Maryland's squirrel season opened last week, and all over the state hunters took a look out the window and said "no thanks."
Like so many days in this rainy and miserable autumn, the squirral opener on Friday provided conditions fit for neither man nor beast. And squirrels are notorious stay-at-homes when the weather is bad.
As bad as it was, though, the rain and wind and cold did not deter Chris Kallfelz, Mike McNamara, Alan Eckelman and Dave Mainhart, an unlikely foursome of youngsters thrown together by a mutual preoccupation with the mysteries of life in the woods.
Kallfelz set it up. He discovered some years ago that nothing turned him on quite as much as squirrel hunting. Undoubtedly he will become jaded over the years, and reach the point where he will have to fly to barren jungle camps or outposts in Canada to feed his need for the thrill of the wilderness.
But now, in his senior year in high school, a run up the Potomac to the woods near the Dickerson power plant does the job.
"It's marginal, at best," Kallfelz said as he looked out over the wind-whipped trees and stormy skies at Mainhart's house in Gaithersburg just after dawn. "But let's go."
Marginal was looking on the bright side. This is the season when squirrels gather acorns and hickory and bleech nuts to store for the onslaught of winter. gBut a squirrel has standards, and wind and rain are excellent incentives to put off winter preparations for a day and stay put in the warm den.
The four youngsters split as soon as they parked the cars. Kallfelz explained the mechanics of the hunt. "you find a place where there's a lot of acorns and you sit down and stay still until you can't stand it any more."
Youth does not sit still well, especially in the rain, and before long his partners were roaming the woods. Within two hours they were soaked through to the skin, and only Eckelman had fired a shot -- his first ever with a shortgun -- and with it he brought down the only squirrel of the morning.
The hunt dissolved without any specific discussion. One carload simply left with Kallfelz and McNamara. Then Eckelman gave up. Mainhart was still wandering around, and when he came out during a downpour he discovered no one around to take him home.
He walked out to the road, slung his shotgun over his sholder, stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride with the first vehicle that passed.
"Didn't the guy want to know what you were going to do with the gun?" someone asked.
"Nah," said Mainhart. "He just told me to stick it behing the seat."
Very liberal, for 30 minutes' drive from gun-wary Washington.
Not for these boys. They regrouped at Mainhart's and when the clouds broke for a moment and the socks were done in the drier, they were ready for more. And this time it paid off.
The other hunters had quit. The woods were empty. The sun poked through through off and on and the wind was dying. "We timed it perfectly," said Kallfelz, the leader of the hunt. They marched along a woods road lined with tall oaks and hickories, and within a hundred yards they had spotted the first afternoon squirrel bustling in the tree limbs.
It was a pleasure to watch Kallfelz at work, youth lost in this ancientrite rite of pursuit of game. He crawled under blown-down trees to hide, he made clucking noises like a squirrel to draw his prey out. And by the time the rain arrived again the youngsters had bagged four squirrels, just enough for a big pot of Brunswick stew, which Kallfelz promised to prepare the following day for all to enjoy.
Squirrel hunting evokes some strong negavive feeling among city-dwellers, who regard the furry creatures as pleasant urban reminders of mother nature. It's a little hard to bring oneself to shoot a squirrel, but the game managers soften the burden, saying that bushytails have a built-in ability to repopulate year after year, and that no amount of hunting pressure threatens population levels.
"If hunters didn't get them disease and predators would," according to Bob Miller, a biologist who specializes in squirrels for the state wildlife administration.
The woods that Kallfelz and friends hunted are called Cherrington, a cooperative public hunting area managed in concert with the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, according to state wildlife officials.
There are two other close-in hunting areas, and both offer good squirrel hunting -- Senceca State Park, which opens for hunting October 15, and Mckee-Beshers Wildlifee Management Area, which like Cherrington opened October 6 for squirrels. Seneca and Cherrrington require no special permission, just a state game lands stamp. McKeee-Beshers has a new policy this year, which requires season-long passes to hunt there. You can a pass by sending in the application in the hunting rules booklet that accompanies each hunting license.