Mark Ingram, then 8 years old, lightly tapped on the squirrel call while Harold Knight intently studied the tops of several hickory trees 20 yards away.
My son and I had traveled to Kentucky to experience some mid-October bushytail hunting with Knight, and I couldn’t help but note the irony that a boy being introduced to hunting was doing the calling for one of the most well-known sportsmen and game-callers in the country. Soon my son’s tapping produced some agitated barking from a gray squirrel, and the silvertail began to dance in the treetops. Knight, who along with partner David Hale operates Knight & Hale Game Calls, slowly eased his .22 rifle into position, squeezed off a shot, and the gray tumbled. Mark enthusiastically ran to retrieve his prize, and he and Harold beamed with pride as they congratulated each other for their respective roles in the act that had just played out. The veteran sportsman later said the episode was one of the few times in his life someone had called in a game animal for him. Knight strongly believes bushytails are the ideal starter game animal for youngsters who want to begin hunting. “Everything a young boy or girl needs to learn in order to become a good adult hunter later in life can be found in squirrel hunting,” he said. “Squirrels can teach a youngster the importance of being an effective still hunter, what I call being a good ‘slipper,’ as well as the importance of being patient while on stand. “And if a kid learns all the foods that squirrels eat, he has essentially learned most of the foods that deer and turkeys eat, as well. The fruits and nuts that squirrels eat at certain times of the year are basically the same things that deer and turkey eat at those same times.” Knight, whose company is located in Cadiz, Ky., recalled as a youngster growing up in the rural South he soon figured out silvertails would spend much of the fall consuming several varieties of red oak acorns, but that they always preferred the sweeter nuts of the white oak. Not surprisingly, he later deduced turkeys and whitetails displayed the same preferences. And when the white and red oak acorns failed to bear or had been consumed, the young Knight learned squirrels would turn to such soft-mast staples as grapes, dogwood berries, paw paws, persimmons, hawthorn berries, and apples at old orchards. Of course, these same fruits can entice deer and turkeys as well. The Bluegrass State sportsman also said squirrel hunting taught him how to use a gun properly and safely. And while he was positioning himself for an effective shot, he soon gained a healthy respect for the sense of hearing and sight these small game animals possess — a respect that carried over when he began to pursue bigger game. Knight said he also determined he could get away with more movement and noise when pursuing younger squirrels than older ones. The same axiom proved to be true when he started chasing after mature bucks and gobblers. “If you’re a good squirrel hunter as a youngster, then you are very likely to be a very good deer and turkey hunter as an adult,” he said. “By no means am I suggesting people who don’t squirrel hunt as kids won’t develop into fine big-game hunters as adults. But I do believe that hunting squirrels as a kid can give you a real edge when going after deer and turkeys as an adult. “I also think that many adults today are doing their kids a disservice by starting them off on deer and turkeys. I know the reason why the parents do this is because deer and turkeys are so abundant now, and they weren’t when I was growing up. “But I think kids need to have fun when they are hunting. Too often when a child new to the sport is introduced to it by going after deer or spring gobblers, the whole thing is just too serious and stressful for him. If that kid messes up and spooks or misses a big-game animal, too many adults make too big a deal of it. “On the other hand, if a youngster fouls up when going after a squirrel, it’s no big deal. Everybody can just relax, laugh or tease about it and go look for another squirrel. “Another thing that squirrel hunting has going for it is that it’s action packed. A kid can move around, bang on a call, talk to his parent, and generally have a good time. Most of the time when a kid is after deer or turkeys, he’s forced to sit still and not make any noise. That’s just not fun for many kids.” During our stay with Knight, his remarks turned out to be especially true. On our first morning there, my son accompanied me to a deer stand where we spent four hours. During that period, we saw a flock of turkeys greet the dawn and several does file by — a fairly eventful morning. But to my boy’s way of thinking, we “only spotted” a few deer and turkeys. And he constantly demanded were we going to do something really fun like go after all those squirrels he kept seeing near our position? Why dad, he said, are we waiting for an old buck to come by when I could be calling in some of those squirrels? I believe one of the reasons my son preferred pursuing squirrels instead of deer and turkeys is that silvertails offer much more action. It’s true with many young boys and girls they much prefer to move and do something rather than sit, watch and wait for a deer or turkey that may not appear. Looking for game signs, using a squirrel call, identifying trees, walking about to see what is over the next ridge, these activities mean action to a young child and energize a young person’s sporting soul. Contrast the constant movements that squirrel hunting involves with the static activity of perching in a tree stand and looking for deer or sitting against a hardwood trunk and waiting for a longbeard to come slipping through the woods or across a field. It’s not surprising many, if not most budding sportsmen and women, would much rather be venturing forth to squirrel hunt than enduring long hours waiting for a buck or a bird to appear. Another wonderful aspect of seeking squirrels is they make superlative table fare. In the America of the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s, bushytails were an essential part of the diet of many rural citizens. Squirrels were a standard breakfast dish along with gravy, dumplings, and biscuits; a favorite menu item for lunch as the main ingredient in Brunswick stew; and a hearty dinner as the fried entrée. Today my wife Elaine concocts a scrumptious squirrel casserole with potatoes, carrots and cream of mushroom soup. Baked in the oven, the casserole is a healthy dish as well. “I don’t think many people today realize how good squirrels are to eat,” Knight said. “Bringing home a mess of squirrels was a big accomplishment when I was a kid, and something I was proud to do. In many areas, squirrels were a very important part of the diet. Heck, I have hunted and eaten all kinds of big-game animals, but squirrels are still one of my favorite game animals to eat.” Squirrels are more than a super starter game animal for kids. Neither my father nor my grandfather hunted, so I wasn’t exposed to squirrel hunting when I was growing up. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I finally worked up enough nerve to ask someone to take me afield. Not surprisingly, I had a grand time and was as proud of my first squirrel as my son was after calling in one for Knight. In fact, both of us took home of our first squirrel tails to display as trophies. Modern hunters and their children, nephews, nieces or grandkids may well enjoy doing the same thing, as well as a neighbor who always admires the game animals you bring home but never has hunted. Who knows, he might just want to join you in the squirrel woods this autumn.