Trophy whitetail hunting can be a lonely place. Some of the most afflicted aren't satisfied unless they arrow a 150-inch buck or better. It's a self-imposed handicap borne of challenge, but once hunters arrive at such lofty goals, it's tough to return.
So we hunt from October to January – absentee spouses – until we bag him or the season ends. Perhaps most depressing are the seasons in which we realize that the buck we seek doesn't exist in our area.
As our less obsessive friends shoot decent 8-points and celebrate, there we remain, tethered high in a tree somewhere, shivering, with only hope to prop us up. It's the hobby we've chosen, so we deserve no sympathy, but sometimes we wish bowhunting could be as purely fun as it once was. But how?
Let's think about it. The reason big bucks and good land are hard to find is because everyone wants to hunt big bucks. One reason our kids don't like to hunt as much as we do is because treestand hunting is a giant snoozefest for all but the afflicted.
Conversely, small game is everywhere; it tastes good; it's an active hunt that hones skills; and small game is incredibly challenging – especially if you handicap yourself with a bow.
So hit the reset button and try hunting small game. It's a reinvigorating kick in the pants, and it will make you a better hunter – and likely a more amiable person. Therefore, I challenge you to take a small-game animal with a bow this year. Here's how.
To hunt small game effectively, you must return to your primal roots as a hunter. You must read sign and use stealth to spot game before it spots you. Leave the clunky rubber boots at home; instead, wear lightweight boots through which you can feel the ground underfoot.
Consider moccasins, hikers, or sneakers if you don't mind wet feet. Choose each step wisely. Slow down to a sloth's pace while scanning every shadow, limb, and brush pile for a rabbit's eye or a squirrel's ear. Constantly use your binocular to actually find game – not merely to judge its trophy quality.
Attune to sounds you haven't noticed in years, like the cutting of teeth on acorns and the scratching of claws on bark. Move only when the wind blows or during other moments of covering noise. Be aware of your silhouette at all times and deftly employ the art of camo.
Try to place the sun at your back. Sit for long stretches at a time, simply observing. If birds aren't chirping, you're not stealthy enough. Stalking small game is a mental game in which your senses must be used more than your feet. So move slower. If and when you stalk an unsuspecting squirrel and make a clean shot, it'll be a trophy sure enough.
Much like modern trophy deer hunting, compound bows made archery an awfully mechanical affair. Precious little feel and art go into bow shooting nowadays. While you can certainly take your compound bow small-game hunting to become sharper for deer season, I advocate making small-game hunting its own exciting sport with its own specialized weapon.
If you haven't shot a traditional bow since summer camp, you'll likely be reminded of just how fun it is after you lose the first arrow. If you hit the hay bale at 20 paces, you're good. But you need to practice enough to where you can hit a beer can at that distance.
Like throwing a baseball, you will get better at instinctive shooting only through practice. Focus on your anchor point, strive to get a clean release, concentrate on a minute spot on the target, and follow through.
You don't need an expensive stick bow to start, just one that fits you and won't give you a hernia. Bear Archery still makes great recurves and long bows, as does PSE and Hoyt. Great places to buy are Three Rivers Archery, Cabela's, and Bass Pro Shop. You'll need a finger tab or glove, an arm guard, and a hip quiver.
Lastly, buy a dozen flu-flu arrows like Gold Tip's Twister. They're fletched with long, wind-catching fibers that drastically retard the arrow's flight. Inside 30 yards they're deadly, but after that, they fall softly to the earth without burrowing under the grass, so you can find them easily and use them again.
Some people espouse blunts (or bludgeons) for small game – flat rubber tips that kill by blunt force trauma – but I prefer Judo points. These dull metal tips feature prongs that grab meat to kill and grass to prevent arrow loss.
Several companies make bladed, spur-like rings that fit behind regular field points to make them deadly. Choose a bow, arrow, and point and practice. Don't think you have to be Howard Hill before you can go hunting. If you hit a small-game animal anywhere in the body with an arrow, it's going to die. And while you might miss every time, it's still fun to try.
Heck, since you've proven to your spouse and friends that coming home empty-handed is no big deal, you ought to take to small-game hunting like horses to hay. But there are a couple of rewards to small-game hunting. Foremost, your kids will love it, so take them with you – maybe even give them a shotgun for your backup when you miss – and teach them the ways of the woods.
Also, if you can resharpen your fundamental skills of hunting to the point where you can consistently kill small game with a bow, you'll no longer be limited to your treestand when hunting big bucks.
What to Do With a Mess of Squirrels
If squirrels were easier to clean, I'd hunt them more often. But a few techniques make skinning them somewhat easier. One is known as the Mississippi style.
While holding the squirrel upside down by the tail, use your knife to cut through the tailbone (just behind the anus) to the offside skin without going through it. Cut down the inside of each thigh. Then stand on the tailbone and pull up on the back legs vigorously. If you've done it right, the squirrel's skin will peel back over its body to its head. Get a grip on the skin left around the hind legs and pull it up to its ankles.
Now, with the critter strung out between your hand and the ground, slice open the abdominal cavity and remove the guts. Next, cut off each foot and finally the squirrel's head. The object here is to never let the squirrel's flesh touch the ground or get excess hair on the meat. Finally, wash, clean, and quarter the carcass.
Soak the quarters in lemon-water for four days to tenderize the meat. Batter and fry it, then have an expert make the gravy. It's critical not to mess this up.