Youngsters Swarm Barbour County WMA Youth HuntPublished 10:43am Monday, February 11, 2013
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.”
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 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 out of there with him.”
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).
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 said. “We try to go deeper into different events and different venues each year, and it’s just blossomed from there. We’ll normally have between 250-300 kids now. The kids love it and can hardly wait to get here. 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 said. “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.”
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.”
Sykes, who became WFF director just two months ago, is encouraged by what he saw at the Barbour County WMA.
“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,” Sykes said.
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,” 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. “We have a great time. We’ve had some kids come back every year, and it’s great to see these kids grow up in the outdoors.”
Rainer is a columnist for The Outlook.