Ask any Mississippian about his or her family tree, and it’s likely you’ll hear about a great hunter that stands out on one of the many limbs, like a fox squirrel’s red tail blowing on a cool fall morning.
In my family, it was Willy Savage, my mom’s stepfather, who, for some reason, took me under his wing and decided I would be the one of his many grandchildren that he would mentor.
Fortunately for me, Grandpa Willy was a grass-roots sort of outdoorsman. He was a hard-working man, whose hands were always greasy in the afternoon after a day of fixing heavy, diesel equipment, but always soft to the touch and clean as he held me and told me hunting stories.
Living in Houston, Texas, he used his autumn weekends either to hunt deer in the high desert, ducks in the Sabine River bottoms or squirrels in the tall timber between Houston and the Gulf.
When I visited for two months each summer, he’d share his stories; his best were always about hunting with his friend Skeet, a tall, skinny, black man who lived in the woods, and, as best I can remember, had to be the greatest squirrel hunter there ever was.
Together, he and Grandpa Willy killed hundreds of squirrels each season, all of which they cleaned together over a case of beer and split between them. There were piles of them every weekend. I didn’t know anything about limits, and apparently, they didn’t either.
When Grandpa Willy was helping build the Astrodome, keeping those giant earth movers and mighty cranes working in what had to be brutal heat and humidity, he often worked weekends. Skeet would fill the void, shooting enough squirrels to load Grandma’s freezer.
“That man,” Grandpa Willy told me on one visit to pick up a load of squirrels, “sure knows his way around the woods. When you’re old enough, you and I will spend a week with him, and you’ll learn enough in that time to be a great hunter.”
“But, Grandpa Willy, you’re the best hunter,” I said.
“Heck, boy, he taught me,” Grandpa Willy countered.
Skeet just laughed at those words and gave me the only lesson I got from him before he died.
“Little man,” he said, “all you need to know is how to get around in the woods like you are part of the forest. Walk quietly, use trees for cover,and you keep your eyes open for snakes on the ground and movement in the trees. That’s all there is to it. You learn the woods, and you will never go hungry.”
Skeet was right, of course. Grandpa Willy made sure either fried squirrel or deer sausage — or both — was on the breakfast menu every morning when I visited. It was heaven for a young boy who loved to hear the stories as much as he did those great breakfasts.
Decades later, as I became an outdoor writer, I realized just how valuable Grandpa Willy’s stories were. He wasn’t just sharing his tales; he was sharing knowledge.
And, that tidbit from Skeet … he was right on target.
Being a good squirrel hunter first requires one to be a good woodsman. Every story about every good squirrel hunter I’ve ever heard or written was about somebody who was at home in the woods.
Skeet made over
One of the best I ever met in Mississippi was Levi Barnes, who, oddly enough, was so much like Skeet, it was like I was back in the swamps south of Houston. He was tall and light; he was lanky.
“Squirrel hunting is my first love,” said Barnes. “Been chasing them since I was 10, when my daddy and granddaddy started letting me tag along. Best hunters I’ve ever known — and my granddaddy was one of them — were squirrel hunters.
“A good squirrel hunter can hunt anything and be successful, because he has mastered the one key thing all good hunters must, and that is becoming one with the woods. I was lucky enough to have my grandfather teach me, and my dad after that. I once saw my grandfather sneak up behind a deer and slap her on the rear end. That’s how good he was.”
Barnes, who has since died, was about that sneaky.
“That’s what squirrel hunting is, unless you’re one of those who hunts with a dog, and that’s okay, too,” he said. “I have hunted with dogs and killed a bunch of squirrels behind them, but I have also slipped away from the crowd on my own and gotten a limit just walking through the woods.”
There was this one hunt — his friend James Thomas confirmed the story — when Barnes slipped away from a group of men and their dogs and rejoined them an hour later with a limit of eight squirrels in his vest.
“We never even knew he was gone,” Thomas said. “We kept hunting and we kept hearing a .22 going off, but we figured it was on neighboring property. No, it was Levi and his subsonic .22 killing squirrels. All of a sudden, he comes walking back up and said he was done.
“I asked him if he was tired from following the dogs, and he said, ‘No, I’ve gotten the limit, and I’m heading back to the house.’ That man had killed more than the rest of us and had walked away and returned without us even knowing it.”
Coming by it naturally
Not every great squirrel hunter I’ve encountered had decades of experience in the woods. One of the best was a teenager from West Point whose father was the friend of the Mossy Oak bunch who had arranged a hunt for me.
Danny Rainey introduced his son to me thusly: “This is Tree Rat.
“His real name is Daniel, but we just call him Tree Rat.”
At the time, Daniel Rainey was 19 and a freshman at Mississippi State University, and it took just two hours for me to know how he earned his nickname.
