A new-generation air gun from Gamo USA combines with a bit of friendly competition for the annual Squirrel Master Classic

by Barb Melloni

Dogs’ eager barks fill the early morning air. Trails of dust linger as trucks traverse the gravel drive toward the lodge. Periodic cracks from air rifles can be heard, breaking moments of silence as hunters get zeroed in. These are but a few of the tell-tale signs that it is yet again time for one of the industry’s most anticipated air gun events — the 2023 Squirrel Master Classic.

Sponsored by Gamo USA and held at the famed Southern Sportsman’s Hunting Lodge in Troy, Alabama, for the past 9 years, this event has only gotten better over nearly a decade. This is a competition, and it drives home the true definition of teamwork. Each team is comprised of media personalities from a variety of outdoor shows. This year, six different teams were represented: Bone Collector, Raised Hunting, Buckmaster, Buck Commander, and The Choice. Additionally, each team is joined by a youth member of a local 4-H Shooting Sports division, a member of the media, a land guide, and a dog handler. Yes, each team is also working with a pair of award-winning hunting dogs, and watching them work is a thrill.

On the morning of day one, everyone arrives, signs the appropriate paperwork, ensures they have the required hunting license, and is given an air gun from Gamo. This year, Gamo outfitted hunters with their new Gamo Swarm Viper Gen3i. This iteration of the Swarm Viper boasts a metal jacketed steel barrel, Whisper Maxxim noise-dampening technology, IGT gas piston powerplant, 2-stage CAT trigger, and is finished off with their recoil-reducing rail. Ready to go right out of the box, the Swarm Viper Gen3i is topped off with a pre-mounted Gamo 3-9×40 riflescope.

One more feature that came in handy were the rubber inlays carefully placed throughout the stock, providing an extra bit of grip for sweaty or gloved hands. All the above, combined with the fact that this air gun is kept fed and happy with a handy 10-round magazine means quicker follow-up shots — an essential factor when it comes to hunting the elusive tree rat.

After the administrative work has been taken care of, most shooters opt to confirm zero on their guns before heading out on the first hunt of the competition later that afternoon. A quick lunch is then followed by the afternoon briefing, which consisted of a thorough explanation of the rules of the competition and an introduction to everyone involved in the event. Once 1:00 pm rolled around, each team hopped into their respective trucks and headed out to their land plot. Yours truly was on Bone Collector Team 2, consisting of Nick & Jackson Mundt, Kenneth Lancaster, and Ryan Wakenigg. Rounding out the team was myself, LT (representing Gamo), Sam (representing his local 4-H club), and our dog handler Shane Mason along with the stars of the show, hunting dogs Trevor and Sassy.

The hunt started off hot and humid, but this did not slow us down. Once Shane let the dogs off leash, the hunt was on! The plot of land we drew had a wide array of terrain, with a fair amount scattered with thick vines and thorn bushes. That’s OK, though. It was nothing bare forearms could not handle. Several of us came out looking like we had wrestled a thorn bush, but when you hear the dogs barking and confirm with the handler they have something treed, you’re not concerned with any obstacles in your way.

What’s neat about hunting in this terrain are the vines…and boy, were there a lot of them. An old pro trick to getting the squirrels to move if they seem to be “bedded down” in the treetops is to give those vines a good shake. If there’s something in a nest and that vine starts getting whipped around, it’s not going to take long for a squirrel to hop out of there, Occasionally, it’s not a squirrel that’ll pop out of the nest. We awoke several raccoons out of a heavy slumber. Shaking vines was essential to our squirrel count during the midday heat because they aren’t moving as much then as they are during dawn and dusk.

And so went day one — ten dedicated outdoorsmen running wild through the woods laughing, helping one another find squirrels as they leaped among the treetops, and pulling each other up from the ground when excitement and a determined attitude kept our eyes to the sky while our feet tangled in thick tree roots. A fellow team member stated, “It isn’t squirrel hunting if you don’t fall!”

Day one wrapped up with a well-earned BBQ dinner followed by an even more well-earned shower and a good night’s rest.

Day two rolled around rather quickly with breakfast being served at 5:30 a.m. and most hunters at their land plots before daylight broke. Upon arriving at our spot, everyone seemed to be stretching a bit more than the day before, as we knew what we had in store. Running a few miles may not seem like a big deal, but when those few miles are spent traversing swampy mud, wide creeks, steep ravines, and thick vined areas that several of us jokingly referred to as “the jungles of Nam,” one can more easily understand why most of us walked out of the woods at the end of the hunt moaning and groaning.

There were two members of our team who seemed to go unphased by the whole ordeal, and they certainly did a lot more running than their two-legged counterparts. Those, of course, would be Trevor and Sassy.

If you have never had the chance to hunt with a team of dogs and an experienced handler, it is something you should try. There are specific breeds of dogs that excel in the world of squirrel hunting, and a properly trained squirrel dog will lead the way to squirrels that you didn’t know existed in the trees above you. Additionally, once you land a well-placed shot and knock that squirrel out of the tree, it is that same dog who will ensure the game is “put to rest” and will bring it back to you.

The two dogs we were working with did an excellent job on our two-day hunt, with our short-range dog Sassy finding many squirrels up close while we worked our way to our long-range dog Trevor, who could be heard throughout the day barking in the distance, letting us know he had eyes on yet another bushy tail.

At the end of day two’s hunt, we all rolled in for lunch hot, sore, sweaty, and probably smelling like yesterday’s bounty. After the lodge’s famous fried chicken and sides filled our bellies, we gathered outside for the final count and crowning of this year’s winner, team Raised Hunting, with a grand total of 52 squirrels.

Win or lose, this event is always one to remember. With a shared love of the hunt, there’s not a stranger among the whole bunch. Stories of past hunts are exchanged, tips and tricks are shared, and new memories are made, never to be forgotten.

Barb Melloni
Latest posts by Barb Melloni (see all)

Barb Melloni was born and raised in rural Indiana, where her passion for guns, hunting, and anything outdoors is rooted. If she is not afield with her coonhound Browning hunting small game or tucked away in a deer blind, you are likely to find Barb instructing a variety of courses as co-owner of Renaissance Firearms Instruction in New York with her husband Frank. While not working, you can find her with a nice cigar on a sporting clays course, relaxing with a backstrap in the smoker or enjoying a bit of long-range shooting alongside friends.

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