From Oct. 2012
By Joel Penkala
A funny thing happened this morning. I stepped outside, and too my surprise my first deep breath of 6:30am air brought with it the smell of fall. It had crept up without giving notice, as this was the first clear morning after a long stint, 9 or more (I lost count) days of rain and storms, which had apparently taken their leave sometime in the night. It struck me that I had not been out hunting yet this season. It was October 4th, and I had already let several weeks of the season slip through my grasp. In my defense the weather had been less then cooperative, due to the rain, and the mosquitoes were out in full force. An abundance of water, that heralded good things for the coming duck season, also produced the ideal habitat for the hoards of winged devils that made even the simple task of taking a walk in the woods, a battle for blood.
But I digress. The instant that cold morning air filled my nostrils, it was already there. The “itch”. I needed to get out and see if I still remembered how the game worked. I needed to dig out the equipment, dust off the boots, and stretch my legs. It was time for a squirrel hunt. Like most of my counter parts, at a very young age I was introduced to hunting via squirrel. Here in North West New Jersey, we have an abundance of Gray Squirrel. They inhabit every woodlot, hedge row, and hollow along brooks, and fields and all the spaces in between. And how better to begin the season with a bit of reminiscing about those first halcyon days of my youthful hunting career. For many like me, our fathers brought us into one of these, all too familiar theaters of the great outdoors, where we sat, calm and collected on the outside, yet brimming with interminable excitement on the in.
The weapon of choice was usually the most basic of things. An old Harrington and Richardson, or maybe Stevens, single shot with an exposed hammer. The kind of gun that anyone can pick up at a gun show for $100 or less these days. The simplicity of the gun added several key elements to the task at hand. Usually these shotguns would be of a small bore, .410 for many, 28 or 20 for the rest. Their diminutive gauge dimensions were a plus making these junior size shotguns very light and easy for young arms to point steadily. But light guns tend to have more recoil and the reduced kick of the lighter gauges saved many small shoulders the bruises larger guns might have invoked.
Some might argue that those guns are under size for taking shots at our friends in the tree tops, but rest assured they have taken many an unsuspecting squirrel in their day. These single barrel shotguns are usually choked tighter, modified or full, making them ideal candidates for shots at stationary targets. Another added bonus is the fact that they are only capable of taking a single round. This meant that accuracy was paramount, promoting marksmanship in young lads like myself. Nothing garnered more pride then going 5 for 5, five shells and five clean kills in the squirrel woods. It sure was something to brag about to mom upon the return home, though I suspect that most moms are not near as excited as they let on. The lessons learned, under the close watch of dad, at this young age are those that shape the hunter of the future.
Sitting, back to tree trunk, in the afternoon woods with my father is a memory I will never forget. Laying out a black plastic garbage bag on the duff below, waiting for that first flicker in the branches above. And it is for all of these reasons that I usually start my season with a squirrel hunt. In my teens and early 20s the affair was more excitable. Usually with friends, I would walk the banks of the river, or cornfield edges, taking shots in the canopy of giant old sycamores, maples, and oaks. We had discovered the benefits of shotguns capable of holding multiple shells and made quick work of boxes of ammo, blasting away at the tall tree tops. Although not quite as elegant, these days were also a good deal of fun and excitement. Large bag limits, the camaraderie of friends, and early October mornings made these trips all the more worth while.
And here I am now, 21 seasons past my first squirrel, standing in a parking lot on the afternoon of October 4th. A hurried ride home from work, and a whirlwind gathering of gear punctuated in the excitement of un-casing a Harrington and Richardson single shot 20ga. and dropping a hand full of shells into my game pouch. Today I venture into the woods alone, to meditate and to hone my skills for the coming season. I have since gone back to that old single shot, while the pumps and auto loaders stay on the gun rack, realizing that marksmanship suites me better then firepower. I choose the closest, yet best spot I can think to walk today; a ridge of mixed oak and hickory, that should have produced good mast crop this year. I am old enough now to stop and look around before I start the trudge up to the top of the ridge, and appreciate the sights and smells of early autumn. Its a great time to be out in the woods, and a good time to reminisce about the seasons passed. As I start up the hill I make it no more then 10 yards and am rewarded with the first shot of the day. All those hunts must have paid off as today I am rewarded with the joy of going 5 for 5.