The eye contact with the frantic gray squirrel seemed frozen in time. The squirrel had been knocked from his perch in a scaly bark hickory by one of the youths participating in the 16th annual Barbour County WMA Youth Hunt last weekend. The bushy-tailed critter was looking for cover when he latched onto the side of a lay-down, a tree that had succumbed to some wind storm in the not-too-distant past.

Armed with only a camera and dressed in a camouflage shirt, I stood on the opposite side of the log, well within leaping distance. That moment of eye contact led to a flood of possibilities in my brain as Ray Stevens cranked up “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” in the background. Option 1: The squirrel is going to mistake my camouflage for an escape route in a scene reminiscent of “A Christmas Vacation.” Had it leaped in my direction, I’m sure I would have done my best Clark Griswold impression, the one where he knocks his mother onto the couch as he flees up the stairs.

Alas, I caught a break and the squirrel took Option 2 and scurried under the log and into a hole that was at the base of the uprooted tree.

Mike Smith, whose Feist dog “Freeway” led the hunt, figured the hunt was over, but this group of about 20 youths and accompanying parents and hosts was persistent on a day when squirrels were scarce. One person volunteered to don a glove and reach into the hole to find the squirrel, but his search came up empty-handed. A second tried to no avail.

That’s when Cody Lee, a long and lanky teenager, reached his gloved hand into the hole. Seconds later, he screamed, “There he is,” and in the same breath slung glove, squirrel and a handful of leaves out into the middle of the group that crowded around the root ball.

“The squirrel was hanging on the ceiling of the hole,” Lee said. “When I touched him, he grabbed my arm, so I had to come outta there with him.”

The youngsters swarmed the squirrel in a flash. By the time I got to the middle of the crowd, the squirrel had apparently given up the ghost after realizing escape was impossible.

The youngsters celebrated success as the adults in the crowd shook their heads laughingly at such a spectacle in the middle of one of Alabama’s most popular Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

Freeway managed to tree one more squirrel that was reduced to bag before the afternoon hunt ended and it was time to meet back at the WMA headquarters for another round of hot dogs and chips, which preceded the final event of the day of outdoors activities – a coon hunt.

The Eufaula Lions Club, Barbour County Coon Hunters Association and Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division are the major sponsors of the youth hunt, which attracts youngsters and parents from mainly east Alabama, although some participants hail from other parts of the state.

The youth hunt idea was hatched when Mike Heath and Richard Reed, game wardens at the time, starting trying to find a way to get the younger generation involved in the outdoors. They recruited Roger and Pat Kott from Eufaula and the event quickly went from a handful of kids to a huge production that requires a concerted effort from the community in terms of volunteers and donations.

“We started with 17 kids,” Pat Kott said. “We try to go deeper into different events and different venues each year, and it’s just blossomed from there. We wanted to get the kids outdoors to teach them gun safety and teach them what’s in the woods and how to conserve our woods. The word just spread. We have fliers and sponsors, but it basically spread by word of mouth. We’ll normally have between 250-300 kids now.”

The activities for the kids include BB-gun competition, slingshot shoot, archery, turkey calling and turkey shoot, compass reading, wilderness survival, skeet shooting with gun safety, .22-caliber rifle shooting for the older youngsters, squirrel hunting, rabbit hunting and coon hunting.

“The kids love it and can hardly wait to get here,” Pat said. “It’s great to see their eyes when they’re doing the different things, and when they’re squirrel hunting, if they get one, they’ll take the squirrel around with them the rest of the day and take it to momma that night. It’s just wonderful.”

Reed said the youth hunt team has had to adjust the activities through the years, especially after an incident during the coon hunt the second year.

“We had the coon hunt and we had kids jumping into the creek with the coon and dogs,” Reed laughed. “So we had to alter that a little bit. We stage it a little bit for safety purposes.”

Reed said before he retired in 2007, he could see a decrease in the number of hunting licenses sold, which caused him great concern.

“When we saw those numbers slipping, we decided we needed to do something to get the kids involved again,” he said. “We’ll have 250-300 kids unless the weather is really bad. And the community is really behind it. All the merchants donate and help every way they can.”

Grady Hartzog, a Eufaula businessman and member of the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board, joined Deputy Conservation Commissioner Curtis Jones and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Director Chuck Sykes to witness the celebration of the outdoors lifestyle.

“I always believe that if we don’t have the kids coming to support conservation, we’re not doing our jobs,” Hartzog said. “The more we can do for the kids, the better off we are. We want this to be a good, fun outing for the family and kids so they’ll want to come back out again.”

Sykes, who became WFF director just two months ago, is encouraged by what he saw at the Barbour County WMA.

“You’ve got parents and kids out here having fun and picnicking, shooting BB guns, going on a rabbit hunt, a squirrel hunt and a coon hunt,” Sykes said. “If you don’t get the kids engaged, get them out from in front of a TV or video game and into the woods, we’re going to lose our connection to the outdoors. Kids aren’t growing up like I did with a BB gun and pocket full of BBs; you walked all day and explored the woods.

“This is great. I applaud everybody here for getting involved, and I applaud the parents for getting out on a beautiful Saturday and exposing their kids to the great outdoors.”

Jones said he was impressed by how well the community supports the event each year with the encouragement of the Eufaula Lions Club and the Kott family.

“There is a ton of volunteers, and I’m proud that we’ve got several, several Conservation Enforcement Officers who are volunteering to take these kids through the various courses with BB guns, archery, and skeet,” Jones said. “I’m just really grateful that this many people get involved to get the youth into the outdoors.”

Heath said there are enough volunteers that parents aren’t required to stay for the event.

“The parents can drop their kids off and we’ll take care of them until 9 o’clock that night until we’re completely done,” Heath said. “Then they can come back and pick them up. We encourage all parents to come and go with the kids if at all possible. But if they can’t, we have numbers of volunteers who will serve as mentors.

“We have a great time. I can’t tell you how many thousands of kids this has touched. We’ve had some kids come back every year, and it’s great to see these kids grow up in the outdoors.”

Image courtesy David Rainer

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