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Missing Small Game.

Unless you grew up in Africa with rhinos rooting in the summer squash, your first game was almost certainly small game. Sparrows, pigeons, even rats are to the city and town with the desire to hunt ("municipal paleolithic boy," Jose Ortega y Gasset might have called him) what the sperm whale was to Herman Melville. Even country boys (and girls) pursue rabbits and squirrels before deer.

As a preteen malcontent in southern California, I sought my first hunting fields in suburban backyards. There the game of choice, aside from the occasional dove sniped (never out of season, you understand) with the pellet rifle and plucked and eaten, was the Valley pocket gopher, Thomomys bottae, the gardening world's equivalent of the Man-Eater of Kumaon. In all the years since, I don't think I have yet experienced a more thrilling sight in nature than that of waking up to find a half-dozen mounds of brown soil, like heaping scoops of fresh-ground coffee, having sprouted overnight out of the dew of a manicured-green lawn.

I had to be afield early because I was competing with another predator, a six-toed calico that crouched beside the freshest mound, waiting for a buck-toothed snout to poke through the dirt. I would arm myself with a Benjamin air pistol (10 pumps) or a Ben Pearson fiberglass bow, and, more importantly, 25 feet of hose. I had to get the steam into the right hole, and right away. If a gopher didn't come sputtering out within a minute or two, then all I was doing was replenishing the water table. But if one of the soaking-wet, yellow-incisored rodents did pull himself onto the grass, like a sea lion hauling out on a beach, then the object was to make as clean a killing shot as possible, with pellet or target arrow, before the cat got it into her head to pounce.

Later I would travel into the then mostly empty stretches of the Mojave Desert to give chase to the blacktail jackrabbit, Lepus californicus, kicking him up out of the creosote and from behind the Joshua trees. To begin with I went with my father and his old friend Roy Cooper, but when I was old enough to drive I would steal the Jeep and go off with my friends, or sometimes just by myself.

It made a difference what I shot the rabbits with, a shotgun somehow not as "sporting" as the nearly 40-year-old Remington Model 34 rimfire; my father's Colt Woodsman was a sportier firearm still--a scope unacceptable under any circumstances. By far the single finest shot at any game I ever witnessed, though, was from a longbow by my friend Charley Spiller, bull's-eyeing a jackrabbit sitting under a bush at a full 70 yards with a judo point-tipped arrow.

It was a .22 rifle I carried on what was undoubtedly the most exciting day of hunting I ever had, following feisty dogs after eastern gray squirrels, Sciurus carolinensis, in the piney woods of East Texas.

I was with another friend, Mike Evans, and a few of the denizens of Mr. I.B. "Old Bogey" Price's sporting-goods establishment in Atlanta, Texas. We would watch the small mongrels trotting among the trees, heads upturned, hunting among the branches like arboreal gazehounds before transforming into miniaturized full-cry lion dogs at the least flicking of a bushy tail, then turning into HO-scale pit bulls as they rushed in to grab and hold any squirrel that might land wounded, and biting, on the ground. At the end of that day you could have asked me to have traded it for one with an elk tag, a loaded .300 and a 400-point bull standing broadside at 100 yards and gotten a stiff argument.

I still love to hunt small game, especially eastern cottontails, Sylvilagus floridanus, behind beagles whenever the all too infrequent opportunity arises. I live in elk country now, though, and there are mule deer, whitetails, pronghorns, sheep, moose, even lions, wolves and bears (oh my), too. All the rabbits, though, are hopping around in somebody's ranchyard, and it would require about five of the local mountain squirrels to make a decent hors d'oeuvre, providing you don't object to hiking the 10 miles or so it will likely take to find that many.

Don't get me wrong; this is the right country for a hunter to be in these days. Statistics show that big-game hunting increased more than 600 percent between 1950 and 1996, faster even than fishing and wildlife watching. While big-game hunting expanded 5 percent just between 1991 and 1996 (and at least 75 percent since 1985), small-game hunting shrank 9 percent.

It's good to know there are so many big-game hunters (and big game) out there, but it does make me worry about where all the small-game hunters (and small game) are going. Are there just not enough places left where a boy can walk out with a rifle (assuming the SWAT team isn't called in) and hunt, without having to mount an expedition to the far side of the state? I worry because I've never had any better hunting than some of the small-game hunting I've done, and I'd hate to think that other hunters might miss out on the same memories.

It may very well be that nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but more than once these days, when I manage to find myself in a tree stand in a hardwoods somewhere, with a mess of fox squirrels, Sciurus niger, rustling and chattering in the leaf litter below, I have asked myself what I'm doing wasting my time on deer, and not been entirely certain. And if you're wondering why all the Linnaean Latin names, it's because no words are too grand for small game.
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Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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