In praise of small game hunting
I remember my first days of small game hunting like it was yesterday. Being born in mid-November, I had to wait until my 14th birthday, which was the minimum hunting age at the time, before I could buy my first hunting license. It was a Friday and we had a half-day at school, and afterward, my older brother Tim and I went to the town clerk’s office and I made that rite-of-passage purchase.
Within hours we were in the woods behind our home, where I still live and do some hunting to this day. The swampy valley seemed like a vast wilderness back then and that first hunt yielded no game.
The next day most of the family went deer hunting, but I opted to spend my time in the home woods in hopes of bagging that first gray squirrel, cottontail rabbit or ruffed grouse. Late in the afternoon I stumbled into a covey of grouse. I wasn’t all that quick with the old Mossberg bolt-action 16 gauge, but I caught the third or fourth bird just as it was taking flight. Man, was I proud, and immediately brought the bird home, where my dad helped me clean it and my mom snapped a photo with an old instant Polaroid (see photo above).
That was my freshman year of high school and, being an aspiring athlete, I signed up to play basketball that winter. Big mistake: Not only was I lousy at basketball, all I really wanted to do after school was grab the 16 gauge and go hunting.
That’s the way it was in the fall and winter months for the remainder of my high school years, and even into college. The only sport I played was baseball (although football would’ve been a tough decision had my school offered it), so those after-school hunts became the norm.
Eventually I got the deer hunting bug, too, but the big game season predecessor was always some solid small game hunting time. I live and hunt in New York’s Northern Zone, and back then, the Sept. 20 grouse opener was the start of the hunting season for all but the early big game seasons.
However, I knew few bear hunters at that time, or even early-season archery hunters, for that matter. Small game reigned supreme and my brothers, friends and I pursued mostly gray squirrels and grouse, or an occasional rabbit, with vigor.
Things have certainly changed. After college I took the bowhunting course and within no time found myself passionately hunting deer in late September. I was part of that wave of hunters who discovered archery and bowhunting in the early 1990s. Moving the gray squirrel opener to Sept. 1, rather than Oct. 1, has helped a little, but I find it more pleasurable these days to take a young hunter along on a squirrel or rabbit hunt.
Grouse are a different story. I still enjoy taking the shotgun for a walk through grouse cover, but having time after work is much harder to find than it was after school 35 years ago.
Still, there’s something to be said for small game hunting and I hope these earliest of hunting seasons can be enjoyed by many before big game hunting takes over. I know that memories such as those I have can be made and cell phone photos replace the old Polaroid.