Enter just about any standing timber, and squirrels will call it home. Be it a local woodlot, dense swamps of the Lowcountry, or high mountain ridges, squirrels live pretty much everywhere. Their chatter and scurrying around in the leaves have annoyed many deer hunters and brought smiles to many youngsters hoping to get a shot at some of these fast running, high climbing acrobats of the canopy.

On the northern edge of Greenville County just beyond the town of Cleveland and lying between Jones Gap State Park and Caesar's Head State, park lies a little-known, 1,125-acre gem, the Ashmore Heritage Preserve - a treasure trove of opportunities.

A visit to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' website (www.dnr.sc.gov) will unearth a description, part of which reads: "The preserve … features a natural bog (that) creates favorable habitat for rare plants and other species, such as orchids, sundew and ferns. . . . Deer, black bear, turkey, squirrels, a few ruffed grouse . . . make this area their home."

Only foot traffic is allowed, but many marked trails and old logging roads provide easy access within the preserve, and other than an occasional hiker around 5.5-acre Lake Wattacoo, the place is pretty much void of people. But it certainly isn't void of squirrels, which provide opportunities for sportsmen to ply their skills at chasing treetop acrobats.

As hunters mature, they tend to move from small game to big game, leaving their hunting roots behind. Billy Dukes, the small-game project leader for the SCDNR, said the number of small-game hunters has been holding steady over the years, but there is a slight downward trend. Those who hunt squirrels have remained steady for decades.

"Most hunters cut their teeth hunting squirrels, and it's a great animal to get kids started on," he said. "They are abundant, liberal harvest limits, and the difficulty isn't such that kids can't be successful."

All of this adds to the popularity of squirrel hunting in South Carolina. Add to this the different methods used to hunt squirrels, and it really opens the door for opportunities.

Traditionally, hunters have either targeted squirrels with dogs or by still-hunting - sitting quietly and waiting for squirrels to show themselves or moving slowly through the woods looking for unwary bushytails.

Hunters using dogs tend to prefer either the mountain feist - sometimes known as the treeing feist - and the mountain cur as squirrels dogs. While other breeds are also used to chase squirrels, the feist and cur dominate.

Hunting squirrels with dogs is a fast-paced, action-filled day in the woods. Dogs are released in likely locations, and the woods echo with their high-spirited barks as the chase squirrels up and down the ridges. Just the sight of a gun puts a squirrel dog in a tizzy, and like being shot out of a cannon, it is off racing through the woods. Feists hunt by both sight and smell, and if they see a squirrel, that squirrel never leaves its sight unless it runs in a hole. Shotguns dominate a hunter's arsenal, smaller gages ranging from the 20- to .410 are most-often found in their arms. Most shots are high in the canopy, and as often as not, running shots are required, making a scatter gun an excellent choice.

Mary Bunch, a wildlife biologist with the SCDNR and director of the Ashmore Heritage Preserve said the tract is very popular with hikers and gets some pressure during the 2-week bear season, but other than that, "it sees little pressure from hunters.... I guess many people don't know about it or just assume it's overrun with pressure."

But the opposite is the case, especially later in the season and away from the lake.

"There are a good many hikers who use the Ashmore Preserve," Bunch said. "But if you are hunting, go to the northern areas of the preserve and you are a lot less likely to run into hikers there. Most just stay around the lake."

Ashmore Heritage Preserve is truly a gem; the pressure is nonexistent, the squirrels are as abundant as a city park and the scenery is breath-taking.

 

DESTINATION INFORMATION

HOW TO GET THERE - Ashmore Heritage Preserve is in northern Greenville County. From the junction of SC 11 and US 276 near Cleveland, head west 3.9 miles and turn right on Persimmon Ridge Rd. for almost a mile to a parking area on the right. The trail into the Heritage Preserve starts just up the road on the right. For more information, visit www.dnr.sc.gov/mlands/managedland?p_id=1

WHEN TO GO - Squirrel season, which opened Nov. 24, closes March 1. The daily bag limit is five.

TECHNIQUES - Most squirrel hunters still-hunt with shotguns or .22 rifles or use dogs to find and tree squirrels; shotguns are the norm on dog hunts. Look in areas with mast-producing trees and trees with leafy nests marking squirrels' summer homes.

MORE INFO - Mary Bunch, SCDNR, 311 Natural Resources Dr., Clemson, 29631, 864-654-6738, bunchm@dnr.sc.gov.;

ACCOMMODATIONS - The closest hotel accommodations are in Travelers Rest: Hampton Inn, 593 Roe Center Ct., 864-834-5550; Sleep Inn, 110 Hawkins Rd., 864-834-7040; Travelers Motel, 530 N Highway 25, 864-834-7222. Camping is also available at Jones Gap State Park and Table Rock State Park, http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/.