Air guns for grownups

Not the BB guns of your youth, modern air guns are hunting weapons
benjamin trail np xl 1100
Photo: Chris Hunt

As a kid, I lived for fall and winter pheasant hunting outings with my grandfather and my uncles.

I was too young at the time to man a shotgun, so I, my brothers and my cousins became de facto retrievers. My grandfather grew up along the Nebraska border with Colorado, and he knew every grain and cornfield, and he knew the farmers who owned them. On warmer days during hunting season, we’d ride in the back of Granddad’s old Chevy pickup and slowly cruise the back roads gazing hopefully into borrow pits in hopes of spotting a ringneck.

If we spied a bird, my grandfather would drive on by a few hundred yards, and one of my uncles would hop out of the truck, 12-gauge in hand, and wait. Then Granddad would flip a u-turn, drive back past the bird at a somewhat disinterested speed. He’d usually give it a couple hundred yards before he pulled the truck over to the side of the road, and then he’d get out, and lecture me and my cousins.

“Stay here,” he would say. “I’ll call you when it’s time.”

Then, he’d hop into the borrow pit and start walking, gun at the ready. Invariably, he or my uncle would push the bird toward the other hunter, and eventually, with nowhere to go, the pheasant would flush. If the stars aligned, one or the other would bag the bird. Then my grandfather would call to the truckful of kids and one of us would hop out and go get the pheasant.

We would also occasionally hunt fence rows and cover, but since we didn’t possess a bird dog worth a damn, this was the most employed method in a bygone era — road hunting at its finest.

And while that was fun for us kids, what we really enjoyed doing happened after the morning spent puttering along in the truck. We’d get back to the city park in little Wray, Colo., pull out our BB guns and set up a series of Daisy targets. The little one-pump air rifles got us primed for future hunting outings, and they were, with apologies to Ralphie from “The Christmas Story,” a fairly harmless pursuit.

My cousins outgrew the BB gun, and they graduated to shotguns — first, my uncle’s old .410 and eventually to 12- and 20-gauge models. They still hunt pheasants to this day. I have my father’s old 12-gauge Remington 870 Fieldmaster, and I occasionally hunt ducks, doves and grouse with it. More than anything, though, it’s a family heirloom that I truly treasure — my dad brought it home from Vietnam (how he got it is something of a mystery).

But I also still own a couple of airguns, including an old Crosman 760 Powermaster that I’ve had since I was a kid — it’s a compact little rifle that’ll hurl a BB at a target at 645 feet per second (it’ll shoot a .177 caliber pellet 615 fps). That’s enough killing power to take down a rabbit or squirrel, and certainly an invasive Eurasian collared dove sitting on a wire.

I also own a .22 caliber Benjamin Trail NP XL 1100 — as the name indicates, it’ll fire a .22 lead pellet 1,100 fps. Just for the record, that’s about the same speed your average .22 caliber long rifle will fire live ammo.

It’s a hunting weapon, and with it, I’ve taken grouse and those pesky collared doves (here in Idaho, because they’re invasive and don’t migrate, there’s no bag limit and they can be targeted all year long, so long as the hunter isn’t in a restricted area, like a neighborhood). And I’m setting out soon on my first-ever Idaho squirrel hunt, armed with this powerful air rifle.

In the Midwest and the South, squirrel season is a big deal. Here in Idaho, the American red squirrel, the only tree squirrel native to the alpine forests of the Gem State, wasn’t designated an actual game species until 2018. During my formative years spent in East Texas (my father moved us south in the early 1980s), squirrel season was an event — some folks anticipated it as much as they did deer season. My brothers and I would bag the occasional squirrel in some nearby woods, using our trusty pellet guns. The goal was to pull off a head shot—no small feat for a kid with a .177-caliber pellet rifle and lots of branches and leaves in the way.

These days, my hunting outings are fewer and farther between, but I’ve been inspired by Idaho’s recent declaration that squirrels are, indeed, legal game animals, and I’m planning to spend some time walking the woods looking for the delectable little rodents. And, as I did as a kid, I’ll likely use my air rifle as my weapon of choice. Call it nostalgia, if you like. I’m going with, “Anything else is overkill.”

The little rodents don’t get as big as the gray squirrels and the fox squirrels in the South, the Midwest and along the East Coast. With a generous bag limit of eight animals, it might take that many to make a crock-pot meal worth cooking.

I’m oddly looking forward to it. It’s been years since I hit the woods in search of anything other than wild trout or forest grouse. While I’m doing some research, most of my squirrel-hunting acumen is leftover from when I was a kid, or from mental notes I’ve made over the last few summers spent chasing cutthroat trout in Idaho’s backcountry. This past summer, it seemed like everywhere I looked, I saw squirrels. More importantly, I’m scrounging up squirrel recipes and trying to figure out how to sneak my bounty into the house, and, eventually, into the slow cooker, without my girlfriend, who has adamantly declared she won’t eat a squirrel, finding out that it might not be chicken roasting with the carrots and potatoes.

What she doesn’t know won’t kill her. But she might kill me, so help me keep my secret.

And, of course, I’d be remiss if I told you I haven’t been looking at fly patterns using squirrel fur for dubbing and bushy squirrel tails for streamer patterns. Seems wrong not to use as much of the animal as I can, right?

It’s funny how one’s outdoor pursuits can come full circle. Those days spent plinking targets with airguns on the plains of eastern Colorado were some of the best days of my youth. In the coming weeks, armed with a similar implement, albeit one that’s quite a bit more sophisticated, I’ll be doing much the same thing, minus the static targets and the little globes of brass. It’s squirrel season in Idaho. I feel like a kid again.