A squirrel had just hit the ground belly up, with a slight thud, when Mike Spinks of Sumter whispered to his daughter Taylor, "Let that one lay because there's another one up there. Stay still."

Taylor, 5, looked bright-eyed up into the surrounding trees.

"Where?" she whispered back, but before her father could answer, she whispered excitedly, "Oh, I see the branch moving!"

All was still and quiet for the next 10 minutes until the squirrel in the pine tree, feeling the coast was clear, stepped out of hiding and began moving through the limbs. Spinks slowly raised his Thompson/Center .22 rifle, peered through the scope and clicked off the safety.

The squirrel froze for a moment, and Spinks pulled the trigger, delivering a 32-grain CCI Stinger hollow-point bullet to the head of his target, which tumbled through the branches and joined the other squirrel on the ground.

"I used to hate this time of year," Spinks said. "Deer season is over and the good fishing still doesn't start for a while, but since I began squirrel hunting a few years ago, February is one of my favorite months for being outdoors."

Many sportsmen feel the same way Spinks once did. With deer and duck seasons over and turkey season still a ways off, February can be a cruel month for hunters. But it is actually a great month for squirrel hunting, one of the oldest hunting traditions in South Carolina that is being kept alive by a small but loyal group of Palmetto State outdoorsmen.

Rusty Williams of Dalzell, a landowner and member of Wolf Hill Hunt Club, is a part of that group.

"The hunt club is made up of six families, but my son and I are the only ones that hunt squirrels," Williams said. "It's fun and a lot faster action than deer hunting. Most deer hunters think hunting season closes on Jan. 1, but they just don't know what they're missing. Squirrel hunting is challenging, and it allows us to keep our outdoor skills honed.

"And in February, squirrel hunters have the woods all to themselves."

But there are two more reasons to hunt for squirrels, two of the best, according to Williams.

"It's a great activity to get families outdoors together, and it's the only way to get fresh squirrel meat for the table, because I've never found it in the grocery store," he said.

Williams and his son Ryan hunt squirrels together several times a week, and they usually make a meal out of their bounty after each hunt.

"There's not a better meal out there than fried squirrel and grits, especially when the squirrel is fresh. We'll usually eat within 30 minutes of hunting, so it doesn't get much fresher," he said.

Williams and his son prefer shotguns, shooting loads of No. 6 shot from a 20-gauge and a .410.

"I know it's fun to play sniper and shoot them with a .22- or .17-caliber rifle, but when those tree rats go jumping from one limb to the next, or when they're running for their nest, I want to know I can knock them down," he said.

Williams uses a full choke on his shotguns and said you can target a squirrel's head just as easily with that set-up as you can with a .22 or .17.

This time of year, most hardwood trees have lost all their foliage, making it easier to see squirrels at longer distances. Of course, this also gives squirrels the ability to see hunters more easily. Spinks, however, said the advantage clearly goes to the hunter.

"We can both see each other from greater distances, but the one with the gun certainly has the advantage in that situation," he said, "especially when it's a .22 sighted in at 50 yards."

One thing Spinks likes about squirrel hunting is how appealing it is to his daughter, who just began carrying her own Cricket .22 rifle.

"She likes going deer hunting, but she knows it consists of long sitting periods, which often result in not even seeing a deer," he said. "But when squirrel hunting, she knows we are sure to see squirrels and get numerous shots at them. It's also nice because she knows she doesn't have to sit in one place the whole time."

Spinks uses a combination of stalking and still hunting.

"The first time we shoot on each hunt, it's from sitting on the ground with our backs against a tree," he said. "That first shot will usually put the squirrels in the immediate area on lock-down for 15 to 20 minutes, so we slowly stalk through the woods and usually find other active squirrels within a few minutes."

It's not hard for Spinks to find a suitable place to start each hunt. Squirrel nests are easy to spot, especially this time of year when most of the leaves have dropped. Holes in trees that serve as dens are also good places upon which to focus. Spinks tries to hunt early in the morning or in the late afternoon.

"Mid-day just isn't a good time for hunting tree rats," he said.

Spinks agrees that a shotgun can offer hunters a better chance at squirrels on the move, but said he prefers to shoot a rifle with a scope for a couple of reasons.

"The only other game I hunt is deer, so I like to keep my rifle-shooting skills sharp," he said. "I also like shooting with a scope because it allows me to shoot in low-light conditions, especially toward the very end of legal shooting time."

Spinks uses a Bushnell Banner Dusk & Dawn 4x32 scope on his .22. He said it captures a lot of light and gives him the same advantages of the high-dollar scopes he uses on his deer rifles.

With the exception of hunting at first light, Williams isn't a fan of sitting still while squirrel hunting.

"If I hunt first thing in the morning, I'll sit and wait for them to come out of their nests; otherwise, I stalk," he said, "I've got access to more land than I can cover in one hunt, so it doesn't make sense for me to sit still. Once you shoot that first time, it's going to be a while before the squirrels move again in that area. But if you walk for just a few minutes, you're in business again, .so that's how we prefer to hunt."

Williams recently found a deer skull with antlers attached while stalking, and also enjoys finding old whitetail rub lines for future reference. "You just won't see that stuff while sitting in one place," he said.

Stalking isn't a matter of simply trudging through the woods. Especially with all the leaves on the forest floor, it can be a challenge to sneak up on anything. Williams and Spinks both suggest taking a dozen or so steps, then pausing for a few minutes while closely observing the limbs and trunks of nearby trees. "When a squirrel first notices you, it will freeze, but once you stand still for a minute, it will forget about you and go about its business," said Spinks.

Both outdoorsmen also agree that the biggest mistake most squirrel hunters make is not having patience.

"Friends tell me all the time they see squirrels every time they hunt deer, but that they rarely see them when actually squirrel hunting," said Williams. "What they don't realize is that most of them are sitting still for long periods of time while deer hunting, but they are too impatient to stand still for a few minutes while walking."