By Byron Coburn
I used to love hunting squirrels, but in the past several years my desire is not as strong as it once was. That changed last year. My granddaughter, Maya, reached the age where she can handle a gun and now she wants to experience the hunt.
I have been a member of the Arizona Elk Society (AES), for a few years. They have a lot of events every year to encourage kids to get involved in outdoor activities. In particular, in the summer, they have a Wapiti Weekend event that is held up in the pine country. Some of the activities commonly available to the kids are gold panning, kayaking, animal identification, GPS operation, archery, .22 rifle shooting, etc. Two years ago, Maya got an hour of shooting with the .22 rifle at the Wapiti Weekend. She really did well and loved it. Afterward, she begged me to take her hunting. I have been hunting my whole life, so being able to share a passion for the hunt with her was exciting for me, but I did not want her to do it just because it was my hobby.
I had explained to her that there would be some ground rules to get her started. First, her parents had to agree to let me take her out. Neither one of them hunt so it was pretty scary for them to think about their daughter out in the field with a gun, but they both own and shoot pistols occasionally, so as long as I was with her as a mentor, they were willing to let her try hunting. The first thing I did was to take her out to watch me hunt.
Our first hunt was for doves. We meandered around in a desert area that had quite a few doves flying. She had a good time following me around picking up the doves that I shot. Having previously explained to her what was going to happen, I held my breath to see how she would react. She took everything in stride and even managed to clean one of the doves after the hunt. A few years ago, I had taught her how to clean fish on one of our fishing trips. She actually likes cleaning fish!
Our next hunt was for squirrels. We were up in the Ponderosa pines for this hunt. We would drive around on the forest roads until we spotted a squirrel. I would stop the truck and she would jump out and chase the squirrel up a tree. After pulling the truck off the road, I would stroll over with my rifle. She would already have the squirrel spotted in the tree. We bagged my limit by noon that day. She wanted to keep going but I explained we were only allowed to harvest five per day. We both had a great time.
The next step was for her to get her hunter safety certificate from the Arizona Game and Fish Department. That took a few months. Grandma took the course at the same time since she had never taken it. This provided some good bonding time and competition with Grandma. Once Maya passed the course, I surprised her with a brand new Ruger American bolt-action .22 rifle. She was elated! Since then, we have been to the shooting range several times.
We have also been to a couple more AES events in the past year, where she shot .22 rifles with a group of her peers. Maya shoots extremely well. Several of the instructors have told me she has a talent for shooting. I would like to take credit for that, but honestly, I think it may be in her genes. Her mother was always a very good shot with very little practice. Maya always impresses the instructors with her knowledge of safe shooting rules.
This past fall it was Maya’s turn to hunt. I put a scope on her .22 rifle. I am a stickler for shooting squirrels in the head so as not to waste meat, plus I don’t like cleaning a squirrel shot in the body. I knew that with open sights she would have difficulty making a shot accurate enough to hit a squirrel in the head at 50 yards. She also got to practice with my Winchester lever action .22 mag rifle. She actually likes that rifle better than hers and wants to trade. No way! I love that gun.
In late October, Maya, Grandma and I headed for the Mogollon Rim. At our first stop, we followed a dim track through the forest down to a dirt water tank I have hunted before. The trek was only about a half a mile. We did not see any squirrels but it was exciting, nonetheless. While circling back to the truck, we saw a small herd of deer, found some bear tracks in the mud, and stumbled on some elk bones at someone’s old elk camp. It doesn’t get any better than that!
Our next stop was an area I have hunted squirrels successfully for many years, although it had been a few years since I had been there. I was hoping the squirrels would be there. Maya and I left Grandma in the truck and headed north out into the woods. We had walked a few hundred yards before we spotted our first squirrel. We ran after it and managed to get it to tree. It was a pretty easy shot, but the excitement got to Maya and she missed on her first try. I told her to relax, take a couple of deep breathes and squeeze the trigger. Her second shot was successful!
We ended up following a ridge to the south and then down into a canyon, thick with trees and undergrowth, which usually held squirrels. We sat for a while and then I heard a squirrel vocalizing. That’s what I was hoping would happen. I had just told Maya that when hunting you used all of your senses to locate game – looking for game, hearing them, and smelling them. An experienced hunter uses all of their senses. We were able to hike up the canyon to approximately where I thought the squirrel was located. After a few moments, Maya bagged another squirrel. We took our time tramping through the thick brush as we completed our circuit back to the truck, but did not see or hear any more squirrels.
We ate a late lunch at the truck. While we were eating, a squirrel came down a tree about thirty feet away. Maya chased it up a really tall Ponderosa pine. I took her the rifle, and while Grandma videotaped it, Maya bagged another squirrel. At this point I decided we would clean the three squirrels and then head for home. Maya helped pull the hides off but I wouldn’t let her handle the knife because squirrels are difficult to clean and I was afraid she might cut herself.
Two weeks later, we went on another squirrel hunt. This time we went for two days up south of Williams. On Saturday, Maya bagged three squirrels. On Sunday, she bagged her limit of five squirrels. Maya ended up using my .22 magnum rifle for this hunt. There were two reasons for using my rifle. First, the gun fits her better and she is more accurate with it. Second and more importantly, I can buy solid copper bullets so I don’t have to be concerned about having lead chips in the meat.
I had brought a monopod pole for her to use as a rest because shooting a squirrel at the top of a tree is not any easy shot. After her second squirrel she asked me if she could just shoot offhand rather than using the rest. I told her it was her choice. So, she ended up kneeling on one knee and shooting offhand. I was amazed to see how well she shot. Out of the 8 squirrels she shot that weekend, only three were hit in the body. The last two squirrels she shot were difficult shots high in the trees. Maya managed to make perfect, dead-center head shots on both of them. I am very proud of her and can’t wait to see how she progresses as a huntress.