Buffalo-hide moccasins crushed fresh snow. The footfalls laced in and out of the prairie grass at the edge of a small hardwood stand. An early fox squirrel left a remembrance of its jaunt between a hefty red oak and a young white oak. A red squirrel’s whirring, “Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, Churrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…” garnered no mind from the morning mission of the hired post hunter.
It seems the night prior, a late-January Thursday, in the Year of our Lord, 1794, Samuel the Trader mentioned, “Rabbit stew sure would taste good” as he gazed out the cabin door at a light snow squall. At first light, his hired hunter set out for the great swamp. Where the prairie grass met the hardwoods on the wetland’s southeast end, the raspberry tangle and a bit to the east, the cedar grove offered the best hope of securing a couple of rabbits to satisfy the trader’s craving.
The Northwest gun, charged with the last of the clerk’s plover shot, remained across the hunter’s chest, muzzle up and out. An anxious thumb twittered on the cock, anticipating the first furry bound and jog. His nose dripped in the crisp, clean-smelling cold.
The moccasin trail wandered around the ravine, through a patch of red cedar trees, then to the brink of the slope that contained the hardwoods. The urgent quest produced but two sets of fox squirrel tracks.
At each pause, the woodsman surveyed the hillside. The white carpet that slipped down the slope to the drooping sedge grass looked clean, fresh and without blemish. Likewise, the depressions between snow-covered prairie grass clumps remained barren. Undaunted, the hired hunter continued on, after all, he had ‘til dusk to fulfill the dinner request.
At the north end, where the oaks, wild cherries and hickories diminish and the thick-packed cedars begin, split hooves marked a pre-dawn passage of three, maybe four younger deer. And there, to the right, in the midst of the doe tracks, a cottontail rabbit’s hind footprint, pointing downhill, provided the first hope. Without a single moccasin’s commitment, keen brown eyes saw where the rabbit left the deer’s byway, and discovered the matted-down snow under two scrawny cedar trees. A fallen oak limb grown over with weeds, now bent-over and broken, attracted his attention.
“A clean kill, or a clean miss. Your will, O Lord,” the post hunter whispered. Puffs of steamy breath drifted northeast. A fox squirrel scampered along a hickory limb, scattering snow as it ventured overhead. With that, Samuel’s hunter began a cautious still-hunt to the scrawny cedar trees…
Black Powder Small Game
Historical discussions sometimes take interesting turns. The telephone conversation centered on a fusil de chasse, purchased with the idea of taking a wild turkey or two. An incoming email resulted in the phone exchange. We talked mostly about loading, tips and tricks and some primary documentation regarding the French smoothbore. Then I posed the question, “Do you hunt small game?” The fifty-something gentleman paused, then said “I used to,” followed by “I never considered black powder small game.”
The exchange turned to youthful adventures that taught the basics of hunting, sportsmanship and the enjoyment of the outdoor world. Families grow, time afield diminishes and the emphasis shifts to big game, such as the white-tailed deer, black bear or magnificent elk. More by happenstance than intent, the simple pursuit of small game falls by the wayside.
This new-found friend shared some of his first experiences chasing fox squirrels and cottontail rabbits in his home state. His memories were not all that different from mine, or most hunters. A few decades ago acquiring the rudimentary woodland skills began with successes and failures chasing squirrels, rabbits, ducks, pheasants, quail and the occasional varmint. Today, videos, outdoor channels and social media skip right to trophy bucks, and such.
But back then, patience came with fox squirrels. Rabbits honed tracking abilities. Understanding habits and habitat followed from finding a duck or goose honey hole. Pheasants and quail taught brush hunting 101 and wing shooting 102. Gophers and woodchucks instructed classes on stalking, still-hunting and waiting for the best shot. And with them all a deep respect for the lessons taught in the wilderness classroom, humbling as they might be.
But the question of the night was, “I could hunt small game with the fusil, couldn’t I?” And my answer was, “Certainly! It would be a great opportunity to learn and grow with your new fusil.”
His question hung with me for several days, and recurs now and again. I realize in my own life I have gotten away from the small game. In recent years, family demands are to blame, but before that I simply did not place enough importance of small game hunting. That joyous pastime got away from me, too.
My hunter heroes mention small game from time to time. Meshach Browning started as a squirrel hunter, then graduated to bear and deer. John Tanner tells of hunting rabbits amongst tales of buffalo and elk. And yes, some of my most memorable traditional black powder hunts centered on small game—Swamp Hollow comes to mind, as does a few weekends in Michigan’s Huron National Forest.
The start of small game season is two months distant. Now is the time to begin planning ahead, the time to give a priority to the forest’s littler tenants. Sticky notes plaster the flat surfaces on either side of my desk. When the stickum gets old, notes fall. Reaching for a highlighter the other day, I discovered one that read:
“There is a limit to the number of autumns in a person’s life and none should be squandered.”
At the time, photo sheets from that January rabbit hunt stared back from the left-side monitor. I read the passage a couple times before taping it up in its rightful place. It’s funny how little happenings spark repentant thoughts. I vowed to include more small game hunts in this fall’s outings. We’ll see how that plays out. Maybe Samuel the Trader will have more cravings?
Ten paces from the matted area, the post hunter paused to unravel the tracks with his eyes, not his buckskin-clad legs. A lone set of tracks angled to the swamp’s edge, but to the north, another set returned. At the torn end of the oak limb, a single set of tracks circled uphill. He chose that path, watching ahead with each moccasin step. The rabbit’s tracks disappeared in the midst of the deeper white fluff that filled a break in the hardwoods. He turned back.
Being thorough, the woodsman investigated the tracks that led to the swamp’s edge. They, too, ended, not showing any connection to the set that returned to uphill. He paused, perplexed a bit. He decided to check to the south.
Six paces distant, from an obscure tuft of grass between two red oaks, brown fur exploded. Uphill three hops…two bounds to the right…the sear clicked…behind a red oak…the Northwest gun’s butt plate slammed against linen…three bounds left…the turtle sight chased…under a cedar tree’s dead limbs…and another…into an opening…
The muzzle’s angry, orange tongue lapped. Thunder echoed over the great swamp. White, sulfurous stench swirled about. The death bees swarmed. Snow flew skyward. The cottontail rabbit rolled. In a surprising instant, persistence satisfied Samuel the Trader’s craving…
Give traditional black powder hunting a try, be safe and may God bless you.