I’ve spent a lot of time alone outdoors over past six decades, and I’ve gathered an uncountable number of memories. At least when it comes to the outdoors, my brain must store good memories closest to the front, because those involving encounters with various critters that didn’t react to specific situations the way they “should have” are the easiest to replay.
Among the most vivid of them stars a fox squirrel. When I spotted him moving through the treetops in my direction, I marveled as I always do at how easily he moved to the outermost twigs on one tree and then leaped across open space to land precisely on the outermost twigs of the next tree.
Then he arrived at the jumping off point that would bring him into rifle range. I readied myself to switch roles from watcher to hunter as he launched himself. I have no way of knowing exactly when he realized he’d misjudged the distance between the two trees, but I’m sure he’d figured it out prior to when he thumped into the ground at the end of a 60-foot free fall.
I’d never seen a squirrel fall out of a tree before, but it was his reaction that made the event so unforgettable. He began jumping straight up and down with all four legs stiff and his fully flared tail lashing in every possible direction. He didn’t so much chatter as scream at the top of his lungs. By the time his visual and auditory display ended several minutes later, there was no way I was going to make his day even worse by shooting him.
One of my most memorable gobblers reacted to misfortune in the opposite way. He was henned up near the head of a timbered hollow, so I worked my way around to the back side of the ridge and used a raspy box call to hurl every insult I could think of in the direction of the flock’s boss hen.
She must have taken offense, because she came over the top of the ridge at a dead run with her neck stretched out parallel to the ground. She almost ran over me before she realized her mistake. A minute later, the tom appeared in full strut. He was less than 15 yards from the end of my shotgun barrel when he spun around enough to see me. Apparently knowing the jig was up, he simply stood still and let his tail feathers droop. It suddenly occurred to me that he was the innocent victim of a very dirty trick, so I held my fire until he came to his senses and walked out of sight.
Deer often do unexpected things, a young buck I encountered on opening day of the firearms deer season a few years back set the bar very high. I’d still-hunted up a very steep hill and had begun working my way down a much gentler slope when I spotted the glint of sunlight off what turned out to be very small antlers.
I put my back against a convenient tree and slowly slid into a sitting position. This was years before the thrice-accursed antler point restriction came into effect, and I fully intended to take advantage of the fact that young bucks yield the finest venison. On the other hand, I really wanted a cigarette.
The buck remained blissfully unaware of my presence until he was less than 30 yards away and finally noticed the smoke. Oops, I thought, I’ve pushed this one too far. But not to worry, my fork-horned companion wasn’t the type to complain about an ever so slightly smoggy dining room.
He obviously caught the first movement I made, as I tried to keep in position to shoot him when the time seemed right. He didn’t seem to mind, but then he didn’t pay attention to my scent when he fed up the slope behind me either.
This went on for at least 15 minutes–I’d long since decided he was too good a pal to shoot–when he suddenly went on full alert. I followed his gaze down the hill and spotted my hunting buddy skirting a thick stand of cedars at least 100 yards away. For reasons only a deer could explain, unlike me, my friend represented a dire threat. The buck tucked his tail between his hams and slipped over the top of the ridge without making a sound in the dry leaves.
Make no mistake about it, I almost always shoot as soon as an opportunity to do so arises. Even so, it’s encounters like the ones I wrote about today that make me want to spend as much time as possible outdoors.
Gerald Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org