(Authors note: In late February I will once again be at the Squirrel Master Classic at the Southern Sportsman’s Lodge near Montgomery, Alabama. The competition is intense, wish me luck! )
That’s Rivermutt, he is treed!” The words came from our dog handler, Ronnie O’Neal and we all took off through the Alabama creek bottom like a herd of turkeys. Rivermutt is Ronnie’s ace squirrel dog and his frantic barking was telling us to get there quick! We are at the Squirrel Master Classic near Montgomery, Alabama hunting squirrels with dogs and Gamo air rifles and we are having a big time.
The Squirrel Master Classic is the brain child of Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters deer hunting association, magazines, and outdoor television programs. In 1986, 29-year-old Jackie Bushman acted on an idea he’d been developing since he was a teenager. The Montgomery, Alabama native had grown up exploring the great outdoors and hunting with his grandfather and he wanted to take the camaraderie of the hunting camp to a national level. He envisioned a deer hunting association that would encourage a feeling of community, sportsmanship and wildlife conservation while promoting a positive image of deer hunters everywhere.
In 2014 Bushman had another brain storm that led to the inception of the Squirrel Master Classic. The decline in hunter numbers for the past several years is no secret. Jackie Bushman felt, like many of us, that one way to generate more interest in hunting with young hunters is to bring back an emphasis on small game hunting.
Time was when most of us started hunting with squirrels, rabbits, and other small game. As deer and turkey populations increased many young hunters skipped the small game stage and started on deer and turkeys. That may not be a bad thing but learning on small game is where a hunter often learns the basics like gun safety, woodsmanship, tracking and finding food sources for game, as well as dressing and preparing your game for the table. Being taught all of this on rabbits and squirrels and game birds is a good way to start.
Jackie Bushman’s idea was this, have a squirrel hunt in a fun competitive atmosphere. Teams are made up of outdoor television personalities, outdoor writers and editors, a dog handler with a squirrel dog to find the squirrels for you, and most important a young person who is a 4-H shooter. As we have talked about here before 4-H has a very extensive shooting program. Young people can learn and compete in several different shooting sports categories, air rifle and pistol, .22 rifle and pistol, shotgun, recurve and compound archery, muzzle loader and hunting skills. 4-H shooters in the Montgomery, Alabama area get the extra benefit of participating in the Squirrel Master Classic.
Gamo Air Rifles sponsored the event and supplied all the hunters with a Gamo Swarm Maxxim pellet rifle. The Swarm Maxxim is the world’s only ten shot break barrel air rifle and the 10X Quick Shot magazine allows the shooter to load ten pellets in the magazine, insert it into the rifle and fire ten quick shots before you have to reload. Believe me, we needed those quick second and third shots on this hunt as these squirrels had their running shoes on. Once they started running in the treetops, sometimes with spectacular leaps from tree to tree, you had to be quick or you came up empty-handed.
The Gamo folks also gave us a peek at the new Swarm Magnum, a ten shot .22 caliber air gun with much greater velocity than previously available. The Gamo Swarm Magnum is capable of 1,300 feet per second pellet speed due to the new IGT Mach 1 technology. In short, Gamo put a large inert gas cylinder on this air gun to deliver speed and power unheard of in a manually operated air rifle. www.gamousa.com
The Squirrel Master Classic is held at the Southern Sportsman’s Lodge, a hunter’s haven in the famous Black Belt region of Alabama. I’m pretty sure if you look up southern hospitality in Webster’s, you will see a picture of the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge. This lodge has a rich 35-year history for hosting deer and turkey hunters and now squirrel chasers. The walls of the lodge are adorned with rows of pictures of hunters, outdoor personalities, writers, sports figures and entertainers who have stayed here. By the way the ladies in the kitchen at Southern Sportsman’s Lodge make the best Bar-B-Que this side of Memphis.
So maybe I have set the scene for you, six teams of squirrel chasers run the Alabama hardwoods in two shifts, morning and afternoon, with a shooting competition in the middle. The 4-H shooting match was won be Shelby Moore of Waverly, Alabama. The 4-H shooter on my team was Ethan Linna from Prattville, Alabama and he added points to our score in the shooting match.
After stuffing ourselves at lunch we all hit the woods again. The competition was fierce between team leaders like Bone Collector team Captains Michael Waddell, Nick Mundt, and Travis “T-Bone” Turner and leaders of other teams like Jackie Bushman for Buckmasters and Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo with Archer’s Choice Hunting Show.
All afternoon we raced through the woods following Rivermutt’s barking when he would tree a squirrel. (He was replaced by squirrel dog “T.C.” in the afternoon to give him a break) If the squirrel was spotted a hail of pellet rifle fire would ensue. Usually the squirrel would light out for parts unknown and a wild chase through the jungle began. Sometimes we collected the squirrel, often he would make it to a den tree and we would start all over.
After sundown we all met back at the Southern Sportsman for the solemn weigh in ceremony. As the entire crowd watched Jackie Bushman counted and weighed each team’s bag of squirrels for the day and added any bonus points they may have gained from the shooting competition. I am sad to report that your humble outdoor correspondent was not on the winning team. (As I was last year) The BuckMasters team led by Mr. Bushman carried the day with the most points.
Though we may have lost the competition, like Rivermutt and the other squirrel dogs we were tired but happy. A day spent in the woodlands chasing squirrels with friends and feisty hunting dogs, mentoring young hunters in a great tradition and just enjoying the outdoors. Does it get any better than that? Maybe, but I haven’t found it yet.
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise; (and if they will have me) I will be back next year for another crack at the coveted Squirrel Master Trophy. Don’t get too comfortable with that trophy Mr. Bushman, the Bone Collector boys and I are gunning for you with a Gamo air rifle.
Gamo has come out with two new models of the Swarm Maxim air rifle since this was written, go to the Gamo website and check it out!