COLUMBIA — At about 7:15 a.m. last Saturday, 14-year-old friends Alec Montie and Bo Scribner, arrived at a tiny, gravel parking lot southwest of Columbia in the Mark Twain National Forest.
Bo was wearing boots with camouflage trim, blue jeans, a camouflage T-shirt and baseball cap. He was armed with a shotgun and appeared confident, like he had hunted before, even though his only experience has been shooting his BB gun in his backyard.
Alec was dressed in similar attire and also had a shotgun. He was more vocal, saying repeatedly how ready he was to get going. He had been deer hunting before, but had never tried for squirrels, the object of the morning's hunt.
Chris Montie, Alec's father, and Missouri Department of Conservation member Shawn Gruber made up the rest of the group, part of a planned activity sponsored by the MDC aimed to get children between 10 and 15 years old outdoors.
“Exploring nature is what we’re all about,” said Brian Flowers, an outdoor skills specialist with the conservation department. “And hunting is one way to do that.”
And squirrel hunting is one of the easiest ways to get involved.
“A big part of (squirrel hunting) is family tradition,” said Flowers, who organized Saturday's program and has set up others such as frog-gigging, outdoor cooking classes and nature hikes. “It all depends what you were raised to hunt and what you prefer to eat.”
The event also sent groups to other hunting spots including the Charles Green, Rocky Fork and Three Creeks conservation areas. Young hunters either brought their own gun or borrowed one from the department. Most beginners used shotguns, which require less accuracy to hit a target, but some also used .22 caliber rifles.
Blake Anderson from St. Louis said he saw the squirrel hunt as a way to get his son, Luke, 11, more active.
“I’d never hunted before and saw this youth squirrel hunt,” Anderson said. “I figured I would rather Luke be outside, trying something new than in front of the computer.”
On Friday night at an informational meeting at the department's headquarters in Columbia before the hunt, Luke couldn't keep still. At the end of the meeting, he was jumping in excitement while he walked out with his father.
"I'm going to shoot a squirrel!" he told anyone who would listen.
In the small parking lot on Saturday, the group loaded guns, applied bug spray and then headed off into the forest. After an overnight rain, plants sagged toward the ground and tree limbs hung in the way.
Gruber told the boys to look for movement in the trees, not for squirrels. But on this windy morning, it was difficult to separate movement from squirrels. The damp ground also made it easier for squirrels to move through the woods without being heard.
The group walked around, leaning against a couple trees for 5 to 10 minutes, then walking on before deciding to rest against some more trees or take a seat on a log.
About 45 minutes into the hunt, Alec shook a squirrel call he had borrowed from the conservation department. The black rubber cylinder produced short burst of sounds like squirrel chatter. Birds began calling angrily at the group from high above.
“We stirred them up,” Gruber said, laughing. “Animals get territorial. Once you leave, they’ll be fine.”
Wild squirrels aren't used to seeing humans, while backyard squirrels aren't frightened at the sight of a human. That can make tracking down a squirrel in the woods harder than it might seem. The group continued its search in vain until about 9:30 a.m. when it stopped to go meet up with the other groups.
Alec and Bo came out empty handed, but they learned no other group had taken any squirrels either. The only other group to see a squirrel was the one led by Flowers. One of the hunters got off a few shots but didn’t hit the squirrel.
“It’s called hunting, not killing,” Flowers said. “If it was called killing, you’d always come back with what you were looking for.”
The groups met in a circle at the Charles Green Wildlife Area to discuss the hunt. Around them, it smelled like Italian dressing and barbecue sauce. Squirrels were cooking.
Boone County Conservation Agent Adam Doerhoff and other conservation department members killed nine squirrels earlier in the week to cook for the hunters. Squirrel tastes like chicken, though it is more boney so don’t bother trying to use a fork.
The hunters licked their fingers and wiped their mouths, a satisfying morning enjoying nature.
Luke understood, it was his first time.
“Let’s do it again!” he said.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.