It was billed as the battle between Team Buckmasters and Team Bone Collector, but last week's SquirrelMasters Classic Championship was actually more focused on a few other things: validating the ability of air rifles to be used responsibly for small game hunting, creating an event that would make the 4-H shooters want to consider adding hunting to their shooting experience, and, maybe most importantly, create an event that had the potential to turn into an ongoing competition that contained a critical element needed to get young people turned on to shooting and hunting: fun.
To do that, Gamo USA and Buckmasters assembled six teams, each with an outdoor television host (or two) along with four other hunters and a world-class squirrel dog and its handler in a one-day squirrel hunt for a trophy that proclaimed the winners "SquirrelMasters Classic Champion 2014".
The competition contained teams captained by well-known outdoor TV celebrities:
Buskmaster's founder and host Jackie Bushman, Michael Waddell, Travis Turner and Edmund Waddell of The Bone Collector, High Road's Keith Warren, Addicted to the Outdoors' Jon and Gina Brunson, and Shawn Michaels and Keith Mark from MRA Hunting.
Despite the fact everyone was treating the event as a learning opportunity for the six
4-H club members taking part, it was obvious there was a single thought in the minds of the TV hosts: win.
The good-natured competition quickly boiled down to Team Buckmaster versus Team Bone Collector I. And when you're creating an event that will be shown on television, there was no doubt that Buckmaster's Bushman and Bone Collector's Waddell were a great combination.
Their competitive, but good-humored personalities made the whole event fun.
As a late addition to the media event, I arrived at Southern Sportsman's Lodge to see remote-control helicopters with cameras flying overhead as camera crews bustled around getting shots of the arrivals. Quickly realizing the event was much more than I'd bargained for, I wondered just what I'd gotten myself into.
The nervousness compounded when I got my pairing sheet and saw I was on Team Buckmaster with the two guys most responsible for the whole event: Buckmaster's Jackie Bushman and Gamo USA President Lou Riley.
But I have to admit that I was pretty excited at the thoughts of actually getting the chance to talk with Jacob Landry, one of the key cast members on the runaway hit TV reality show "Swamp People". I'd spoken with Jacob and his father, Troy, before, but a couple of words in the midst of signing hundreds of autographs for admiring fans doesn't open the door for meaningful conversation or building friendships.
Fortunately, our team also included someone I knew from many shooting events -the NRA's Adam Heggenstaller. World-class squirrel dog trainer Ronnie O'Neal and TC, his squirrel dog, along with our designated 4-H hunter, Callie Littlefield rounded out our six person team.
Fourteen year old Littlefield was probably the only person more nervous than me. This was to be her first time hunting- ever.
Our morning hunting session only got us nine squirrels, we were trailing Team Bone Collector- to the delight of the entire Bone Crusher crew.
Fun in the field. Jacob Landry had no problem with the cameras - or letting me know how much fun he was having. Adam Hegenstaller (left) had no problem changing from riflescope to camera during the event.
But we'd proven that laughter was a sure-fire remedy to minimize misses and convert strangers into friends. It didn't hurt that we had the ever-positive Bushman and dead-eyed Jacob Landry keeping us going.
I've been testing a variety of high-quality modern air rifles over the past few months, but this event convinced me that modern air rifles are valid for small-game hunting.
And I'd forgotten that not many other things can bring a group of strangers together faster than hunting, especially when the hunting includes frequent bursts of laughter from everyone in the group.
Good times my father and I spent decades ago on our family farm chasing squirrels in Kentucky came flashing back throughout the day. And the single-shot .177-caliber Gamo air rifles reminded me that small-caliber, single-shot hunting had taught me how to shoot- and that semi-automatic guns had allowed me to get loose in my technique.
The SquirrelMaster Classic brings up several ideas that worth exploring, but they deserve their own columns. From air rifles for hunting larger game to creating events designed to make the idea of hunting appealing to a larger group of young people, they're worthy of time and attention.
Team Buckmaster after their afternoon rally took the inaugural SquirrelMasters Championship. Team members (L to R): Jackie Bushman, Callie Littlefield, Lou Riley, Ronnie O'Neal, Jim Shepherd, Adam Heggenstaller and Jacob Landry.
Watching Callie Littlefield move from nervous shooter to enthusiastic small-game hunter only took one great shot on a fox squirrel. She'll be back in the woods- and her friends will want to come along as well.
According to Jackie Bushman and Lou Riley, that was the reasoning behind the entire event. It's also the reason there will be a SquirrellMasters Classic Championship and the winning team will be back to defend their title.
We'll keep you posted on when you can see the whole event on TV.