"This is as good as it gets," Neal Brown said as he stoked a Tennessee-style flintlock in .32 caliber. "I've done a lot of hunting, but squirrel hunting with a dog and the flintlock is my favorite. Let's see what Barlow puts up down here in the swamp."

At that we were off. And we were not to be disappointed. Barlow produced, the little flintlocks were true, and the two of us went about the business of squirrel hunting as we had done since childhood.

Brown's evaluation of squirrel hunting is now shared by many. Thousands of hunters across the state have discovered for the first time or have had a revival of sorts that speaks well of squirrel hunting's appeal. It is as good as it gets. That is not to take away from the incredible deer hunting Mississippi offers. That is not to say that turkeys are not a thrilling challenge that can leave a hunter despondent or euphoric, depending upon the outcome.

It is simply to say that squirrels afford some fantastic hunting that can go lacking in other pursuits.

For decades across the Magnolia State, the statement of "Let's go huntin'" meant squirrels. Big game that is now so common was scarce, even non-existent in many areas. Deer and turkeys were available only in isolated spots scattered about the state, and most hunters wishing to pursue them had to travel to do so.

But many of those same hunters needed only walk out the back door and into a woodlot to find squirrels. That they did with much enthusiasm.

And there were others who took the chase to more extremes. Some of my fondest memories of early childhood were listening to the "old men" around one particular country store talk about their plans for a week-long squirrel hunt. They would putter about and buy supplies, and at some point a day or so later they would load into battered trucks and cars and drive off to a camp.

Although it was not likely farther away than the next county, it seemed another world to a young boy who had never participated in such activity and could scarcely imagine a location outside his familiar environs. It was an annual and much anticipated event.

But all that changed. Small farms that men such as these operated gave way to public jobs that had strict schedules. Those young boys who listened intently to those marvelous tales grew up, went to college and entered a fast-paced world unlike anything they had known.

Squirrel hunting suffered.

And then there were the deer. About that same time, deer hunting in Mississippi began to come to the forefront. Expanding herds put deer as a possible game animal for most hunters across the state, and there was precious little time for anything else. Squirrel hunting declined into second or third place in the popularity scheme, well behind deer and turkeys.

That remains the case today, but as previously mentioned, there has been a rekindling of this love affair of late.

What makes squirrel hunting so attractive? Several things. One is availability. Squirrels are practically everywhere. They require very little travel for most hunters, and expensive leases are not mandatory to hunt bushytails.

Another element that causes squirrel hunting to draw participants is the action involved. This is especially true of hunting with dogs, but even the spot-and-stalk crowd or sit-at-the-tree individual is seldom without shooting during a morning in the woods.

This factor alone can help make squirrel hunting ideal for the young and/or new hunter. There is very little of that sitting in the cold for hours that is often associated with deer hunting.

Rick Hamrick, small game program leader for the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, agrees with this last assessment.

"(Squirrel hunting) is a good way to get kids involved," he said. "From that standpoint, we're seeing some increase in youth participation. And dog hunting seems to be really gaining in popularity."

That is certainly a positive, but the positives don't stop there.

Gear must not be overlooked as a plus to squirrel hunting. Although camo works to the hunter's advantage, rushing out to buy expensive patterns for the new hunter is not essential. Common drab colors will work well enough, and most folks will have something in the closet that will suffice.

The same goes for firearms. While a modern-day deer hunt practically demands that the hunter own a scoped rifle that can cost hundreds of dollars, not so for the squirrel hunter. A simple single-barrel shotgun or inexpensive .22 is all that is needed; as a result, the new hunter can get equipped simply and inexpensively to try this new venture.

Seasons are also attractive. Depending upon the location north to south, squirrel hunting may open as early as Oct. 1 and run through February. This gives tremendous flexibility to those whose time is dictated by jobs, and affords countless opportunities to be in the woods during a fall/winter season. Long seasons help take away many of the time restraints common to other types of hunting.

And squirrel hunting is the perfect tool for teaching. Marksmanship, woods savvy and respect for the landowner, fellow hunters and game are easily taught and learned on a squirrel hunt. These all combine to put squirrel hunting toward the top for introducing others to the hunting fraternity.

And, of course, there is the abundance of lands that house squirrels. Private holdings aside, Mississippi offers thousands of acres of land open to the public. Wildlife Management Areas are scattered about in every region of the state, and these can provide some excellent squirrel hunting.

Mississippi now has 48 WMAs, many open to squirrel hunting. These stretch from the Tenn-Tom Waterway in the northeast to the Gulf Coast. Self-serve check-in/check-out stations are the norm, and the visitor needs only fill out and display the appropriate materials as per instructions at the stations.

A word of advice is in order here regarding WMAs: Some follow the statewide season structure and are open at the same times as that prescribed for the region in which the WMA is situated.

Quite a few, however, have seasons that don't align with the statewide structure. Some may be open for short spurts, only to close and reopen several times throughout the fall/winter. The hunter should visit the MDWFP web site or talk with a conservation officer or area manager to get specifics about the seasons.

Even on those WMAs with a more restricted season, there are ample days open for hunters to enjoy the area.

When hunting a WMA, what should the hunter look for? The logical answer is timber, but that answer requires a more specific explanation. Depending upon the region and individual WMA, some timber will be pine stands. These can be productive, but they generally lag behind stands consisting primarily of hardwoods. These are most often found in the bottoms along streams, and some of this type of terrain will be on practically every WMA.

The areas where hardwoods meet stands of pines can also be good, and these seem to be favored by fox squirrels.

For the most part, avoid solid pine plantations and head to the bottomland hardwoods or transitional strips where the hardwoods are adjacent to the pines.

The common squirrel will probably never take the place of the whitetail in Mississippi. Nor is it likely to displace the turkey as an enchanted game species. But it is grand just the same.

There are still quite a few of us older hunters who knew nothing else as we were growing up, and if indications are accurate, the squirrel is the animal receiving the most attention by those who are just now beginning to hunt. Could be it is once again headed for a place of prominence in the outdoor world, a place it richly deserves.