Bennie Splain and Mark Kennedy paused at the edge of the woods to wait on the young hunters to catch up before releasing their dogs on the Anevay Farm near Vicksburg.

As soon as they were released, the dogs began working the trees and bushes in search of the diminutive grey squirrels. They went only a hundred yards or so before striking pay dirt.

Josie, a prize-winning mountain cur belonging to Splain got cranked up on a tree, and Lizzie, an up-and-coming 2-year-old mountain feist owned by Kennedy, quickly joined in and backed her up.

Though the leaves were long gone, the squirrel was hard to spot, and it took quite a bit of searching before it was located. Surrounding the tree and looking for a shot were Toler Robinson, Dalton Sullivan, Tyler Williamson and Kennedy.

Dan Robinson and Splain would take turns pulling vines and spotting squirrels as well. With a little vine shaking from Splain, the squirrel was coaxed out of his hiding spot, and guns started blazing.

The youngsters didn’t hesitate pulling the trigger on this morning, and had fun burning up some powder while trying to catch up to the speedy squirrels. After quite a few misses, the squirrel vacated the tree and tried to make an escape out the back. Finally, young Robinson put the squirrel down for good, and our first successful tree of the day had been accomplished, only 10 minutes into the hunt.

Less than five minutes later, Josie and Lizzie struck pay dirt again as they barked and seemingly pleaded with us to come quickly to help them out. Of course, the youngsters didn’t take long to catch up to the dogs, and the game was on again.

This time, the squirrel scurried up the tree, and tried to get away as well. After another volley of shots, he escaped the tree and sailed through the limbs into another tree. He quickly met his downfall as Kennedy nailed him with one shot.

Such squirrel hunting scenes were once a familiar sight and occurrence, and could have happened anytime over the last 200 years. In fact, during several generations, including my childhood, youngsters hit the woods almost everyday after school in search of squirrels. Those hunters cut their hunting teeth and learned basic woodsmanship skills while chasing the furry rodents.

During Splain’s youth, it was the rule rather than the exception for a country boy to have a squirrel dog. If you lived in the country, then you had a dog, or knew a close friend who had one to hunt with. Lifetime memories were made during those early beginnings.

In the recent past, these hunts have been few and far between for most hunters, as it has been hard for most to even find a dog to hunt with.

With the advent of competition squirrel hunts, however, there is a renewed interest in the age-old tradition of hunting squirrels with dogs, and many hunters are now getting to experience their first taste of the sport. And once a dog trees and the squirrels try to vacate the premises, the fun begins, and the hunters are usually hooked on the sport.

As the hunt continued, the woods became silent, save the voices of the hunters. Squirrel hunting with dogs is usually hurry up and wait, and that’s a good thing. The action will be hot and heavy for a few minutes and then things slow down a bit. During the lulls, hunters relive past hunts and events in the woods, and even part with a little outdoors wisdom. Hunting should be fun, and squirrel hunting with dogs is about as much fun as you can get in the woods.

“Dog hunting with a group of people like this is nothing but fun,” Kennedy said. “Even if you’ve just met the folks you’re hunting with, you feel like you know them well after spending a day in the woods with them.”

Part of the allure of squirrel hunting with a dog is that youngsters don’t have to sit still and be quiet all the time. They can talk and observe and even learn a thing or two from the veteran hunters. And Splain and Kennedy were quick to point out things and impart some of their squirrel-hunting knowledge to all who would listen. Occasionally they would point out a fresh buck rub or scrape.

With the woods still quiet, the group strained to hear the dogs. They had disappeared over the gentle, rolling, oak-covered hills, and were nowhere to be seen or heard.

Dan Robinson was standing on a rise slightly behind and higher than the group, and could barely hear the dogs deep in a hollow to the west. He pointed us in the right direction, and we began our trek to their position. Topping the hill, we could barely hear the raucous chorus of the dogs on tree.

As it turned out, the dogs were several ridges over from us and almost out of hearing due to the depth of the hollow that they had treed in. Splain explained that Josie was trained to really get out there and work for a squirrel in short order, as a result of her training for competition hunts. Josie was treeing at 6 months of age, and was a dandy at a mere 8 months old. By the age of two, she won the Sportsman’s Pride World Hunt.

If she doesn’t locate a squirrel close at hand, she’ll burn it up until she does, and it usually doesn’t take long for her to locate one.

