywhere near skilled enough to hunt whitetail deer one-on-one? Putting
a youngster who has not spent much time (perhaps no time at all) hunting small
game such as squirrels, right into the deer stand is not fair to the youngster.
I wonder, even if the young hunter is successful in shooting a deer, has he
really learned anything?
Squirrel hunting trained me to rely upon my ears and my eyes. It was in the
squirrel woods that I learned how to walk through dry leaves without sounding
like a Black Angus bull. More importantly, squirrels showed me how to sit
still -- real still. Sitting still is something learned
over time. By the time a young hunter heads out to fill his deer tag, he should
already be a pro at the art of sitting still.
If you use your ears, I mean really use them, you will hear sounds, which
you have never heard before. Squirrels are busy critters and as they go about
their day-to-day business, they make a lot of different sounds. The gnawing of
long, yellow teeth on acorn, hickory or walnut has a sound all its own. So is
the little mew of a young-of-the-year squirrel checking to see if its mother is
within hearing. Then there is the chittering
we have all heard. But do you know the difference between a squirrel chattering
to let all of the other squirrels in the woods know that he has found a big oak
just dripping with big, sweet, ripened acorns, or a squirrel which is scolding
someone or something?
And there is no doubt in my mind what-so-ever, that a young squirrel hunter
who learns to look for squirrel pieces instead of the whole squirrel, will see
far more deer, than the deer hunter who did not cut-his-teeth on squirrels or
other small game.
So if you have a child, grandchild, nephew or niece who you would like to
introduce to hunting, put a .22 rifle in their hands and go get some squirrels!
Shop The Sportsman's Guide for a great selection of Hunting Gear!
Gary Clancy writes a column for sportsmansguide.com. Gary has hunted whitetail deer in 20 different states and provinces. He has harvested many record-book animals, and presented hunting seminars from Tennessee to Wisconsin. Gary also has authored or co-authored six hunting books, four on whitetail hunting.