Jim Chapman points out some subtle but important hunting differences
Jim Chapman tells us why we need to adapt to our challenges
Isat at the base of a pecan tree and waited for the fox squirrels to come in and began the feast. It was early morning and as the sun started it’s climb, I saw the first squirrel moving through the orchard. When he paused at 40 yards out, I laid the cross hairs on his head, squeezed the trigger, and watched the tree rat hit the ground. With any luck, I hoped to bag a couple dozen before the day ended.
I sat at the base of an oak tree and waited to ambush a fox squirrel as it came in to eat. It was early morning, and as the sun started it’s climb, I saw a squirrel making his approach through the forest canopy. When he paused at 40 yards out, I laid the cross hairs on his head, squeezed the trigger, and watched the wary bushytail hit the ground. With any luck I might get my limit of five before the day ended.
These two scenarios represent similar events, with a subtle yet important difference; in the first I am out doing pest control at a farmer’s orchard. In the second, I’m in the woods in pursuit of one of our most popular small game species, and in both cases, the species I’m after is the fox squirrel, the largest and one of the most adaptable tree squirrels found in North America. So, what is the real difference in these encounters, besides a slight variation in the settings?
I was chatting with a friend who is a fanatical deer hunter, and mentioned that I wished deer season would soon be over because it interfered with my squirrel hunts. His response was that he often shot tree rats around his little hobby farm because they were a pest, but couldn’t quite see them as a ‘real’ game animal worthy of pursuit. It got me thinking about how I viewed squirrel hunting, and moreover the difference between pest control and small game hunting, above and beyond
In the first example, the squirrel is causing financial damage to crops, and is legally classified by Fish and Game services as a pest species. This means they can be taken at any time, by any means, and in any numbers. The objective in the setting of pest control is either to exterminate the species, severely curtail its population, or a more targeted removal from a specific ecosystem.
In the second scenario, which could take place in a forest a mile down the road from that orchard, the squirrel is a native species and an integral part of the ecosystem. Wildlife managers have determined on a regional scale that a certain percentage of this population should be removed by hunters. As an indigenous species in a natural environment, it is the role of hunters to ensure that a healthy balance and sustainable population is maintained. Therefore, the species – squirrels in this case – are classified as game animals. They have a season, usually to give protection during breeding periods when they are most vulnerable, there are limits instituted to maintain the optimal cull rate, and there are specified methods of take.
There are other species that share this pest/small game duality; rabbits, doves, geese, and some species such as fox and racoons, which can be classified as pest (varmint) or furbearers, depending on the situation. For the sake of our purposes, it’s fair to say that the regulatory protections provided to furbearers are equivalent to those offered small game species. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, there are federal regulations and each state – and sometimes local jurisdictions – have their own regulations, so you need to be cognisant of the relevant laws.
There are caveats; in many states, if you are taking a game species as a pest because it is causing economic damage, you need either to own the property, work for the property owner, or have proof that you are serving in the capacity of an agent
for the landowner. This is clearly defined in each state’s hunting regulations, although there can be some ambiguity. There are also mechanisms in place (depredation permits) to allow almost any animal that has become a nuisance species in a particular area to be removed, regardless of their game status, such as deer herds overpopulating an agricultural area. As an example, a farmer suffering loss due to an overpopulation of deer might be issued depredation permits to remove an extra 20 deer from his property, which will supersede the standing Fish and Game regulations.
What I find interesting is the subtle shift in mindset between pest control and small game hunting. I’ve noticed in hunting literature that the squirrel is sometimes depicted as a vile little tree- dwelling rat, whilst at other times it is elevated to the level of a noble, arboreal stag, that is a wary and worthy quarry. Personally, I think of squirrel hunting as being more akin to deer hunting, than to shooting rats at a local dairy farm, and there are multiple reasons for this; I know that when hunting the small game squirrel, I will be in a more natural environment in the role of a predator. I know that my field work must be on point, and that it will probably be harder to get a shot opportunity. Further I understand that there is an expectation that the animal be harvested and utilised – wasting a game animal is illegal in most states. It is my belief that when an animal is killed, processed, and consumed, it imparts a value that is absent or obscured when the animal is simply killed and discarded.
When hunting a pest species, the sole objective is to eradicate or severely reduce the number of a ‘problem’ species. When shooting squirrels that have truly become a problem, I will take a chest shot knowing that it will kill the animal, but perhaps not an immediate kill. This is because the kill is the whole point of this exercise, and the result of not culling it through shooting is to set traps or lay poisons, neither of which provides a cleaner termination. There is no desire to inflict unnecessary pain on any animal, but when viewed in context, the removal of the pest animal is the primary objective. However, if in the woods on a small game hunt, I might well pass on the shot if everything does not fall into place.
The reason I prefer small game hunting over a pest control shoot is that when going after squirrel as a pest species on a farm or industrial area, it has a more mundane feel to it. Even if essentially the same activity, heading into the woods on a small game hunt has more the feel of an outdoor adventure. Packing gear for an overnight trip or in case I get stuck in the woods longer than anticipated, planning out a route and making sure there is enough food and water to see me through, makes it more of the outdoor experience I want.
This is the reason I get as excited about a small game hunt for squirrel or rabbit as when going after big game; the animal being hunted is only one part of the equation. Trekking through the woods on snowshoes to hunt and setting up a camp along the way, for example, is the foundation of the adventure for me. Scouting the area for game sign, patterning the animal to determine where it feeds, waters, or beds down, is the test of field skill. Spotting the prey before it spots me, closing the distance, setting up the shot, and holding down the adrenalin rush to place the shot is the essence of the hunt. My sense of the ‘right way’ to hunt small game is that I go on foot and concern myself with the stalk rather than the outcome. For pest control on the other hand, I’ll use any tool or method that gets results – shooting out of a vehicle, for instance.
So, getting back to the original question, how do I see the difference between pest control and small game hunting? The answer I’ve arrived at is that in pest control, the objective is to cull as many of the targeted species as possible and in doing so providing a service to the landowner – results are critically important. For small game, it’s about the experience; having a small adventure, testing field skills that don’t get used enough, picking the perfect shot, not to mention adding some meat to the larder, but the actual kill is less important than the hunt. As a rule, I find the small game hunt more difficult because it takes place in areas where squirrel populations are lower, the terrain more difficult to navigate, and where the animals that are not habituated to the proximity of man. At the same time, by defocusing on the result, it makes the hunting experience more enjoyable and more satisfying.
MAIN: Pest control takes place where you can easily get back to the truck
INSET: A fox squirrel can quickly acclimatise to humans, but in the woods they are very wary
LEFT: A simple squirrel and ramen soup in the field turns a small game hunt into an adventure!
ABOVE: The gear I always carry includes binos, a rangefinder, pellets, and a call