Tall tales were as plentiful as targets Saturday morning at Squirrel Fest, the annual gathering and encampment of small game hunters on the Chuck Swan Wildlife Management Area.
Started 20 years ago by a group of hunters from Campbell County, the event has traditionally been held on opening day of squirrel season in late August.
The last few years, Squirrel Fest has also coincided with Free Hunting Day, which was enacted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission as a way to introduce young people to hunting.
Squirrel Fest participants begin with a friendly wager on who will be the first to bring in their daily limit of 10 squirrels.
The winning team this year included Brian Miller and Greg “Flop” Vinsant, who bagged an unusual-looking fox squirrel with a black belly and face, white nose and red tail.
Vinsant was the only member of his group to “limit out” or reach his daily quota of 10 squirrels. Miller got eight.
“We had a good hunt,” said Dan Ridenour, the elder statesman of the group, who has been hunting at Chuck Swan since the late 1940s.
“Everybody gets along and everybody has a good time.”
Squirrel Fest actually began as a way for the former high school classmates and the menfolk of their families to get together.
Ridenour, Greg and Randy Vinsant, Kenny “Bucket” Daugherty, Lynn “Skinny” Leach, Tim Carroll, Brian Ivey, Richard Goodman and Dwayne Turner were part of the original group that started Squirrel Fest, which was held the first year at Burnt Mill Bridge in Scott County.
“Lynn got eat up with seed ticks, and we decided not to go back,” said Daugherty.
The following year, 1990, Squirrel Fest moved to the Chuck Swan WMA — a 24,444-acre peninsula between the Clinch and Powell rivers in Union and Campbell counties — where it has been held ever since.
Billy Wayne Stiner and the McCarty brothers have been Squirrel Fest regulars since that first year at Chuck Swan.
Most of the hunters pitch camp and make Squirrel Fest a weekend retreat. Commemorative t-shirts of the event sell-out fast and are prized as collector’s items by the populace, even those who aren’t hunters.
This year at Squirrel Fest, hunters bagged 62 squirrels, most of which went into someone’s stew pot or freezer.
Chuck Swan WMA Manager John Mike appreciates the group’s enthusiasm, especially since he was a member of the Squirrel Task Force and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency committee that proposed Free Hunting Day.
“(Small game hunting) is growing here, mostly because of this,” said Mike, who was on Stan Stooksbury’s staff at Royal Blue WMA several years ago.
Early Saturday afternoon, the hunters began settling in around camp after a long, hot morning in the woods. Small talk ranged from politics to the economy to football. Always, the conversation came back around to hunting.
“I saw a squirrel this morning that was moving so fast he should’ve gotten a speeding ticket,” said one hunter, who painted a humorous side of one of Tennessee’s oldest traditions.