As I the leaves fall off the hardwoods there’s still a bit of green among the oak branches. That’s mistletoe, a parasite which attaches itself to hardwood trees from which it draws water and nutrients. Unless the mistletoe is pervasive enough to kill the host tree, it is relatively harmless, and it contributes to the natural order of things by providing berries for birds to eat and in some places, it is thought to have medicinal value. My interest in mistletoe spawns from its use as a Christmas decoration and the method used to harvest such decorative greenery — a .22 rifle.
The request from my mother or grandmother to collect some mistletoe was always met with enthusiasm and a little bit of trepidation. These days I can walk through the woods with a Ruger Wrangler in one hand and a Heritage Rough Rider in the other, popping mistletoe from here and there, watching it fall through the branches to the ground so I can send my retriever to pick it up, but it wasn’t always so. And, yes, I’m kidding about being able to pop mistletoe from a tree with a revolver. I have also missed the last 50 years or so harvesting mistletoe for Christmas.
Growing up in a rural environment with my earliest shooting years being 65 years ago, the concept of learning to shoot at a gun range was unheard of. Without a gun range, learning to hit what you’re aiming at requires a lot of creativity. My cousins and I had .22 rifles and pistols, cheap ammo and all the time in the world to become good shooters. Since we had no gun ranges, our practice targets were chosen from our surroundings.
We had plenty of opportunities to practice our shooting skills besides gathering mistletoe. Although the dumpster was invented in 1936, it wasn’t until the 70s before dumpsters were placed in strategic areas around a typical county for the country folks to dump their garbage. Most families had a burn barrel plus a garbage ditch. Don’t get all upset about garbage being dumped in a ditch; it was an environmentally friendly concept. Filling the ditch stopped erosion. These garbage ditches were also the source of many creative targets. Ketchup bottles, mustard jars, soft drink cans or bottles all make wonderful plinkin’ targets. But harvesting mistletoe has a particular training advantage in that it involves skills and safety rules inherent in squirrel hunting with a rifle.
When you’re pointing a .22 rifle with a range of at least a mile at an object in a tree, it’s imperative you make sure a tree branch or trunk will be there to stop the bullet, or that you’re shooting in a direction in which there would be no danger to people, livestock or property should your bullet continue on into the air only to fall to earth off in the distance. Ammo choice is also important. Severing the base of a mistletoe stalk is best done with a hollow point bullet that will provide the widest track on impact.
A good shot to the base of a mistletoe branch usually does the trick, but herein lies the difficulty. The branch is small and way up in a tree. Basically, it’s like shooting at a dime 20 to 40 feet in the air. Hitting it requires an exceptional amount of skill with a rifle. My earliest instruction in rifle shooting came from my dad who showed me how the sights should be aligned and explained the trigger squeeze necessary to keep the sights on target until impact. That lesson in marksmanship was expected to produce squirrels or rabbits for dinner and mistletoe for Christmas decorations.
My grandkids are so busy with school and sports, teaching them to squirrel hunt would be an exercise in futility. But I did manage to squeeze a day in grandson Josh’s busy baseball schedule to teach him, and his best friend Easton, the fine art of harvesting mistletoe. There are several oak trees well-laden with it on the property where we do a lot of our target shooting.
Before taking on the mistletoe challenge, I thought it would be good to check out the accuracy of the .22 rifles currently in my safe. When preparing for the sight check outing, I decided to add a little competitiveness to it. I had some 50-foot rifle targets published by the Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife for their Hunter Education classes. Each sheet had six four-inch targets, perfect for what I had in mind. I printed up some file labels with the rifle types on them and labeled sheets of targets for each of the shooters. The objective, in addition to competition, was to give each of the shooters an indication of which of the rifles they could shoot the most accurately for the mistletoe mission.
It was quite windy the day we set out to test the rifles, but since scheduling with the boys at that time of the year is tough, we soldiered on. My Marlin 80, the only .22 with a scope, failed to eject despite some work I’d done on it recently to solve that problem. The rifles we did shoot included a Remington 514, a Winchester 67A, a J.C. Higgins (High Standard) Model 30, a Henry lever action, a Ruger 10/22, a Remington Nylon 66 and a Henry pump action. For this round of testing, we fired from the bench at a range of approximately 40′. The Ruger 10/22 has a red dot sight, but the others were all iron sights.
Without a doubt, Josh won the sighting contest. His targets all featured tighter groups than mine or Easton’s, so we declared him the target shooting winner. It remained to be seen who would harvest the most mistletoe. Josh’s grouping with the Remington 514 was the tightest of the bunch, which didn’t surprise me because I had used that same rifle almost 60 years earlier to earn a series of NRA Junior Marksmanship awards at Boy Scout Camp.
Because of the wind, which approached 45 mph in the meadow where we were shooting, we delayed harvesting mistletoe until another date. But we each had picked the rifle we wanted to use for that adventure. For me, it was going to be the Ruger 10/22 with the red dot sight. Josh intended to use the pump and Easton liked the J.C. Higgins Model 30. I knew I would bring the Remington 514 along as backup since it obviously shot true to aim.
Feeling magnanimous as I dropped Josh off at home after that first day shooting the eight rifles, I asked him which was his favorite. He didn’t hesitate in identifying the Henry lever action. That gave me a little pause in what I was planning because it was the newest and most expensive rifle in the bunch and an excellent choice. I’d been giving a lot of thought about the disposition of my gun collection after I’m gone and had decided this day I was going to give Josh a rifle. “It’s yours,” I told him. “What? No way!” he said with great surprise. But that little gesture gave grandpa a good feeling, and the Henry went home with a great young man. I kind of figured that would be the rifle he would choose for his mistletoe outing, but I was surprised when he stuck with the Henry pump.