Many times over the decades I’ve been asked, “Why do you hunt?” All I can say is, “October is why.” The weather is joyously pleasant, game is as plentiful as it’s going to be and though the days are getting shorter they are full of adventure, excitement and memorable experiences. From a sportsman’s point of view, October is the Holy Grail.
It is practically impossible to participate in all of the outdoor options available to hunters this month, though I’ve tried. These days I focus on upland game each morning and then kayak for waterfowl at midday. If there’s time near sunset I may sneak into the dense woods for an hour of archery hunting for deer.
I spend most of November, December and January (even into February!) in pursuit of deer around the country so I try to spend more time in pursuit of other species early in the season. I enjoy all aspects of the sport but there simply are not enough hours in an October day.
Most of the outdoor “hype” these days is focused on deer, bears, moose and turkeys, but according to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which keeps track of such things, small game (squirrels, rabbits and upland birds) are far more popular among hunters. There are several bird-hunting magazines out there, a few rabbit magazines and even Web sites that cater to squirrel hunters, but “the industry” pretty much ignores these pursuits because there simply isn’t that much money in it for advertisers. The big bucks are in the “big bucks.”
The joy of small game hunting is that it is uncomplicated, relatively inexpensive and invariably productive; it’s a rare day when you can go into the woods, even on a leisurely stroll, and not bump into a rabbit, squirrel or grouse. Big game hunters often invest hours, days, even weeks without encountering their quarry, but they’ll spend several thousand dollars each year in hopes that they will. I am as guilty as any of them as far as that goes, but only after I’ve had some fun in October.
For beginners, squirrel hunting is the most productive way to start out. Armed with a .22 rifle or .410 shotgun, one needs only walk slowly through the woods, looking and listening for the rustle and chatter of squirrels seeking acorns in the treetops. Folks used to seeing plump, tame, tolerant squirrels in back yards and parks will be surprised to find that “wild” squirrels are far less cooperative. They look and listen, and when danger threatens they disappear into a nest or hollow, or scoot around the opposite side of a limb until the intruder has gone. They are very good at avoiding danger, plus they communicate with each other, which increases the difficulty of getting close enough for a shot. Move quietly and slowly, pay attention and make each shot count. A good squirrel hunt will wear you out!
Rabbits (in Maine, it’s the snowshoe hare) can be just as challenging because they are not as plentiful as squirrels and are quick to vacate the area on their big, furry feet. Because hares live in dense evergreen swamps, alder stands and wet, brushy country it’s not an easy task to take a limit of four hares with a .22 or shotgun, especially on foot and without dogs. Add a beagle or two to the mix and you’ll have a lot more fun and success, but it still won’t be easy. Hares can run for miles as they make a circle that may take the hounds out of hearing for 30 minutes or more, but they do have on Achilles Heel – they eventually come back to their starting point. A patient hunter who picks a spot near where the chase began can expect some action the first time the beagles bring the hare around – after that it’s pot luck. The hare may go anywhere and take his own good time getting there, but eventually the dogs will (or should) push him your way.
Upland birds (grouse, primarily, but woodcock, pheasants and quail are possibilities) are more specialized and therefore more difficult to hunt. Grouse are perhaps most common, abundant and tolerant of hunters, but only to a point. Many hunters walk along gravel roads and trails hoping to catch a few birds feeding at roadside or picking grit at midday, and I think it’s safe to say that the majority of birds are taken using this method. Others wait till the bird has flushed and is in the air but their success rate drops precipitously as a result. Experienced hunters consider three birds per box of 25 shells fired as being quite good, but even the best wing shots are satisfied to down one bird in every five shots. During my heyday as a grouse hunter I was able to whittle my average down to about 2.5 shots per bird, but I was young and sharp, had an excellent dog and knew the coverts like the back of my hand. These days I would do just as well throwing sand at them, but it’s still fun to try.
What’s great about October small game hunting is that it’s still cool enough outside to enjoy a wild game barbecue after the day’s hunt. Each year I split a special supply of hardwood kindling that is about the size of a hammer handle. When I get back from the woods I’ll start a small fire using a dozen sticks, and while the fire is burning down to coals I’ll clean and prepare my game for cooking. Most often I’ll wrap the meat in aluminum foil with a little butter or Italian dressing for flavor, and then place the foil-wrapped meat on the glowing coals. By the time I’ve cleaned my shotgun and stowed my gear upland supper is ready – hot, juicy and tender, the perfect end to a perfect October day!