Bouncing down the fire line between some planted loblolly pines and a hardwood bottom, I listened as the occupants of the dog box in the back of the pickup started the bark excitedly.
They knew the routine and what was about to happen. I, on the other hand, was a rookie at this, and was merely remaining alert to soak in every detail.
The two trucks came to a halt at a corner of the woods. Before I could get to the tailgate, two dogs shot past me faster than Jimmie Johnson crossing the finish line.
Someone made a comment about how gorgeous an afternoon it was, then we were interrupted by a barking dog. Five of us went scampering down the road through the woods, with me just pushing my arm through my hunting vest. I felt like the football had kicked off and I was still pulling on my helmet.
We didn’t go 20 yards before we found three squirrel dogs standing on their hind legs at the base of a tree, barking. The stately white oak stood naked of leaves in the afternoon sun of February, its gray limbs twisting like a heap of rebar. We peered skyward, but all I could see was blue sky.
With a kink in my neck, I thought this was a daytime “snipe hunt” — that I would be left holding the bag. I had scanned the tree, and I hadn’t seen a thing. The dogs — which looked like the ones you see poking around dumpsters — and their owners were all in cahoots on the joke, I thought.
Just about the time I thought hunting for squirrels with dogs was for the birds, someone said, “There it is.”
Sure enough, snug against one of the oak’s broader limbs was a gray squirrel. The faint breeze moved its tail, giving away its location, and one well-placed shot from a .22 put the first squirrel on the ground. I regripped my shotgun and thought to myself that maybe there was something to this squirrel dog thing.
Over the next hour-and-a-half, I found out that hunting squirrels with dogs was the real deal and darn successful. It was amazing. The dogs seemed to find squirrels that were invisible. Of the 15 squirrels we took that afternoon, I bet we would have unknowingly walked under a dozen of them hunting without the dogs.
The story, however, begins back along those planted pines, sentinels to the demise of small game hunting.
“Squirrels are a wasted resource,” said Phil Sandifer, a squirrel-dog enthusiast from Bamberg County. “Hardly anyone hunts them anymore.”
Sandifer used to be a big quail and raccoon hunter before turning his attention to hunting squirrels with dogs.
“There aren’t any quail left to speak of, and I’m too old to stay out ’til 3 a.m. chasing down coon dogs,” he said, grinning. “With squirrel dogs, I can go out in the morning or afternoon with a couple of my friends, watch the dogs work, shoot a few squirrels and get some exercise. It is just like when we were kids.”
Sandifer is right on target.
Hunting squirrels with dogs is a tradition that was nearly lost due to the strong comeback of deer populations. If you got into hunting less than 20 years ago, you probably don’t remember a time when deer weren’t plentiful. However, many deer and vehicle collisions ago, there was such a time.
Only affluent folks hunted deer back then. The common man was restricted to hunting woodlots and fields near his farm. This primarily meant rabbits, quail and squirrels, and nearly everyone had a dog or two that hunted one or all of these species.
But land-use patterns changed, quail populations began their tumble and deer became abundant. Kids didn’t come from school, grab a shotgun and dog, and kill a few quail or squirrels for supper. The prize is much bigger now; they sit in a deer stand.
Recognizing the decline in quail populations, programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) were put in place to aid ailing early-successional wildlife species. CRP has been a success for many species, but in the South, marginal farmland under the program was planted to pines, a habitat that offered no long-term benefit to quail and only helped fuel the whitetail population’s growth spurt.
Today, hunters are rediscovering small-game hunting, and squirrel dogs are helping bring about the change.
“After I saw how much fun it was with Phil,” said Johnny Williamson, a long-time friend of Sandifer’s, “he and I went over to the Grand National Coon Hunt in Orangeburg to try to find a dog for me.”
Rumor is, more squirrel dogs are traded there than coon dogs. After test-running a few duds back in their home woods, they found one for Williamson.
“I’ve really enjoyed hunting with a squirrel dog,” Williamson said. “After deer season, there’s not much to hunt before spring turkey season opens. We used to hunt quail, but that’s gone.
“Hunting with a squirrel dog is just like the quail hunting we used to do. If you have a couple of hours during the day, you can grab the dog and get in a quick hunt, usually with a fair amount of success.”
Sandifer cautions hunters who are interested in hunting with a squirrel dog to take a few steps.
“To have a good dog,’ Sandifer said, “it takes a lot of time. You need to spend time with them hunting. You just can’t leave them in the kennel and expect them to hunt well if you only take them out once or twice a season.”
Sandifer gets in several hunts annually.
“I usually begin hunting before Thanksgiving,” he said. “By then, the leaves are normally off of the trees. I will hunt right on through February.
“You want to do your research about the line of dogs you are considering. The daddy of the dog Johnny got wasn’t worth killing, but he threw good puppies. I highly recommend that if you are interested in a particular dog, go hunting over it if at all possible.”
Sometimes you may be getting a puppy. Like picking a duck dog, you have to go on research and reputation. Sandifer feels strongly, however, that if you start with a puppy, get the dog in the woods and give it time.
“It doesn’t matter what breed you get, the majority of these dogs want to hunt and please their owners,” he said. “Many of these dogs make good companion dogs, and their desire to please you is strong. So spend the time with them and give them time as well.”
Back in the old days, the going price for a good squirrel dog was pretty cheap.
“If you could find a squirrel dog already trained, it might cost you about $25,” Sandifer said. “Today, the average price is about $1,500, and you can find prices on up to whatever you’d want to pay.”
Squirrel-dog breeds include: Mountain feists, Mountain View Curs, Walkers, Redbones, Black Mouth Curs and even Jack Russell terriers.
Like Chevy vs. Ford or Remington vs. Winchester, the breed of squirrel dog is a personal preference.
“I am partial to Mountain Curs,” Sandifer said. “A lot of the other breeds only use their ears and eyes when hunting. A Cur will use its nose more than the other dogs.
“A lot of Curs have a lot more sense than I do.”
Hunting squirrels with a dog is not a technical sport. Most of the work is done by the dog, but there are a few important items that will help improve your hunt.
It is a practice to carry along a small pair of binoculars. On many instances during our hunt, the dogs indicated that a squirrel was in a tree, but we could not find it with our naked eyes. On one or two occasions, we couldn’t find a squirrel, but most of the time, a thorough check with binoculars would reveal a bushytail hunkered down against a limb or tree trunk.
If more than one person is along on the hunt, carry two different types of firearms. Often, treed squirrels sit tight, offering a clear shot with scoped .22-caliber rifle. A squirrel may take off on occasion, however, which is a good time for someone to end the chase with a well-placed blast from a shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot.
As the afternoon of my first squirrel dog hunt wore on, the youthful camaraderie begin to kick into full gear. Like hormone-charged teenagers around a group of cheerleaders, the dog owners traded barbs about their canines’ performances.
The best one that I heard was, “You can tell my dog is good because my neighbors for five miles around me are tired of eating squirrels.”
Grown men afield can be kids again and remember what it was like hunting back in the day.