Will this really be my last deer rifle?

Mike Bleech Outdoors Columnist

Nothing builds interest in hunting better than success.

If you have a kid you want as a hunting partner, forget for a while the kind of hunting you like best now.

Think back to when you were a kid. Was it your dad complaining about what deer hunting was like in the past that got you interested in hunting?

I doubt it.

I do not know what sparked your interest in hunting. As for myself, I still have wonderful memories about squirrel hunting.

When I started squirrel hunting in the early 1960s, there were not as many squirrels in Warren County as there are today. Rabbits, grouse, and woodcock were more abundant, but not squirrels.

But there were enough squirrels to get a kid a few shots on most days. And between squirrels we got shots at grouse and rabbits, so small game hunting kept the enthusiasm level high.

Deer were not abundant then. When you did see deer, they were usually in bunches. If there were enough hunters around, and usually there were, they kept those bunches of deer on the run, so you might see the same deer several times in a day. But they would be almost all does and fawns, with the occasional spike buck. Bigger bucks were not common.

Some places were better than others, but the best deer numbers were on private woodland.

So why the differences?

Habitat has changed to favor squirrels. We have more mature oak trees.

During the 1960s a lot of what is now mature forest was reverting farmland. That was great for grouse and rabbits, not so good for squirrels.

In the 1960s, nearly all of the squirrels in Warren County were gray squirrels. Fox squirrels were rare.

The first fox squirrel I saw was along the Allegheny River just south of Irvine. It was very orange.

Now, few of the fox squirrels I see are that all orange color phase. Most have much less orange coloration. But there are plenty of them if you know where to look.

Fox squirrels have made squirrel hunting in Warren County more interesting, and somewhat easier.

One of the differences between hunting fox squirrels and hunting gray squirrels is that fox squirrels do not seem to be as wary as gray squirrels. When a fox squirrel runs up a tree and hides, it often shows itself again in 15 minutes. When a gray squirrel runs up a tree and hides, it may be 30 minutes, or longer before it shows itself again.

Another difference between fox squirrel behavior and gray squirrel behavior is that fox squirrels seem to be much more inclined to live near hickory trees. Check the valleys, even small valleys, leading off the Allegheny River Valley. If there are hickory trees there probably will be fox squirrels. Also, hickory nuts are more reliable mast crops than acorns.

Fox squirrels spread their range into Warren County by moving up the Allegheny River Valley and eastward through the farm country along the northwest corner of the county. Now they are fairly common through the river valley and along the shoreline of the Allegheny Reservoir, and in the gently rolling northwestern third of the county.

So take a kid squirrel hunting.

Squirrel hunting is the perfect training for all hunting. It requires stealth, patience, alertness, keen eyes, keen ears and marksmanship, all of the skills necessary for deer hunting, but with a much greater chance of success.

And squirrels are delicious. My wife, Jeri, parboils them, then bones them, coats them in breading and fries to finish. Usually, we have a meal of all of the small game I have taken combined.

To be honest, I do not shoot many small game animals each year anymore. It is not that I do not enjoy small game hunting as much as ever. I do. But I do not see as well as in the past, I do not have true stereo hearing, nor do I walk as far.

Grouse hunting and rabbit hunting requires a lot of walking through thick cover. Squirrel hunting is a lot easier on the legs. It is more standing or sitting than walking.