It’s a well-worn mantra from grey-beards such as myself: Many of us who are closer to 65 than we’d like to admit cut our hunting teeth on squirrels, rabbits and quail. We didn’t use camouflage clothing or high-priced squirrel dogs. Evening entertainment consisted of two or three local television stations that signed off before midnight, with the National Anthem and a rousing display of military might, all in black and white. This is just to say it was a much simpler time.
Hunting then was much simpler as well.
At age 12, I was allowed to hunt alone, if I didn’t go too far from the house. I had a yard dog named Yip-Yip that treed squirrels well, and weekends in the fall always found us looking for an adventure. Together we shot a lot of squirrels. My equipment was an Iver Johnson .410 single-shot and a pocket knife. I’d load a hand-me-down game vest with all the No. 6 3-inch shells I had, and spend the day stalking the hardwoods of the national forest.
The Bienville National Forest is spread across Scott and Smith counties, with a small part falling in Newton and Jasper counties — a large swath of green on most maps. The forest, named for the Bienville Lumber Company that first harvested the massive pine forests in the early part of the 20th century, is as diverse as any in the state. The forest drains into three different river systems — the Pearl, the Strong and the Leaf — via a network of little creeks and streams. That in itself is not too impressive, but each of these tributaries supports an ecosystem that is home to squirrels.
The forests of my youth have changed somewhat. Much of the hickory and other hard mast-producing trees along the ridges are gone — killed by the Forest Service in the name of timber stand improvement. But enough have survived along the drainages to provide good squirrel hunting.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 felled a lot of big oaks, hickories and pines. The trees, loaded with fruit, proved to be no match for the relentless wind. Walking through the forest during deer and turkey seasons and seeing the number of squirrel nests is a testament to the tenacity of the little tree rodent.
Hunting them now can be as simple, or as fancy, as the hunter wants to make it. The little .410 remains in my gun cabinet these days — a 20-gauge repeater takings its place in the early part of the season and a .22 rim-fire after the leaves fall. No. 6 shot remains a favorite as do high brass shells. There are still some very tall trees within the boundaries of the Bienville.
The squirrel population across the Bienville National Forest is in very good condition. Biologist Dave Godwin of Starkville explains why.
"Squirrel numbers rise as the result of good hard-mast production," said Godwin. "When several years of good to great mast crops are produced, the squirrel population goes up."
According to Godwin, the central portion of the state is in a cycle of good mast production. Walks in the woods indicate evidence of squirrel activity with cut acorns and hickory nuts as well as pine cones.
One common method of hunting squirrels includes the use of stealth — slipping through the woods as quietly and unobtrusively as possible, spotting a squirrel, or hopefully several, feeding in a tree, then closing the distance and getting a shot before you’re busted and the squirrel takes off for a hole in a tree.
Deer hunters can turn the tables here for just a moment and understand the challenge in stalking. A hunter in a tree stand has command of the ground around him. Noises in the leaves and movement on the forest floor seldom go unnoticed. This is the advantage the squirrel has over the hunter.
Stalking is best done on days when the leaves are damp from rain or dew and a few leaves remain on the trees to act as a cover, breaking up the outline of the hunter. Squirrels may not be the brightest critters in the forest, but then they aren’t stupid either. They may be more on the lookout for hawks and owls, but you can bet they are aware of the big things walking on the ground as well. Early season hunters will find a scattergun a good choice.
As the trees become barren of leaves and fruit, a rim-fire rifle provides the hunter with some added range. The flat-shooting little .17-caliber rounds are deadly at 50 to 75 yards when paired with a decent rifle and scope. The venerable .22 has a place as well, but the older rimfire is a little more limited due to its rainbow trajectory. Both the .17 and the .22 will provide the makings for squirrel and dumplings at the end of the day.
Taking a stand
Allow me to digress a moment here. It is rare indeed that I do not see squirrels when I am deer hunting. With that said, I decided to squirrel hunt from a deer stand one day. I had the bright idea to take an air rifle with me while bow hunting. The end results were more squirrels than deer for the larder. Keeping the range to 10 or 15 yards, the .177 pellet to the head dispatched the tree rats as well as a rimfire, with just a fraction of the noise.
Modern air rifles can propel pellets at close to 1,000 fps, and can be highly accurate. City and suburban hunters can use an air rifle to keep urban populations of squirrels from getting out of hand. Check local ordinances before doing so, since some rodent huggers may frown at the activity. Youth can get a taste of hunting by shooting urban squirrels. That can be a great lead-in to hunting in the wild.
