"I like to find new places to hunt," the retired Cape Fear River Pilot said. "That's why I explore the South Carolina Heritage Preserve Wildlife Management Areas. There's lots of good hunting on them - if you can figure out what seasons are open and schedule your hunting around those dates."
Each Heritage Preserve WMA has its own set of hunting season opening dates and closing dates.
Watts started hunting at the 5,387-acre Waccamaw River HP WMA because it was close to his home, a few miles across the state line near North Myrtle Beach. While most hunters visit the Heritage Preserves for the deer hunting, Watts prefers to hunt small game.
And he's wild about hunting for squirrels.
"The small-game seasons are set so they don't interfere with the deer hunting seasons, or in my case, so the deer seasons don't interfere with squirrel hunting," he said. "The WMA small-game seasons usually open later than the general small-game seasons at surrounding private lands and Waccamaw Heritage Preserve is no exception. I think that's why so few hunters head there to hunt squirrels."
Waccamaw HP WMA has lots of fox squirrels. However, hunting fox squirrels is prohibited at Heritage Preserves so hunters must learn to identify the larger squirrels. Still, the HP is loaded with gray squirrels.
"I like watching fox squirrels so much, I don't shoot many of them even where they are legal," Watts said. "I prefer to hunt gray squirrels because there are so many more of them. There aren't many fox squirrels around anymore."
Watts stopped for a snack, fuel and conversation at one of his favorite country stores along one of the nearby back roads. The proprietor of R&M Convenience Mart recognized him and asked about his hunting.
"Going after squirrels again?" Bobby Mishoe asked. "Is the water down?"
As Watts ate a hot dog, he and Mishoe talked about the squirrel hunting and how very few hunters hunt small game these days. Watts once hunted with squirrel dog, but hasn't used one in many years.
"A dog would really help," Mishoe said. "Most of the good squirrel hunters still use dogs. But you can have a good hunt without dogs on the Waccamaw Heritage Preserve as long as the water is down."
Water is the bane of existence to hunters at most of the coastal Heritage Preserves because they're mostly situated at river flood plains. Waccamaw River HP WMA is no exception. A period of wet weather floods the bottom-land hardwoods that make for some of the best squirrel hunting when the water is low.
"You have three choices when the river floods," Watts said. "You can launch a boat, hunt around the edges wherever you find a patch of high ground with some oak and hickory trees, or find somewhere else to hunt in South Carolina as long as it's February."
In North Carolina, squirrel season ends Jan. 31. That's another reason why Watts holds hunting licenses for both states. The season for squirrels at Waccamaw HP WMA begins Thanksgiving Day and ends March 1. Since he enjoys small game hunting so much, just having the extra month to hunt makes it worth the cost of the out-of-state license and the drive across the state line, despite the fact that he also hunts other game in South Carolina.
There is a boat ramp off SSR 31 where Watts sometimes launches a kayak or skiff to gain access to the river. He can use the boat to get to the higher ground areas that are not flooded. But usually he just drives his pickup to one of the roads and parks at the edge of the floodwaters then hunts the high ground around the edges of the river swamps.
"The access roads can become impassible when it rains hard because they have deep potholes and are clay based," he said. "When the roads are underwater, you just have to know where you can hunt from your scouting experiences when the water was down. It's important to have waterproof boots and even hip boots can come in handy if you shoot a squirrel on the opposite side of a wet spot. You have to be careful where you hunt because there's a lot of private property bordering Waccamaw. But the boundary is marked really well so you know for certain you're on the Heritage Preserve."
Watts carries a Thompson Center single-shot .22-caliber rifle over his shoulder on a sling while he is squirrel hunting. But that's his "backup" gun. He takes most of his squirrels with a Noble .410 double barrel.
"I like hunting with the old .410," he said. "I really enjoy shooting double barrels. They're sexy little guns. A gun should be like a woman. Looks are the first thing that attract you to women and guns before so you want to pick them up. The .410 double is pretty, lightweight and handles fast. That's important when a squirrel spots you and runs for a hole in a hollow tree.
"The cover at Waccamaw Heritage Preserve is thick enough so you can get lots of shots at short ranges for the .410. If a squirrel is too far away, I just use the rifle and shoot them at 40 or 50 yards. With the .410, I like to take shots within 20 yards. If you think about it, it's sportier to shoot them with the .410 because you have to get closer than with the rifle."
Watt's uses target ammunition in his rifle, which shoots one-hole groups at 50 yards. In the .410, he shoots 3-inch, ¾-ounce loads when he can find them. When he can't he uses 1 1/16-ounce loads.
