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Maryland Outdoors - By: Author - Feb. 2004

Now that the hunting seasons are just about wrapped up, I got to thinking about what my most memorable hunt of the season was. All my hunts were special, but one particular small game hunt in western Maryland during the first week in November really stands out.

One of my favorite small game species to hunt is the eastern fox squirrel, with its large size and exquisite coloration, especially the orange-brown underside. I was hunting in Garrett County, and because the area held a few grouse I carried my Ithaca SKB 20-gauge double-barrel shotgun. It was one of those golden fall mornings, and I shot my first fox squirrel just after it broke daylight. I had just finished field-dressing the bushytail, and started to move again while slipping it into my game bag when a grouse flushed across the logging road. It would have been a decent shot if I had been ready.

I worked out the ridge and dropped down on an oak bench where acorns littered the ground, and leaned up against a big old white oak. I noticed a few gray squirrels about 70 yards away working the forest floor for mast and decided to try and stalk closer, which was tough because of the dry, noisy leaves. After reaching the spot where the squirrels had been feeding I caught sight of a squirrel ducking around the backside of a hickory tree and then it hit the ground running. I watched my shot from my right improved cylinder barrel kick up leaves just behind the gray squirrel and never had a chance for a follow-up shot.

I continued out the ridge and when I came to a point that dropped off into two separate hollows, I looked into the one that sloped away to the right and noticed a huge fox squirrel coming down a tree. The bushytail hopped onto a stump about 40 yards away, giving me time to replace my standard 23/4-inch load in the modified barrel with a three-inch magnum load of sixes. At my shot the squirrel disappeared, and after hurrying down to the stump I spotted it stretched out on the forest floor. The squirrel later measured 24 inches from nose to the tip of its tail, and that one will be going to the taxidermist.

Not long after slipping the big fox squirrel in my game bag I spotted a gray squirrel running on a downed tree and I dropped that one, too. And while hiking back out the ridge I got another fox squirrel. Four squirrels in the game bag, and especially with some fox squirrels, gets pretty heavy, so I decided to call it a morning, but did bag another fox squirrel in the afternoon, giving me five for the day-one short of a limit. It was quite a day.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has approved recommendations from the Black Bear Task Force that will allow for the state's first bear hunt in 50 years. The task force is a governor-appointed, citizen task force that was established to provide suggestions for managing Maryland's bear population. The hunt is tentatively scheduled for late September and early October of 2004. The goal is to reduce the estimated 300 bears west of Cumberland by 10 percent. Hunting permits will be distributed by lottery. Sportsmen will be encouraged to take nuisance bears identified by cooperating landowners and the DNR.

Paul Peditto, director of the DNR's Wildlife Heritage Service, said the administration would likely ask the legislature to terminate the Black Bear Conservation Stamp Program. It was implemented in 1996 to compensate farmers and livestock owners for damages caused by bears, but failed to raise sufficient funds to fulfill its purpose.

Between 1996 and 2001, farmers filed an average $22,880 in annual bear damage claims with the DNR, but the agency only paid an average of $11,734 during those years. During some years, the program paid out only 40 percent of approved compensation.

It seems that after the hunting seasons, when firearms may not be used again for a few months, is often the only time that hunters give much thought to gun maintenance. How often firearms should be cleaned depends on an almost endless number of factors, including how the gun is used, in what weather conditions, how many shots are fired, the make and model of the gun, how thoroughly it was last cleaned and when it is likely to be used again.

Based on gun type and use, here are some recommendations on how often to clean your firearm:

* First and foremost, firearms should always be unloaded, and never forget gun safety rules while handling any firearm.

* After hunting upland game for a few hours on a nice day and only firing the shotgun a few times, a quick wipe down with an oily cloth is probably enough.

* Waterfowl hunters who spend rainy days in the blind or in a muddy goose pit, had better plan on a thorough dismantling and extensive cleaning if the gun is to function properly the next day or next year.

* Shotgun barrels don't require much cleaning, although chambers can build up deposits of plastic or assorted muck and cause malfunctions.

* Centerfire rifle barrels need to be thoroughly cleaned or copper fouling can affect the firearm's accuracy.

* For a muzzleloader, the best policy is to clean it every time it is used and as thoroughly as time and equipment allows.

* The gas systems of gas-operated autoloaders must be reasonably clean for good functioning. The trigger groups of most pumps and autoloaders pick up a lot of dirt and debris. Getting at trigger groups for cleaning and lubrication is quick and easy on most guns. Simply push out a couple of pins with a punch or similar tool.

* Get the best cleaning rods you can afford. Cheaper ones bend and cause problems. A soft cloth for wiping, some cloth patches, a selection of bronze brushes for the cleaning rods, powder solvent, some good gun oil and gun grease, some copper fouling removers for cleaning high-powered rifles, a screwdriver or two, and the basics are covered. Adding a toothbrush, along with a few cotton swabs are also useful.

All in all, it depends on how often, where and under what condition you use your hunting firearm that determines the steps and frequency for cleaning. With reasonable care, most firearms will last a lifetime and then some, and other than well-earned battle scars, they can still look pretty good. Late February is a good time to make sure each and every one of your firearms is clean and in fine working order.

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