This late September morning is a gift – sunny, calm, long-sleeves-over-a-T-shirt weather. Perfect.
The wind is expected to pick up later, but we’ll worry about that when and if. For now, we can hear an oak leaf helicopter 20 feet to the ground, brushing other leaves in its fall. The yank-yank of nuthatches, little forest visitors that comically run bill first down the bark of trees, call noisily to one another from up high.
This forest, a mix of oaks, ash, elms and others, acts as an open-air amphitheater, magnifying even the most innocuous sounds. A shuffling hunter not accustomed to picking up his feet sounds like a flock of turkeys on the move in thick understory, and the loud snap-pop of a fallen tree branch under a heavy foot is kin to slamming a library door.
I’m sitting with my youngest, Jack, on a log that rests in the woods like a teeter totter, with one end 4 feet off the ground. My oldest, Nate, is 30 yards west, and I can just make out his blue sweatshirt through the brush. Nearly a decade older than Jack, he understands the importance of sitting still, moving only when necessary. Then again, he’s a college student, stayed up late last night, so he could be asleep.
The last we saw grandpa was at the vehicle before we parted and split up in the woods. But we have a pretty good idea where he is, about 100 yards north, because he’s pulled the trigger on his shotgun a handful of times already, each blast coming loudly unannounced, making us flinch.
We’re hunting fox squirrels on public land along a pretty stretch of the Missouri River not far from home. I’ve been hunting squirrels with my boys for years and we continue to get a kick out of it every time we step into the woods.
There was a time I felt compelled to not really apologize, but justify our willingness to wander around in the woods and shoot an animal that’s not highly regarded in these parts, but celebrated in others. But like a lot of things, I’ve gotten over it and am always on the lookout for good squirrel recipes or pieces of public land that are loaded with fox squirrels.
In a perfect world, Jack will shoot a squirrel this morning, but I’m not holding my breath. The kid just won’t sit still, but for good reason. Grandpa bought him a new shotgun for his birthday and every minute or so, he throws it up to his shoulder for practice, aiming at trees or imaginary game. Every animal in this chunk of woods, even the nuthatches that flit from tree to tree, searching for whatever it is they eat, knows that we’re here.
The kid just needs to pull the trigger and feel the kick of his shotgun for the first time, so we decide to hike out of the woods, maybe bump into grandpa and let Jack shoot at an empty pop can.
Grandpa beat us back to the vehicle and piled at his feet are four dead fox squirrels, a limit, his first, he says, in maybe 50 years. He grew up in southern Illinois where hunters take squirrel hunting far more seriously, where bagging a limit fattened by hickory nuts means something.
My sons and I get it, and we’re just a touch jealous, to tell you the truth.
RON WILSON is editor of North Dakota OUTDOORS.