Matt Dickerson: Watching the squirrels beats shooting my gun

Every November, Vermont has a popular squirrel watching season. Tens of thousands of us avid squirrel watchers take to the woods and spend two weeks just sitting or quietly walking around watching squirrels.
We watch big fat old squirrels skitter around in the leaves looking for nuts. We watch young yearling squirrels play tag, chasing each other around the trunks of trees. We watch daring squirrels perform death-defying feats of agility and grace as they scramble along precariously thin branches and leap from tree to tree, using their bushy tails as emergency grappling hooks.
These are the gray squirrels. The ones we watch. There is also a coinciding squirrel-listening season involving red squirrels. While the gray squirrels run around playing and digging in the leaves, largely ignoring the squirrel watchers, the red squirrels just get up in a tree — somewhere nearby where we are stationed watching gray squirrels — and then start incessantly scolding us.
It is an addictive activity. Us squirrel watchers and squirrel listeners will go to great lengths to enjoy our sport. We rise earlier in the morning than we are willing to rise for any other activity. We freeze off various parts of our anatomy. We climb up into trees with seats strapped to our butts. We traipse through swamps. We spent money and hours to build squirrel watching platforms out in the woods. We repeatedly risk the wrath of our spouses. Between 16 days of squirrel watching in November, and another nine in December, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were Vermonters who spent a hundred or more hours in the activity every fall. A hundred hours when there is often nothing else happening in the woods except for squirrels running around us, scolding, making noises in the leaves, and leaping from branch to branch.
On the opening eve of squirrel watching season this year, I spent the night out on my newly constructed squirrel watching platform, 16 feet up in the tree, so that I would be there bright and early on Saturday morning ready for action at the first hint of dawn. And I was not disappointed. I must have seen seven squirrels before two hours of daylight had passed.
I did have one moment of distraction on opening morning. A whitetail doe walked past my squirrel watching stand about three hours after sunrise, threatening to scare away my squirrels. Now whitetail does are herd animals by instinct. A lone doe in November almost certainly has a buck chasing her. And one nice thing about Vermont is that squirrel watchers are allowed to bring rifles into the woods during the season in order to harvest any sufficiently antlered deer that come along and disturb the squirrels. And just as I expected, less than a minute after that doe appeared, a young buck showed up following her trail through the trees along the ridge.
I lifted my 30.06 and raised it toward where the doe had stopped, figuring the buck would be headed for the same place. It was. Problem is, it was moving at a fast pace. Too fast for me to make any sort of reasonable shot through the trees. And it never stopped moving. The doe took off running when the buck got close. The buck took off after her. I lowered my rifle without having pulled the trigger, and never saw either of them again.
So I was free to return to my squirrel watching. And I did. For several more days. Sure, I was distracted now and then by a herd of does. But no lone does. And no bucks. Nothing to disturb me. Not until almost the very last day of the squirrel watching season. Then another one showed up. A smaller buck, but still with decent shoulders. Big enough to distract me temporarily from my activity. It came wandering across the meadow right below my stand, no more than 50 yards away. Plenty close for a good shot. And unlike the earlier buck, it was not running, and it was out in the open.
The problem was, though the deer looked old enough and big enough to provide a winter’s worth of venison for my family, I could not see any tines on those spikes of antlers it was sporting. I glared at it through the scope of my aforementioned .06, trying to make an antler tine grow. Just one would have been sufficient. Apparently I didn’t pay enough money for my scope, though, because it wasn’t working.
I’ve read about hunters who have scopes that make antlers grow even on does, but the antlers that grow are special and can only be seen through those scopes. Apparently it is like watching a 3D movie; you need the special glasses or you can’t see the 3D. And the obvious problem with those scopes is that, after shooting a deer, you need to convince the game warden to look at the deer through your scope or the antlers are invisible. And that’s a bad thing. “But, warden. I swear that animal has antlers. I know they aren’t visible to mere mortal wardens. But I saw them through my scope.”
No. I didn’t want to go there. I needed one of the scopes that actually cause the growth of antler tines that can be seen even without the scope. And my scope apparently didn’t have that power — though I must have left it aimed at those spikes for a good minute and a half before the buck wandered off the meadow and up the hill where I then spotted four does I had not previously noticed.
All five of the distractions then slowly wandered off. And once more I lowered my rifle without having taken a shot. I was left alone to my squirrel watching. I swear one of those squirrels was laughing at me.

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