Our annual foray into the Deep South with friends, good dogs, and fast-shooting Gamo air rifles reminds us of where we all started and why we enjoy the thrill of small-game hunting

by Larry Case

Pulling into the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge, I had that old, familiar feeling. I was coming home to a place that was warm and comfortable, a place where you can get back to your roots. In truth, this was exactly what I was doing, going back to my roots as a hunter. Small game hunting, squirrel hunting, is where many of us started down the hunting trail once upon a time.

The Squirrel Master Classic, sponsored by Gamo air guns, is the largest small game event in the country and is (amazingly) in its eleventh year. Every February, a group of hunters, writers, editors, personalities from the outdoor industry, squirrel dog handlers, 4-H shooters, and people that just plain love small game hunting gather at the Southern Sport’s Lodge near Hayneville, Alabama, for the Squirrel Master Classic. The Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge is, itself, worthy of a visit as it is a shrine to hunting located in the storied Black Belt region of Alabama. The log construction makes for a classic lodge, along with lots of buck and turkey mounts on the walls, and rows of pictures of sports, country music, NASCAR, and other celebrities that have hunted there over the years. By the way…it must be noted that the lodge has the best barbeque and southern cooking this side of, well, anywhere!

The Squirrel Master Classic is the brainchild of Jackie Bushman, founder of Buckmasters, one of the first deer-related magazines and outdoor TV programs. The story goes that several years ago, while having lunch at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge, Bushman was looking for a way to attract hunters back to their roots. Jackie Bushman’s idea was this: have a squirrel hunt in a fun, competitive atmosphere. Bushman was joined on the venture by Michael Waddell of Bone Collector fame, Gamo air rifles joined as the sponsor, and the Squirrel Master Classic was born.

Each team is comprised of an outdoor TV personality like Jackie Bushman with Buckmasters, Michael Waddell, Travis “T-Bone” Turner, and Nick Mundt (all of the Bone Collector series fame), or Tyler Jordan and David Blanton with Realtree camo, or maybe Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo of the Choice TV. Add an outdoor writer (like yours truly), a squirrel dog handler, and a 4H Shooting Sports young person and you have a team. Also present this year was a team from Gamo — a group of air gun hunting enthusiasts including Angella Perry (Airgun Angie), Stepanie Ray (The Gazelle), Harold Rondan-Mena (Iguana Lifestyles), and Anthony and Memphis Synoground (Synoground Outdoors).  We hunted this year with the Gamo Swarm Magnum Gen3i Pro, the latest in the Swarm Magnum line from Gamo in the form of a .22 caliber air rifle. We found the air gun had plenty of power for squirrels and any other small game you would want to hunt.

A quick word about this. In talking to the hunting public about air gun hunting for squirrels, I am sometimes asked about the air gun having enough power to consistently and humanely put down squirrels. I would say that we traveled to southern Florida with Gamo a while back and hunted nuisance iguanas with Harold Rondan-Mena. Harold has a business doing this, as the iguanas are quite a pest. For three days, we shot iguanas with the Gamo air guns, including the Swarm Magnum, and the Bone Collector models. Squirrels are tough, but believe me, not as tough as iguanas. Being a reptile with a primitive nervous system, the only target you have on an iguana for a kill shot is the brain. This amounts to a target about the size of a quarter on the side of the head. We took dozens of iguanas by placing the shots accurately. If these air rifles are adequate for iguanas, there is no problem using them to dispatch squirrels.

Gamo air rifles fit like a glove for this event because the Gamo Swarm Magnum Gen3i Pro .22 pellet rifle is made for this type of hunting. The Swarm Magnum is the world’s only ten-shot break-barrel air rifle and the 10X Quick Shot magazine allows the shooter to load ten pellets in the magazine, insert it into the rifle, and fire ten quick shots before you must reload. Believe me, we needed those quick second and third shots on this hunt as these squirrels had their running shoes on. Once they started running in the treetops, sometimes with spectacular leaps from tree to tree, you had to be quick or you came up empty handed.

By means of a detachable rotary magazine, the shooter loads up to ten pellets and snaps the magazine onto the top of the barrel. The Swarm Magnum requires that you cock the rifle with a break-action system each time, but the magazine automatically loads the pellet. For hunting purposes, this is huge. The magazine lies horizontal to the barrel, is low profile, and this allows for the use of open sights, which, on this rifle, is a fully adjustable rear sight. Both front and rear sights are fiber optic. The rifle also ships with a Gamo 3-9×40 scope, and has a two-stage adjustable trigger, adjustable from 3.2 to 2.6 pounds of pressure — heady stuff if you think about it for a pellet rifle that has an MSRP of $299.00.

Any type of hunting that includes dogs is often the way to go. Everyone likes watching the animated squirrel dogs running through the woods, and once they get a squirrel treed, the good ones stay put and bark to direct you to the spot. There were a lot of good dogs at the Squirrel Master Classic this year, and I think the competition was as keen between the dogs as it was the hunters. At the end of two half-days of hard hunting (I was worn out!) the bag of squirrels is counted for each team and the winner is declared. This year, the big prize went to Ralph and Vickie Cianciarulo’s Choice TV team.

As always, fun times fly by, and soon it was time to leave the adventurous Alabama backwoods, where participants were, once again, brought back to their squirrel hunting roots.

Thanks for reminding us of what brought us into the hunting and outdoor world to begin with!

Larry Case hails from the mountain state of West Virginia, and has been a shooter, hunter, and outdoorsman his entire life. Larry served 36 years as a DNR Law Enforcement Officer, retiring with the rank of Captain. Although he leans toward shotguns, he enjoys all firearms and any kind of hunting. He owns too many dogs, not enough shotguns, and is forever looking for a new place to hunt. Larry loves to mentor new shooters and hunters. You can catch more Larry's entertaining perspectives at GunsandCornbread.com.

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