“I got the limit,” he said at 8 a.m., when he found me in the Tibbee Creek bottom. His limit of eight included one fox squirrel and seven grays.
“Funny thing was that I shot one squirrel real early and then never saw another until about 7:15. I think that’s when they woke up.”
I was hunting about 500 yards away, across a lake and a road from Tree Rat and was amazed — and somewhat embarrassed — by what I heard. Between 7:15 and 7:40, the shotgun blasts coming from his area sounded more like a good Delta dove hunt than a Tibbee Creek bottom squirrel hunt.
Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom.
Add those seven shots to the one right after sunrise, and Tree Rat had his limit. Adding my bag to his eight, we averaged four apiece.
“I shot those last seven in 24 minutes,” he said. “Once I got to where they were, it didn’t take long.”
Rainey was hunting a stretch of woods between an old oxbow lake and a road.
“It was only about 40 yards wide between the water and the road, and I’d walk a little and sit a little,” he said. “Mostly I like to stalk, walking slowly and watching and listening for any sign.”
That was how he’d been hunting since his father first took him at the age of 10. He hunted alone for the first time at age 12 and killed the limit.
“I think I got one or two that morning, and he got the limit,” Danny Rainey said. “That’s when we started calling him ‘Tree Rat.’ Something about that boy attracts squirrels; he is a squirrel-hunting machine.”
Good thing, too, because on the day of our hunt, Daniel Rainey said getting an early limit was necessary because he had a 10 a.m. class back in Starkville.
“I was beginning to worry about it,” he said. “It was a perfect morning, cool, clear and very little wind. The ground was still wet, so you could move without making any noise. But I wasn’t seeing any squirrels at all. I shot that first one, and there was an hour in between when I should have been seeing more sign, and I didn’t see a thing.”
At 7:15, he said, “It was like someone flipped a switch and they came alive.
“Squirrels were everywhere, all of a sudden. I shot one and went to get him. As soon as I picked him up, I saw two more in neighboring trees. That’s when I got the fox squirrel and another gray.”
After picking up another single, Tree Rat found the day’s true honey hole, and his hunt was quickly concluded.
“I saw this squirrel running in a tree about 50 yards away and I moved on him,” he said. “I walked slow, keeping some trees between us until I was under him.
“When I raised the gun and shot, another one broke and ran in a tree right beside me. I shot it and then heard one jump on a limb and start running away as fast as he could. I got him, too.”
After his son had raced off to Starkville and his morning class, his dad laughed and shook his head.
“He’s the dangest thing I’ve ever seen; that boy can forever more squirrel hunt,” Danny Rainey said. “He came by it natural.”
Best on four legs
The most-avid squirrel hunter I’ve ever met had four legs and was the epitome of excitement.
His name was Black Oak Ike, at the time a 2½-year-old mountain cur who would give the Energizer bunny a run for its money.
His owner, Randy Bessonette of Brandon, introduced me to Ike on a two-hour afternoon hunt near Barnett Reservoir. It took less than five minutes — we were literally still gearing up at the truck — to hear Ike howling from the woods about 100 yards away.
“He’s already treed one,” Bessonette said, hurrying to get there.
The dog wasn’t hard to find. Halfway to him, we could see Ike bouncing up and down on the forest floor as if it were a trampoline, clearing the ground against an oak by 5 or 6 feet.
Ike had obviously treed a squirrel, which escaped up that tree and probably jumped to a nearby big tree to find cover. While we looked in every fork, studied every piece of bark, followed every limb and checked every notch for the squirrel, Ike just kept bouncing.
He’d bark and then chew bark — yes, he actually gnawed at the tree; he was so into it. The more we searched, the more frustrated Ike got, often pausing to give us a look that said “I-did-my-part-why-can’t-you-do-yours?”
Ike needed only a second or two to get over our inability to finish the job. He ran around a couple of seconds and then headed out of sight in the thick forest. A few minutes and a few hundred yards later, we heard his howls. And we found Ike airborne again, this time against a big thick oak. We surrounded the tree and began searching. After 10 minutes, we started to walk away again, but Ike would have none of it. He raced back to the same tree and went nuts again.
“He doesn’t want us to leave,” said Mack Boyd, Bessonette’s neighbor and hunting partner.
Bessonette turned back around, looked up the tree, raised his rifle and peered through the scope.
“There he is; I think I see him,” he said. “Yep, that’s him laying low in that fork.”
Bessonette made the head shot.
Ike quickly recovered it and brought it back to his master.
“You kept telling us he was up there, and you are always right,” Bessonette said, hugging his dog.
Ike shared the moment, briefly, before dashing away in search of another squirrel, and it didn’t take long.
That dog could hunt.