October 3, 2004
If Town Clears Out, It Must Be Squirrel Season
By JERE LONGMAN
VILLE PLATTE, La., Oct. 2 - Before 7 a.m. Saturday, Jason Cary, 10, walked into an oak and palmetto forest with his father. Within 10 minutes, a fox squirrel began to bark and skitter from branch to branch.
"Dad, look, it's right there," Jason said, raising his .20-gauge shotgun and shooting an orange-hued fox squirrel with a tail a foot long.
Squirrel season opened at dawn Saturday, and within minutes the retort of shotguns boomed through this part of Evangeline Parish. Elsewhere, squirrels might be viewed as rats with good public relations. Here squirrel season's opening celebrates and preserves a distinct local custom at a time when many of the estimated half-million Cajuns have been assimilated into the broader culture.
Ville Platte High School shut down at noon on Friday. Sacred Heart High School did not open at all. Friday night schoolboy football - a consuming passion in this Cajun prairie town of 9,000 - was pushed back to Thursday night this week.
Friday, instead, was a day for preparing, for loading pickup trucks with guns, pots, stoves, generators and all-terrain vehicles, and for heading into the woods.
While fathers and sons hunt this weekend, wives and daughters shop in Baton Rouge, 70 miles to the east, or in Lafayette, 45 miles to the south. But some women cannot resist the woods, including Alycia McDaniel, the homecoming queen at Pine Prairie High. "Excitement rushes through your body when you see a squirrel and you say, 'I've got to shoot it,' " she said. "I like the trophy of it. It's not a deer, but I like to go with my boyfriend. If I kill more than the boys, they clown on them."
Squirrel hunting is a lesser-known tradition than the piquant Cajun food and fiddle and accordion music. But in the Ville Platte area it remains a vital rural ritual, like the local radio show spoken in Cajun French, the running of Mardi Gras on horseback, and the tapping of Easter eggs, end to end until they crack, in a game called pâque-pâque.
It is with apparent justification that Field and Stream magazine last month christened Ville Platte as Squirrel Town U.S.A. Some residents would rather take off from work this weekend than at Christmas.
"If you are a nonhunting burglar, at noon Friday you could get rich in Evangeline Parish," Ricky Vidrine, a hunting guide from Pine Prairie, said earlier in the week.
Evangeline was the heroine of Longfellow's epic poem about the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1750's. Their descendants who settled in south Louisiana became known as Cajuns, who once hunted for subsistence more than for sport.
Today, although squirrel meat is prized for its sweet taste in a brown sauce or in a gumbo, and brains are considered a delicacy by some, this opening weekend is "about the outing, not the killing," said Stephen Mayeux, senior vice president of Citizens Bank in Ville Platte.
It is a treasured bonding experience between fathers, sons and grandsons, some as young as 5. They sleep in tents, campers and wooden lodges called camps. Many prefer the camaraderie to the squirrels. They gather to hunt, watch or listen to the Louisiana State University football game, tell stories, cook, drink beer, play music and deal hands of poker and the Cajun game of bourré.
"That weekend is the one sure time you knew you were going camping with your dad," said Mr. Mayeux, who grew up in a family of 12. "There's no doubt in my mind, when my son has his son, he's going to bring him squirrel hunting. I can't imagine not having this as part of my life and my children's lives."
Jody Bonnette said it felt "like the seventh game of the World Series" to have his 10-year-old son, Brody, experience his first squirrel hunt. Each shot two on Saturday morning in Avoyelles Parish north of here. Although nobody bagged the daily limit of eight, Mr. Bonnette said: "We got enough to eat tonight. We're O.K. We'll cook, drink a few beers and tell some lies."
Despite the bonhomie of hunting, he said, it stings when outsiders sometimes snicker at the closing of school for the opening of the season.
"These boys learn more about life and the outdoors than they get in two months of school," Mr. Bonnette, manager of Cary's Sporting Goods in Ville Platte, said.
The most expert hunters creep silently among pine, oak, hickory, beech, cypress and pecan trees, looking for gray squirrels and the larger fox squirrels. They often hear the squirrels before they see them and can keenly divine the signs of prey - acorns eaten from the middle, as humans eat Oreo cookies, and stems of pine cones that twirl to the ground like rotors of a helicopter.
