Basil Watts sat with his back against a tree, watching a clearing among giant cypress, blackgum and laurel oak trees. The drought of 2007 had changed things quite a bit from the previous year. What had been a flooded beaver pond filled to overflowing had become an open forest.
"There are acorns everywhere," Watts said. "But you have to find places where the squirrels have been cutting shells. There are lots of deer here, too. A deer crunches up the shells and spits them out. But you can see places on acorn shells where squirrels have gnawed them."
Watts was hunting at Little Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve. Several tracts besides the main Little Pee Dee River HP WMA property are managed jointly by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources as the Little Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve Complex. Watts usually hunts squirrels on three properties consisting of four separate tracts that have similar characteristics and are located near one another: the Little Pee Dee, Tilghman and Dargan tracts.
They are near the town of Mullins on both sides of the Little Pee Dee River, which forms a border between Marion and Horry counties. Several roads providing good access to these properties, and they can be access by boat from several SCDNR ramps when conditions are suitable.
If the water level in the river is too high, boaters can't get to the bank without a long wade through the swamp. If it's too low, there isn't enough water to float a boat. A canoe or kayak is perfect for accessing some of the more remote tracts, but a small aluminum johnboat can also be used.
"When you hunt the Little Pee Dee River Heritage Preserve, you have to know what the water level in the river is doing," Watts said. "If most of the swamps are flooded, you wind up hunting the edges. The edges have fairly thick cover, and that can make walking quietly difficult.
"You also have to wear rubber boots when the swamps are flooded, and you have to be careful where you shoot a squirrel. He can fall into water too deep for you to retrieve him. I have one hunting partner who brings his Labrador retriever along. If we shoot a squirrel and he lands in deep water, the dog always finds it.
"Some people wonder how a squirrel survives the floods. He fills tree cavities with acorns and nuts and never has to come to dry ground. It's frustrating when a squirrel is out over the water and close enough to shoot, but you know you'll never retrieve him. Having a retriever solves the problem."
But because of the drought, retrieving squirrels hasn't been a problem this season. In fact, conditions have been so dry that there has been only intermittent water in the bottoms of the largest streams. The leaves have been so brittle it has been hard to be sneaky.
"During the middle of the day, it's like walking on a spilled box of cornflakes," Watts said. "But if you hunt early in the morning and there's fog or dew, it can make walking on the leaves quieter. If there's a little bit of wind, it can mask the sounds of your walking. But too much wind makes it hard to spot the squirrels moving through the trees or hear them scratching on the ground. If it's real windy, they may not come out of their holes at all."
Watts had sat against an oak tree. In front of him, the dehydrated bottomland showed signs of squirrels eating and burying acorns. A holly stood between him and another large oak.
A squirrel eventually poked his head around the tree. Flicking his tail, he slowly inched around the bark to try to see what had interrupted his feeding. When his shoulders and head were showing, Watts fired his .410 shotgun.
The squirrel fell, caught in the holly tree and kicked a couple of times, shaking the leaves. Watts approached, but the squirrel sprang back to life and scrambled into a den hole five feet away.
"The den hole's too high to reach," he said. "If I could reach the hole, I could cut a sapling, leaving on some branches, stick it in the hole and twist it around his tail and pull him out. Den holes are the biggest problem with hunting here. A squirrel is never more than 15 feet from a hole. That squirrel is likely dead, and I just can't retrieve him.
"There are so many hollow trees, it's hard to pick one to watch. I usually find several trees with well-used holes. If you can see enough of them from one spot, there's a chance one or two will be the right ones, and several squirrels will come out."
Watts uses binoculars to spot squirrels sunning on limbs and occupied den holes. He looks for tooth-gnawed holes, as well as places where squirrels have stripped bark from cypress trees to line their nests. Large numbers of leaf nests are another good sign early in the season. However, during February, most squirrels stay in tree cavities, because nest-building materials are in short supply and tree dens offer better protection.
Watts also trusts in the Sportsman's Moon Tables, planning his hunts based on them. The squirrel he shot came out at 2:16 in the afternoon, a time most squirrel hunters would be doing other things.
