Wild white-tailed deer may be the ideal hunting game for most Texans, but to the residents of San Augustine County, tracking squirrels trumps such conventional quarry. The last of the area’s squirrel camps is seven miles outside of Center in East Texas. The people here have hunted and eaten the furry critters for years. Some of the men living here have even been doing it since before the hairs on their chin began to grow. In “The Least Dangerous Game,” Philipp Meyer tries his hand at shooting—and eating—the local yet exotic game. Here’s the story behind the story.
How did you first hear about the squirrel camp?
Jake Silverstein, who knows I’m a hunter, called me up and said: “Have you ever been squirrel hunting? Would you like to go?”
What was your initial reaction to the idea? Did you think it was bizarre, intriguing, or a mix of both?
I was interested. I’ve always been a big-game hunter and never really knew what to make of squirrel hunting. It seemed like an interesting opportunity.
The way you wrote the piece made the idea of squirrel hunting completely fascinating even to someone who’s never heard of the sport. Did you have to work to keep the story from becoming simply an illustration of a relatively strange practice?
I think that a writer’s job is to tell the truth about things, and let readers make up their own minds. As I was slightly converted by the experience, I wanted that to show in the story.
Can you walk us through your thought process when you first began to write?
I’m primarily a novelist, and when I write fiction, I am trying to get into a slightly transcendental state—a state in which I get a direct window into my subconscious, almost a direct window into dreaming. For non-fiction, it’s a lot less romantic. You need to figure out what the story is and how to best explain it.
Was there a lot of preliminary research you had to do before reporting this story? Did you discover anything about squirrels you didn’t know before?
I’m a big hunter and outdoorsman, so before the story, what I was most concerned about was figuring out what sort of ammo to buy for my shotgun and what choke tube to bring. But I still got it wrong (you really do need the premium high-brass stuff) and had to borrow ammunition from one of the guys at camp. I’d say most of the research, including several hours on the phone with the folks at TPWD, came after I’d visited the camp. I needed to figure out the context for the squirrel camp and squirrel hunting in general.
As far as what I learned about squirrels, when you hunt other animals, you see a lot of squirrel movement, so I had a good sense of the hunting part, but I didn’t really know how you figure out which ones are good to eat and which ones are going to be tougher. That I learned at squirrel camp.
You said in the story that you’ve hunted deer before. Was it more or less exciting to hunt a squirrel? What were the main differences?
It’s more fun to hunt squirrels, for sure. If you hunt deer the way I do, which is from the ground, on big tracts of land, not hunting over a feeder, it’s a huge amount of effort, time on the ground, observing, scouting, etc., to get in the position to make one shot. Hunting squirrels is a lot less effort and you get to shoot a lot more. Also it’s a lot easier to clean, skin, and process squirrels for the table than it is to clean, skin, and butcher a deer for the table. But in the end, I’d say that hunting deer, at least if you’re doing it on foot, not using bait, basically the way the American Indians hunted, feels more rewarding to me. That said, from this point forward, I will be doing both.
As I was reading through the scene of the actual hunt, I could almost feel the tension coming from your words. How did you make sure to capture each and every sensation of event?
You take careful mental notes, and reconstruct the scene in your mind. The rest is practice.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from visiting the squirrel camp?
You’re bound to learn a million interesting things about nature and the woods if you hang out with a bunch of real hunters.
Would you hunt and eat squirrel again?
Is there anything you wanted to fit into the story but weren’t able to?
There’s a lot I wanted to put in there, but talking about it would take a pretty long time.
What would you like for readers to take away from this piece?
That squirrel hunting is a great way to spend time in the woods.