It is November and, growing up, that is the month we got out our shotguns and polished them for the small game season. It would to be bad news for the rabbits, squirrels, ring-neck pheasants, and the farmer’s occasional cow or goat.
Farm kids learned to use guns early. I don’t remember any official safety classes, but we were taught how to hold a gun properly, keep the safety switch own, shoot at some targets, clean the gun, and things like that. We weren’t afraid of guns, but we didn’t have “open carry” either. Every red-blooded farm boy wanted to own a shotgun and rifle, but most of us couldn’t afford one and had to coax our dad to borrow his. My dad had a 20 gauge shotgun, a couple of 22 gauge rifles, and a pistol. My brother had a love for guns and when he was older he had over a dozen of them.
We would purchase our hunting license and place it in a see-through packet that was then pinned to the back of our hunting jacket. This was done so that any game warden could see it quickly. The hunting jacket had special pockets for our ammunition and an open sleeve-like pocket on the back where we would stuff our kill, carefully letting the tail feathers of the ring-neck stick out so that all could admire its misfortune.
That is because pheasants, unlike rabbit and squirrel, were hard to bring down. They flew up out of the corn field or meadow quickly, scaring the novice hunter to the extent that he (or rarely she) would fumble away their chance to blast them out of the sky.
Hunters like us were not sentimental—we were out to do damage to small helpless animals and then eat them. There was no sympathy for cute rabbits or darling squirrels. We had let them live for 11 months and now it was their turn to die and, in so doing, enhance our reputations as exceptional nimrods.
I admit that I did sometimes feel a bit sorry when I looked into the eyes of a wounded rabbit and had to break its neck. But the feeling was fleeting and unacceptable to one’s peers. “Don’t worry about rabbits,” someone would say, “the game commission will restock the area as soon as hunting season is over”.
And they did—rabbits and ring-necks were raised by the commission and then released some days or weeks prior to the opening day of small game hunting season. The animals, undoubtedly thinking that they had been granted a heavenly pasture-land, soon found themselves in the nightmare barrage of guns going off from every direction.
It could be pitiful—I once saw about 8 hunters from the city who had received permission to hunt on a neighbor’s farm. The hunters were strung out in a row, each with a shinny shotgun, about 50 feet apart. Suddenly a ring-neck arose from the corn field and began to wing its way westward. As it flew past the gauntlet of gunners, each had as many shots as they could muster (most using pump guns) and the poor bird took the brunt of it. It got winged and lost altitude, got hit again and plummeted closer to the ground, and finally was so full of lead that it smashed into the ground. But it was not done—pheasants can run and run fast. But there were other killers it had to run by and each kept shooting at it. Finally it was done and a triumphant shooter held up what was left of it, mainly a lump of feathers. The city slickers were victorious but the bird got the last word, I am sure, when the hunter got home and tried to clean and dress the fowl—all there would be was a bloody body full of buckshot. Not too tasty to nibble at if you want to keep your teeth.
Of course, we farm kids weren’t like that. We knew how to allow our bullets to be slightly ahead of the pheasant when we shot and hit it in the head, knocking it senseless immediately and conserving the frame for proper eating.
It was more difficult with rabbits and squirrels. Rabbits don’t run in a straight line and squirrels like to hide on the back side of the tree, barely noticeable to the hunter, but with the hunter quite evident to the squirrel. And you don’t want to shoot a squirrel with a shotgun—there won’t be anything left to eat, not that there is much to begin with. So you use a small caliber rifle, like a 22 and you aim for the head. Some hunters I knew would shoot the tails off for sport but I never liked the idea of a squirrel without a tail. It would lose its balance quickly.
When we brought home game that we had killed we had to clean it. Cleaning a rabbit is easy with a pocket knife, although sometimes if you are not careful skinning it you will end up with damaged guts all over your hands—very messy. But skinning a squirrel is like peeling an orange. Get it started right and the hide just wants to slide off. And the meat is tasty, especially if you are fond of rodent.
There is always a limit on how much game you can slaughter—I think two pheasants was the limit—but we were lucky to get even one or two rabbits. The truth is I loved to hunt but was not very effective. I would be thinking of the book I had just read and a rabbit would dart out and before I got it in my sights my brother had bagged it. He was the nimrod of the neighborhood. Sometimes he would let me put the varmint in my jacket so it would look like I had shot it.
We didn’t look much like the fancy hunters that came from the city. They had high-top shoes, breeches, checkered jackets, hunting dogs and expensive guns. They looked like hunters but were frauds. We looked like tramps but were hunters—proving that you can’t tell a hunter by the rich colors of his hunting pants and jacket.
After small game season, we had “deer season”. It lasted two weeks but before it officially started men (and perhaps a female or two) could hunt buck with bow and arrows. The buck didn’t seem to be in much danger, but when the season officially began at about first light a couple of days later, the country side soon sounded like a small battle was taking place.
Men (and the occasional woman) would go out in groups, often from a hunting camp or cabin and they would have high powered rifles with scopes and crosshairs. The deer hunters were serious and meant business—they would sometimes steal the carcass of a deer from another hunter who was more timid or had a less imposing firearm. During buck season the hunters are supposed to shoot only at male deer but sometimes a female deer (a doe) would have its head behind the braches of a tree and the assassin would shoot first and inspect later. Or some wannabe hunters would think that a farmer’s cow looked like a deer and shoot it. It was best to stay indoors during the first couple of days of deer season.
Once the deer is shot the hunter used to tie it to the front fender of the car so that everyone (who wanted to) could see the prize. It was then hung upside down on the branch of a tree—preferably in the front lawn so that any passerby by could see and admire it—and then gutted.
The meat was doled out to the men (or perhaps a woman) who were a part of the hunt. I once had the whole back hind leg of a deer given to me because I had managed to put a couple of slugs in it before its passing. If there was too much deer to consume quickly, the rest would be put in a freezer, where it was not supposed to remain over the winter, lest it appear that the beast was killed out of season. Game wardens were known to inspect indiscreet hunting activities.
My hunting ended for the most part after I left high school and home. Oh, I had a shotgun, rifle and pistol for different periods of time in Papua New Guinea, but the animals and birds there were quite safe with me around.
And now, unlike most Texans, I don’t even own a gun. I wouldn’t shoot a rabbit even if it asked me to, although I might be persuaded to do damage to a rodent.