"I've watched game-movement tables for years," he said. "They work. The weather might impact squirrel activity some days. but if you disregard weather and go by game-movement tables, you'll put squirrels in your game bag, while other hunters only hunt in mornings and afternoons."
Indeed, two other squirrels already in hand were shot between 10 and 10:20 a.m., another high-movement period, according to the table.
To put squirrels on a dinner table, Watts usually carries two guns.
"I carry a .410 double barrel with No. 6 or 7½ shot. I like having to get close to squirrels because its part of the challenge," he said. "If you're walking through the woods and you scare one, he's usually close enough for the .410, and if you shot him with a larger shotgun, you would ruin some good eating.
"I carry a scoped Thompson Center .22 rifle on a sling across my shoulder. Both guns are very light. If I see a squirrel sitting too far away for the .410, I shoot him with the .22."
When he's moving slowly, watching for squirrels and squirrel sign, Watts sometimes shakes vines leading to leaf nests - and even those that don't.
"When a squirrel spots you, he hides in the vines," Watts said. "If you shake them, he's going to move. It's better if you have two hunters - one to shake and one to shoot. If you're shaking vines, it's best to use a shotgun, because any squirrel you scare out is going to be running."
Watts sometimes uses a Mr. Squirrel call, a hollow metal disk the size of a bottle cap with a hole in the middle.
"It's sounds like a hawk killing a young squirrel," he said. "You make squeaks like an injured squirrel and thrash the ground with a green limb so it sounds like a hawk attacking the squirrel. Occasionally, it makes a squirrel that's hiding move, and sometimes it makes them scold."
But the Mr. Squirrel call is no cure-all. Watts said he thinks it sometimes alerts squirrels he could have stalked, and it sometimes makes them go into hiding, rather than run out of their dens and nests.
"It's just another toy to mess with," he said. "Like any other call, you have to play around with it and learn what it can and can't do. Squirrel hunting is all about fun. They might be small game, but you can still have a big time hunting them. Why not carry a call and try to find the best ways to use it?"
Johnny Stowe is the SCDNR's Heritage Preserve Manager for the Pee Dee Region. He said the preserve offers abundant squirrel hunting opportunities.
"It's very spread out, with many different ways to access it by land and water," he said. "The best vehicle access is at the Little Pee Dee River Tract because the road is very good. But the other tracts also have roadway access. There are a total of 10,238 acres, including Upper Gunter's Island, Dargan, Tilghman and several smaller tracts, as well as the Little Pee Dee Tract, which is the largest."
Stowe said squirrel hunters should have good luck in the bottomland hardwood forest. Because of the drought, it's now bone dry, but it can be waist deep in water several years in succession.
"When there's enough water, the river is a good way to get to certain places that are real pretty," he said. "The uplands are either clear-cut sand ridges or loblolly plantations. We are restoring the sand ridges to longleaf. There are fox squirrels on the sand ridges, and no fox squirrel hunting is allowed, so hunters should be careful.
"There's a USGS website that shows the level of certain rivers," Stowe said. "You can also look from the bridges, such as the bridge at Galavant's Ferry, and see what's going on. The Little Pee Dee River is not dammed, so it responds to water conditions in North Carolina's coastal plain. It can be dry when the Great Pee Dee River still has water because of dams on that river."
Hunters in boats should look for points and bluffs that are covered with trees other than cypress and gum. Stowe said hunters from the piedmont and mountains would not recognize what hunters along the Little Pee Dee River call a ridge. It can be only three feet higher than surrounding swamps, but that's high enough to grow oaks and hickories.
"Squirrels can go tree to tree and across the swamps without touching the ground," Stowe said "They stockpile acorns and hickory nuts in the holes and bury them. Studies have shown they don't always remember where they've hidden them, but they find some later on. They also don't find some, and that is what makes seedlings grow. Sometimes they won't come down from the trees in late winter because the maples bud out and they eat them."
Stowe said there are lots of hollows in the old-growth trees in the swamps. Therefore, most of the bottomlands are not good places to hunt with dogs.
"You get a lot of treeing with dogs, but you won't see a lot of squirrels," he said. "They hear any noise, and they head for a hole. It's a better place for walking or sitting quietly, enjoying the solitude of the old-growth forest."