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  • Matt Reilly


I can’t remember my first hunt. The first time my dad took me, gun-toting, afield in the pursuit of real game. But I know that it was a heavy experience—one that I had looked forward to, and that fueled my love for the outdoors, and, likely, one that he had to sacrifice for. And I would bet money that it was in the squirrel woods—a setting that’s, to this day, one of my many open-air happy places.

And so as I followed nine-year-old Connor Singleton down a worn trail through DGIF’s Thompson Wildlife Management Area, unloaded shotgun resting in my arms, it was hard to watch the treetops for the kid. Having just completed his hunter’s safety course, he was living his hunting dream. Wide-eyed, he trudged up the mountain behind his dad, breech loading .410 broken across his body.

Despite talking and heavy walking, the songbirds that populate the WMA’s scrubby lower elevations were not put off. They bounced in the bushes, making sounds that sound remarkably like the short, quick movements of a nearby bushytail, but that I’ve learned to identify and dismiss. They arrested him, and despite his naturally excited and energetic nature, I could see his heart pounding through camouflage and blaze.

I didn’t explain or interject. It’s the little things. Without the utility of a gun, a squirrel bouncing in the bush is a welcome sight. Armed with firepower and the goal of a harvest, the mere suggestion of nearby game, when processed with a level head, is a reminder of safe gun handling, and a glimpse at the gravity of killing. Every few dozen yards along our path up the mountain, Connor was getting glimpses.

At last, we left the scrub behind and found mature hardwoods on the ridgetop. Hickory and red oak nuts began to populate the ground. The sun was past its peak in the sky.

We ventured off the trail several yards and found a log covered in chewed mast. I pointed out den holes in the gnarly oaks within sight, and the evidence of feeding squirrels littered along the log. We took a seat on the log, and waited and watched.

Ten minutes passed, and I caught the movement of a bushytail bouncing uphill on a log, way out of gun range, his tail backlit by the afternoon sun. Then there was another.

While I focused on the outer reaches of my sight range, Connor was looking where I wasn’t. Wise to the pressure that comes with living on public land within an hour of Washington D.C., a squirrel came into view just 15 yards from our position, quietly moving along downed wood. Connor spotted it first, and we began trying to get him into position, but I was between him and the target.

In the scramble, the squirrel made off without shots fired, but it made little difference. Connor, who didn’t quit reminding us that he’d seen the first shootable squirrel, that he had picked the perfect spot, and that he had seen a squirrel on his first trip, was over the moon.

We had dinner plans to keep, and the sun was falling low in the sky. We abandoned our post, and headed down the mountain.

When we found a solid backdrop, we set up a few spent shotgun shells on a log and walked the boy through the steps of safely loading, aiming, and firing a firearm. The first boom sounded, and the first shell on the log went flying. There was more elation and pride.

Before reaching the truck, we’d seen squirrels and birds, bear and deer scat, cut acorns, and deer tracks. And he wanted to come back.

There is no finer joy than taking a kid hunting or fishing for the first time. The emphasis is not on the quarry. The quarry is the experience, and the future. And the future looks bright.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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