- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

Southern Maryland’s Bob Rice isn’t likely to listen to the Chicken Littles of the world who keep blabbering that recreational hunting is no longer a part of the American outdoors scene.

“Malarkey,” Rice says. “It’s as good and important today as it ever was.”

With that he removes an elegant, lightweight .410-gauge shotgun from his vehicle. It is a wonderfully preserved Spanish Sarasquitta side-lever, button hammered, folding double-barreled model that Rice bought for his son, Mike, in 1967. He cradles the “borrowed” smoothbore in his arms, finds a small box of slender No. 6 shells and slowly walks into a narrow stretch of mixed woods, clothed in camouflage hat, jacket and pants.

Rice stands close to an oak, his eyes intently scouring the still leafy branches of a large beech tree. Suddenly, Rice raises the small shotgun and before anyone could spell beechnut he fires, and a well-fed gray squirrel becomes the first of a number of bushy-tailed rodents that would provide a sumptuous meal later that evening.

“The trouble is that not enough youngsters are being taught to hunt squirrels and other game by their fathers and uncles,” Rice says. “I believe that if you can successfully stalk and find a limit of gray squirrels for the table, you can probably hunt any forest game.”

Rice knows that wild woodland squirrels aren’t like those found in municipal parks. He knows how wary the little speedsters can be, how quick they are and anyone going after them better show some shooting skills, not to mention the ability to stand perfectly still for many minutes while waiting for the small game to show up.

The stewed, baked and fried gray or fox squirrels that provided sustenance for America’s early settlers. Had it not been for nutritious squirrel meat, many an 18th and 19th century log cabin resident from Maryland and Virginia west to the Mississippi River would have starved during winter. The whitetailed deer wasn’t the main source of protein; it was the squirrel.

Young Americans for several centuries have cut their hunting teeth, so to speak, on squirrel outings. But of all the various game animals (or birds) that are still being actively hunted to this day, the squirrel is the one losing favor among the hunters.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission said as much recently when it provided a forecast for a number of game species and said there was a great supply of gray squirrels this season, in part because of plentiful supplies of forest mast (acorns, beechnuts, etc.) but also because of lower hunting pressure. Squirrels are simply not on the list of priority species, which is sad.

In the Rice and Mueller households the opposite is true. Both of us continue to hunt squirrels for the table. When the leaves are still dense in the trees, we use small-gauge shotguns, but when the leaves are gone and trees are bare, a well sighted-in .22-caliber rifle does the job.

We find hardwoods that display obvious signs of the little animals’ presence: cuttings, small pieces of acorn and beechnut shells, usually left atop a tree stump or some other elevated spot in the woods. Once located, we sit at the base of adult oaks and beeches before daylight arrives, scan the upper branches and sides of the trunks and pick off two or three bushy-tails before the sun actually rises above the treetops.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday and Wednesday and his Fishing Report on Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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