"I've killed them with 7 ½ shot," he said. "But I usually shoot No. 6s because they have more energy. The idea when you are shooting squirrels, or birds or anything with a .410, is to have something left to eat after you've shot it.
"I once used it on a bird hunt and they wondered if the .410 was enough shotgun. I said if they wanted to have a bird-blowing-up contest, I would get my 12-gauge out. I shoot the .410 because it doesn't ruin the meat. I wouldn't hunt squirrels if I didn't enjoy eating them. They are fine to eat, I like them fried with rice and gravy."
While some woods lack enough hollow trees to hold large populations squirrels, that's not the case at Waccamaw HP WMA. In fact, there are so many hollow trees the sit-and-wait game most hunters use can be a crapshoot.
"You can sit and watch half-a-dozen hollow trees with den holes at the same time and a squirrel might come out of one you didn't even see that's too far away for a shot," Watts said. "That's why I like to still-hunt them during the day. Early and late, I might sit in an area with lots of hollow trees and fresh diggings and cuttings where they've dug up acorns and hickory nuts."
Watts also uses a binocular to find active den holes and to survey the treetops for squirrels that may have seen him and decided to freeze in order to hide in place. He moves slowly through the woods, taking a couple of steps, watching for squirrels he startles into flight or that are active and haven't seen him approach. Then he scans the woods with the binocular before moving on. He usually spots their tails, which fluff in the slightest breeze.
There are many old logging roads crisscrossing the property. These roads once had bridges that have washed out. Hip boots and even chest waders can help a hunter walk these roads, which are elevated higher than the surrounding lowlands.
Walking them allows Watts to sneak up on squirrels. He can take them as they run away or sometimes while they are sleeping on a tree limb in the sun.
While locating squirrels by sight is a good way to hunt. He also uses sound to locate them. The woods are usually too damp for him to hear squirrels scurrying and scratching in the leaves. But he listens for their barking whenever they are feuding over territory, a den hole, or a female. They also bring the woods alive with alarm barking when predators threaten, whether real or fake.
"I've been using a Mr. Squirrel call," he said. "I have a friend who had some success with one. I've had this one for 25 years and didn't mess with it much until I saw him use it and how well it can work. It can put a few extra squirrels in your bag."
Watts uses the call to imitate the cries of a baby squirrel being killed by a hawk. He sucks air through the call, holding it between his lips. The call is a dual-sided metal disk the size of a quarter with a hole in the center. It makes a shrill whistle that sometimes can frighten squirrels into running from their den holes and leaf nests. In late afternoon when the squirrels are actively feeding, it can make them bark.
"Once they start barking, you can stalk them," he said. "It doesn't seem to work very well during the middle of the day. But right after they've gone in for the morning, it can move them so you can see them. But sometimes in the afternoon, I wonder if it makes them take to hiding instead of moving around. It might make them go to their dens early and not come back out.
"Like any other call, sometimes it works; most times it doesn't. It's just something else to mess with that makes hunting squirrels more fun."
Watts is also trying other calls, including barking-type calls that have a bellows-like bulb. He likes the models that not only bark like a squirrel when the bulb is compressed, but make the chirring noise of a squirrel when the bulb expands, taking air across the reed assembly in reverse.
In February Watts thinks it's important to pick a nice day to hunt squirrels. He likes the sun to be shining and the wind calm.
"Squirrels can den up when it's cold," he said. "They're more active in the fall because they're burying nuts and getting ready for winter. But when it turns cold, they don't move around as much. They can eat whatever they've stored.
"I don't know if they hibernate this far south, but they sure can disappear when it's cold and windy. A squirrel might come out for a few minutes and sun on a tree limb, then go back into his hole when it's cold. But when it's warm and sunny, he may stay active all day.
"They start chasing around in January, breeding on the warm days. I also use game-movement tables for picking a time to hunt during the day. The Solunar tables seem to be accurate most of the time.
"Some days the woods are full of squirrels. Then the next day, you won't find a one."
There are special rules for hunters at Heritage Preserves. Many of the gates are locked during squirrel season after the deer season has closed. Hunters are welcome to walk along the gated roads but any vehicles, bicycles or horses are prohibited on roads beyond locked gates. ATVs are prohibited at all times at Heritage Preserves.
Removing any cultural resources or artifacts, including arrowheads, is prohibited. A hunter-orange hat or vest is required. All non-game animals, including snakes, are protected.
The daily bag limit is 10 gray squirrels at the Heritage Preserve. Other regulations and rules also apply and they are printed in the South Carolina Rules and Regulations booklet.