The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 28, 2013

Bonus day of hunting

A rare day free of the usual responsibilities leads to squirrel hunt

By Chris Ellis
For The Register-Herald

BECKLEY — Bonus hunting days aren’t marked on a calendar. You can’t count them as part of your scheduled hunting plan. That’s the thing about a bonus day; they are simply special and should be cherished as so. They are life’s little gifts — like finding a 20 in your freshly washed jeans or flipping through the channels and stumbling onto your favorite John Wayne movie.

Bonus days generally start with low expectations, partially because there is no anticipation and planning, but often times end with better-than-expected results.

This past week, I found myself smack-dab in the middle of a bonus day of hunting. A rare, free afternoon with no pending deadlines and an eager hunting buddy set the stage. We were both longing to fill our noses with the scent of the fall woods and the connection to the natural world hunting offers.

A quick check of the WVDNR regulations revealed the quarry of choice had to be either doves or squirrels — we chose the latter. With the stage set and characters defined, we set off to a hillside farm about 20 minutes from nowhere.

A couple of years ago, the WVDNR moved the opening of squirrel season back a month. I recall statements like, “Mild weather conditions in September and longer days offer a great opportunity to take a youngster hunting,” being written in news releases offered by the agency. Being a huge fan of increased opportunities for hunters to go afield, I’d like to shake the hand of whoever decided that was a good idea.

The weather had turned on the drive out to the farm. A mild rain had set into a drizzle and big drops rolled off the leaves of the overhanging branches, causing plops of water to hit the truck’s windshield as we slowly creaked out the gravel road.

We parked at the farmer’s gate and decided with the recent rain, it would be best to spend our time still-hunting — slipping quietly through the woods. The damp forest floor provided for almost no noise as our boots clambered over rocks and roots as we made our way to a particular beech flat I had scouted weeks earlier.

This year’s beech nut crop is unlike any I recall before and I was curious to see if the game had migrated to the plentiful food source. We slipped around an old haul road and settled in on a spot overlooking a wrinkled-up patch of earth with the smooth, skin-like, light-gray bark of the beech trees rising from the ground and reaching high into the forest canopy.

“We’re here,” I whispered to my hunting buddy.

It didn’t take us long to find out the answer to my question. In a matter of minutes, lasting until the light began to fade hurriedly with dusk approaching, we watched deer, turkeys and squirrels feeding on the abundance of beech mast scattered atop the leaf litter on the ground. We had front-row seats to the show and beech nuts provided us with backstage passes.

On an unplanned, bonus afternoon of hunting on a dreary day in September, two hunting buddies slipped into a beech flat. It was a day I will not soon forget and I plan on recalling it in vivid-color detail when the squirrel gravy is poured over the biscuits.