Hunting with a dog
Hunting with any good working dog is a pure delight. Squirrel hunting with a good dog is no exception. It allows hunters to be a little more relaxed and free to walk and talk without disrupting the hunting experience. Late season is best suited to the use of a dog — when the leaves and mast crops have fallen, and squirrels are found more often feeding on the ground.
Kenny Latham of Ludlow has hunted in the Bienville National Forest much of his life. For him, it’s all about the dog. Latham lives in the northwestern corner of Scott County near the Bienville Wildlife Management Area.
"Hunting squirrels with a dog is a wonderful way to introduce a youngster, or just about anyone for that matter, to the sport of hunting," said Latham. "Kids can knock around, talk to each other, pull on vines, explore all the sights and sounds and get to shoot their guns.
"Sitting motionless and quiet in a deer stand will work for some kids, but not for all. Squirrel hunting allows them to burn some energy and still have a quality experience in nature."
Latham is a retired Mississippi Conservation Officer and knows the hunting areas of the county like the back of his hand. His dog of choice is a fiest, in fact a three-legged fiest. The thing is, the dog just takes the lack of a right rear leg in stride.
"Hoppy was born with one leg not developed," said Latham of the dog. "The owner was about to hit the pup in the head with a hammer when a granddaughter stopped him.
"Saved by a child to be an indoor pet, the fiest pup longed to be outside and treed every time he was allowed out. Since the dog showed promise and ample grit, it was given a chance. And the rest, as they say, is history. He is coming into his own as a top-notch squirrel dog."
A veterinarian removed part of the deformed limb to allow the remaining leg to grow stronger. To see the dog work in the woods is amazing. Hoppy is an excellent lesson in perseverance.
A continuing legacy
In the northwestern corner of Smith County, near where the Strong River and Big Caney Creek converge, there is a hunter camp that has hosted squirrel hunters for over half a century. Over the past 30 years it has grown into a social gathering encompassing dozens of families and hundreds of people, most from the Polkville area. Sleeping on a quilt on the ground and having a kerosene lantern for light has given way to tents, travel trailers and motor homes, generators, smokers and deep fryers. The handful of hunters has grown to a week-long event that attracts hundreds. Not all come to hunt; in fact, many come just for the food and fellowship. Towering pines and the rolling landscape serve as a backdrop for the telling and re-telling of tales, quality time among generations and the smell of wood smoke from many campfires.
It was around one camp fire that a new member was almost added back in 1989. Marvin Phillips and his wife Sandra were sitting at the campfire when Sandra, great with child, announced they may have to leave the camp very soon. They departed for the hospital, and Tracie was born very shortly thereafter. Today, Tracie is married and could be introducing a fourth generation to the family squirrel hunting affair.
"We all grew up hunting here and couldn’t imagine a year passing without attending the camp hunt," said Marvin Phillips. "It’s like a homecoming and family reunion all wrapped into one — and the squirrel hunting is pretty good too."
Marvin began attending the camp as a boy with his father Henry. Similar stories are shared at nearly every camp, as young and old swap stories that span the years.
The feeder creeks of the Leaf River often go dry in summer, but there is always enough moisture to support the hard mast-producing trees found along them. Some of the names sound like duplicates from other parts of the country, and the fact is, they are the same names. Turkey Creek, Tallahala Creek and Cedar Creek being just a few. Squirrel hunting has been a long tradition on Tallahala, the first WMA within the Bienville National Forest.
A close examination of the maps of the area indicate a number of parcels of U.S. Forest Service land outside the boundaries of the WMA. One example is the stretch of Leaf River west of Highway 501 near the Scott-Smith County line. This area gets a lot of use by hunters, but it is a large scope of woods. Visitors will need to be cognizant of the private land and avoid straying across the line without permission.
South of the Tallahala Headquarters on FS Road 506 is a good drainage for squirrel hunting that also supports a population of wild hogs. Being a nuisance animal, there is no closed season on the hogs, and any weapon legal on the area during a hunting season may be used to shoot them. Because hogs are direct competitors for mast forage, hunters are encouraged to kill all they see. Just remember, a wounded hog can be dangerous to both humans and hunting dogs.
Bot fly infestations may be found in the Bienville National Forest squirrel population. These larval parasites are ugly to look at but do not harm the quality of the meat. Called "wolves" by many hunters, these parasites generally depart the host once cold weather arrives, leaving just a tiny round scar on the skin.
"The meat of the squirrel is in no way affected by the larval infestation," said Godwin. "In fact, there is little evidence indicating the squirrel is adversely affected by the episode."