ACKERMAN, Miss. — For most outdoorsmen in Mississippi, the word “camp” means one thing: deer camp.
But for one group of hunters, it means a tradition that has spanned decades, Squirrel Camp.
“My daddy really started it back in the ’60s,” said Lynn Yates of Philadelphia. “I was about 17 or 18.”
“Daddy started going at the Pearl River swamp. He’d go in a wagon with a mule when he was young,” said Yates. “That was before we were born, back in the ’30s and ’40s.”
Then Lynn Yates and his brother Bill Yates joined their father and some other hunters.
“Then we started going to Nanih Waiya, but those mosquitoes just ate us up,” said Yates.
Yates said the early days were almost comical. “We had one tent back in the ’60s and we had 11 people in there. It was an old canvas tent about 10 by 12 feet.”
Neighbor Sam Nowell, also of Philadelphia, remembers those days, too.
Nowell said his father was killed in a train accident when he was 3 years old and Hugh Yates, Bill and Lynn’s father, took him and his brothers under his wing.
Hugh Yates took the Nowell brothers hunting and fishing and eventually started taking them on camping trips to hunt squirrels at Nanih Waiya Wildlife Management area.
In 1972, the group moved their trips to the more mosquito-free environment of Choctaw WMA near Ackerman and haven’t budged since.
“We’ve been going to the same spot for 40 years,” said Bill Yates.
Now an annual event with four of the original members and several newer ones, Bill Yates says it is as much of a tradition for some as Thanksgiving.
“We don’t miss it, we plan around it,” said Yates. “Rain or shine, it doesn’t matter.”
“We’ve been through storms and we’ve cut a trip short, but we don’t miss it,” said Lynn Yates.
“We start thinking about it in July,” Bill Yates said. “We get excited and start planning it.”
The days start early at Squirrel Camp, with Bill Yates cooking biscuits well before daylight: “I got a little Coleman oven. I roll ’em out like my grandmother did and I make the biscuits.”
While breakfast is complete with sausage, bacon and eggs, Nowell said the biscuits with lots of jam are the highlight for him.
“The biscuits are hot and buttered and there’s nothing better in the early morning hours,” said Nowell.
With breakfast under their belts, the hunters take to the woods.
Over three days, Nowell said they typically harvest about 100 squirrels, but “this was a particularly good year. This year we killed 152.”
Nowell said the total harvested over the years has topped 4,000.
When the hunters return with their morning harvest, it’s lunch time.
Bill Yates gets water from a spring and brings it to a boil in an old wash pot for squirrel stew. Adding about 20 squirrels, potatoes, onions, seasonings and fatback, he cooks it down for about 2-1/2 hours and everyone digs in.
At night, there are meals of fish and other game, followed by dominoes or Rook by the light of gas lanterns.
Little has changed in 50 years except a few of the faces.
“Several of the older folks have passed away,” said Bill Yates. “Of course, we’re getting old now, too.”
One of those who passed was Hugh Yates, the Squirrel Camp founder, at 95.
There are a few young faces who may grow to carry on the tradition. Among the new hunters are two of Nowell’s grandnephews, Matthew Nowell, 5, and Zack Nowell, 13.
So what is it about sleeping on the ground in tents, waking before any self-respecting rooster ever would and chasing bushytails for three days straight that would make Squirrel Camp an event that keeps some of these guys coming back for half a century?
“Just something about squirrel hunting,” said Lynn Yates. “Just something about walking through the woods and enjoying the Lord’s landscape.”
His brother Bill agreed.
“I really think it is being outdoors and the fellowship,” said Yates. “And everybody is excited about squirrel hunting.”