It started as a few guys at a pizza parlor orchestrating a squirrel-hunt competition and 10 years later it is the most popular one-day, small-game contest held in Western New York.
Hamlin hunter Dennis Bauer and his family thoroughly enjoy the bounty of Orleans County that affords anglers and hunters a renewable resource that can be enjoyed during most of the year.
“We started with about 47 guys and called it the ‘Hazard County Squirrel Slam’ – a name we still like to call it today,” Bauer said during weigh-in sessions at the Holley Fire Department hall on Feb. 28, the last day of squirrel season in New York State.
“We chose to have it as a small thing on the last Saturday of the season, but it got so big that we had to move it to this fire hall,” Bauer said of the event that was conceived under a canopy at the pizza parlor.
The first few years saw increased participation simply by local word of mouth; however, protests from anti-hunting groups using social networks three and four years ago has skyrocketed the squirrel-hunt entries.
“These numbers were half what we had before the protests,” said Bauer’s son Jeremy as entrants brought in their bounty for weigh-ins. Protests had gone international, with a petition including names of signees mainly from outside Western New York. Petition names included protesters in Brazil, Italy, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Slovenia and Venezuela, among other countries.
Long Island residents Sheive and Richard Brummel filed an appeal to cancel the squirrel-hunt contest, but on Thursday before the Saturday event Orleans County Judge James Punch dismissed the appeal.
Protesters had set up in good numbers on sidewalks around the Holley Fire Hall in previous years. This year, less than a half dozen took up positions on the sunlit side of the street opposite the fire hall. Pro-hunt supporters arrived early this year and took up walkways nearer the fire hall.
Protesters decry animal cruelty as a means of raising funds. Ruth Fitzgerald, who has served as a firefighter and paramedic in Syracuse, empathized with the hunt’s camaraderie but showed disappointment that the fire company would not accept funds from protest groups to cancel the event.
“It comes down to a matter of respect for our way of life,” said Tina Reed, Holley Fire Department event coordinator, during the awards dinner. Reed, not a hunter and a person who rarely eats meat, pointed out that other competitions are held for fish and wildlife, such as deer contests done with good game-management recognition, the family atmosphere and the way people just enjoyed a gathering that included positive recognition for sport hunters participating by the rules. The atmosphere was further enhanced with a barbecue, servings that gave the gathering a northern version of a Dukes of Hazard get-together.
All this aura followed a hard day of hunting. Typical of so many hunt outings in January and February this past season, sunrise saw temperatures hovering around zero. Deep snow had squirrels moving mainly over tree limbs, if not holed up because of the deep freeze.
By afternoon a stiff breeze kicked up and many entrants did not see another bushy tail after noon. Few of the 600 entrants took a six-squirrel daily limit.
“Some that normally limit out didn’t even get one,” Bauer said as he and his family bagged and tagged the weighed-in entries.
Entrants compete for awards as a two-hunter team weighing in a total of five squirrels and for the heaviest single squirrel. A Youth Division (age 14 and under) for the heaviest squirrel started three years ago, and this year’s winner turned out to be a story by herself – with dad.
The 2014 Slam logged 136 entries, the highest number recorded in the nine years of competition.
“The 2015 contest dropped entry numbers from 650 to 600, but the big thing that killed the numbers this year was the weather,” Bauer said of the 59 entries that came in before and after the 6 p.m. sunset that Saturday.
Winning brothers Doug Finch of Webster and Bill Finch of Henrietta were two of the few who bagged a daily limit, six each, that day.
“We did all right,” was all the Finch brothers said after receiving their awards plaques and prize money. Their five-squirrel entry totaled 7 pounds, 12.1 ounces. “Usually we get at least one entry over two pounds, but not this year,” Bauer added.
The Youth Division (under age 14) winner is a veteran outdoorswoman. Shawana Lusk, 13, of Clarendon has been going with Dad Evan on hunting and fishing forays since early childhood. During photo sessions of the Lusk family after Shawana’s win, the grin on dad’s face was a bit wider than his winning daughter’s smile.
“She got six of the seven we got this morning with her .22,” dad boasted after Shawana accepted her award plaque for her biggest entry, a 1.5-pound grey squirrel. “We got all ours before 10 a.m.,” Lusk said, noting that they combined both ice-fishing and hunting tactics on this hunt.
Their plan worked out especially well for this contest. “I set up an ice-hut tent in a stand of oaks about a month ago, and we got all our shots out of there,” dad revealed.
After all awards were presented, successful hunters had the option of taking or leaving their entries that were bagged and marked with their names. Squirrels that were donated went to needy families; none were trashed or wasted. All proceeds from the contest went to Holley Fire Department and town public programs.
“Even the T-shirt sales profits go to a worthy cause,” Bauer said. Last year the Orleans County Chapter of SCOPE received a donation.
While anti-hunting factions plan protests for the Tenth Annual Hazard County Squirrel Slam, Holley planners are looking for ways to expand the hunting heritage and family aura of the sold-out event.
“For one possibility, we’re thinking about a Women’s Division,” Tina Reed said.
Entrants have to register early for this contest. The 600 entries were all filled two weeks before the contest date and 140 hunters did not register in time to meet the 600 cut. The event has no website, email address or phone number for entrants. Interested squirrel hunters will have to check with Holley Fire Department officials for entry info about the Tenth Anniversary slam set for Feb. 27, 2016.