Some go to extraordinary lengths to hunt. Mike Murphy, an oil field worker, was so determined to shoot squirrels after undergoing knee surgery in the mid-1980's that he limped into the woods with an aluminum cane. Problem was, he covered the cane in camouflage tape. After crawling into the brush after a fallen squirrel, he could not locate the disguised walking stick until he inadvertently bumped it with the barrel of his gun.
Many hunted two years ago, even after Hurricane Lilly knocked out power to the area for several days. Construction workers from Evangeline Parish moved to Atlanta when the oil economy went bust here in the 1980's; nostalgic for hunting season back home, some began trapping squirrels in a campground.
"Five or six, enough to make a sauce," Tim Fontenot, a physical therapist, said. "Everybody loves to cook a sauce here. Turtle, rabbit, squirrel. If E.T. came to Louisiana, he'd be in a sauce, too."
Until the late 1970's or early 1980's, Evangeline Parish kept its schools open a full day on the Friday before squirrel season opened. But many students were absent, and costs for substitute teachers soared.
"Finally, we said, 'Why beat our heads against the wall?' and it became one of our holidays," Andrew Ducote, the principal at Sacred Heart High, said.
Playing football on Friday would have been futile, too. "We would have had no fans, no coaches, no players, no water boys," Elton Williams, the coach at Ville Platte High, said.
In 2000, Port Barre High, a state football power in neighboring St. Landry Parish, forced Sacred Heart to play there on the Friday night before squirrel season started, apparently believing few fans would show up to support the visitors, Mr. Fontenot said. To the contrary, Sacred Heart fans not only went, but also blew airhorns to intimidate the home team, and the Trojans beat Port Barre for the first time in 17 years, he said.
"They made the squirrel gods angry," Mr. Fontenot added.
By 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Melvin Reed had bagged his limit for the day. Some hunters will kill 500 or more squirrels by the time the season ends on Feb. 28.
A half-hour after his son, Jason, got his first squirrel in the swampy lowland north of here, Mark Cary blew a small, circular squirrel-calling device in several bursts, creating a whistling sound. Mr. Cary also shook a handful of palmetto fronds, trying to lure squirrels with a feigned signal of distress.
The early-morning fog had mostly burned off, leaving the oak trees and their inhabitants more visible. A leaf dropped, and Mr. Cary looked up to see three gray squirrels.
They are smaller but more tender than fox squirrels and are known around here as cat squirrels because of their nervous speed. Two bolted in one direction and a third began climbing in another direction, then sat quietly, its tail curled, as if trying to camouflage itself as a knot in the tree.
"I was either going to be a fool and shoot part of the tree or get a squirrel," said Mr. Cary, 42, who operates one of the largest family-owned sporting goods stores in Louisiana. "I used my instincts, and sure enough it was a squirrel."
The squirrel fell from the tree, and Mr. Cary butted it with his .12-gauge shotgun.
"If you pick up a live squirrel, you never will again," Mr. Cary said, exposing the animal's large and sharp front teeth. "They bite and they hold on. I had a cousin once who got his face all scarred up."
On Thursday, Mr. Cary gave Jason an early birthday present: a large fox squirrel the boy had killed last year mounted on a piece of driftwood. Jason said he could not think of having gotten a better present.
The obsession with squirrel hunting is such that years ago, The Ville Platte Gazette ran a "Find the Squirrel" contest, which challenged readers to circle the furry-tailed creatures in photographs of trees.
On Thursday, The Gazette ran a front-page picture of a squirrel found in the backyard of a local couple who had nurtured it with apples and nuts. The caption was headlined, "Fox squirrel found, safe for the weekend!"
The Gazette's publisher, David Ortego, operates a kind of squirrel Rotisserie league, keeping a record of quarry bagged by each member of his hunting group, the Magnificent 7, since 1979. The winner of this year's Magnificent 7 hunt will receive a trophy and a commemorative license plate. By Monday, pickup trucks in Evangeline Parish will be adorned with squirrel tails as a measure of individual sharpshooting.
As Alycia McDaniel said, "It's what you get for being country."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
Great story thanks
Similiar story was in Field and Stream about a month or two ago. I live about 30 minutes from Ville Platte. Squirrel hunting is a ritual down here.
sounds like a lot of fun
I read that one too. Pretty entertaining article.
Indeed it was.