While the youngsters quickly traversed the many ridges between us, Splain advised that we needn’t hurry as Josie wouldn’t leave the tree as some dogs are prone to do. With more than 40 years of squirrel-hunting experience and raising dogs, Splain has learned a thing or two about training squirrel dogs, and it showed on this day.

“I start mine out real early, and it doesn’t take long to train one to stick on the tree,” he said. “You just have to work them regular, and it won’t take them long to figure out what you want.”

Sure enough, Josie was still on tree when we got there, and the squirrel was holed up tight and nowhere to be found.

After everyone surrounded the tree, Kennedy descended into the hollow to shake a vine and get the squirrel to move. Toler Robinson and Sullivan were on one ridge, and Williamson and Kennedy were on the opposite side of the tree.

Once Kennedy began pulling and shaking the vines, the squirrel went to skittering to and fro in the treetop. The young hunters were having a time trying to catch up with the squirrel, and a few more shots were fired with no success.

As the hunters on the other side of the tree began to move and shake vines, the squirrel came around the tree, and offered a shot to the young hunter who had yet to spot him. Robinson stood beside Sullivan, and tried to show him the squirrel. After a quick miss, the squirrel went even higher before Sullivan honed in and scored on his first kill of the day. The celebration was now beginning as all of the youngsters had scored.

The action was really heating up now as the dogs were working the woods and finding squirrels as only top-notch squirrel dogs can, even on a morning when the squirrels weren’t down on the ground very much.

During one episode, both dogs treed on separate trees, leaving us to ponder which tree the squirrel was in. Suddenly a squirrel moved high in one tree, and the youngsters quickly took aim and fired a volley again. As the squirrel met his destiny, our attention turned to the other tree.

“There’s got to be one in that tree as well,” Kennedy said.

Sure enough, a little vine-shaking by Splain got the squirrel moving from his hiding place, and shots rang out before another one bit the dust. Williamson had scored on another squirrel of his own.

These dogs were on their game and the youngsters were really enjoying the action. Every young hunter should have the opportunity to experience such action-packed excitement.

Have dog will travel

Kennedy and Splain have both participated in the friendly sport of competition squirrel hunting, where dogs compete against other dogs to see who can tree the most or beat the rest. No squirrels are killed during these hunts, but the action is oftentimes nonstop for a couple of hours and almost breathtaking at times. The competition hunts bring out the best in the dogs and many friendships are forged as a result of the hunts.

Kennedy and Splain are always looking for someone to take hunting and share their wonderful sport of squirrel hunting with dogs. In fact, they carry children and introduce new hunters to the sport every chance they get. As an added incentive to get children into the woods and started hunting, Kennedy has even posted ads in the Mississippi Market Bulletin offering their services for special hunts. The deal is they will furnish the dogs and expertise, if the landowner will furnish the place to hunt.

With the excitement and enthusiasm that was generated on our hunt, it’s surely a deal worth taking if you have good squirrel hunting woods. They’ll even clean the squirrels and leave them with their hosts. And there’s just not much finer eating than a plate of tender fried squirrels, hot homemade biscuits and brown squirrel gravy to top it off.

Where to hunt

With hundreds of thousands of acres of woods around the state, there is no shortage of places to squirrel hunt. While many people prefer hunting on private land, almost every area of the state has a national forest, wildlife refuge or wildlife management area that has plenty of squirrels and seasons set aside for small-game hunting.

While some WMAs don’t have prime areas to hunt squirrels, almost all have a few areas that afford huntable populations.

In the delta region, the Delta National Forest is home to many squirrels, and is perhaps the most popular squirrel hunting area in the state. The Delta National Forest is home to red and black fox squirrels as well as our more plentiful grey squirrels.

Mahannah and Twin Oaks WMAs are also jam-packed with squirrel-hunting areas in the Delta region about 20 to 30 miles north of Vicksburg that have plenty of old-growth hardwood trees that sustain good populations of grey squirrels and red and black fox squirrels as well.

The shrill, course bark of a fox squirrel is very distinctive, and can lead to hot squirrel hunting action also. It doesn’t matter to the dog if they are black, red or grey; they’ll send them all up a tree if given half a chance.

In the central part of the state lies Bienville National Forest with multiple WMA units on or near the national forest. And to the east, situated near Louisville and Starkville, is the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, as well as Choctaw WMA. Both have excellent squirrel habitat in many areas. All it takes is a little scouting and a good dog or two, and you’ll be in business in no time.

It’s a good thing to remember to check the rules and regulations in the specific WMA that you’re going to hunt, as many may differ and most allow squirrel hunting on certain days of the week until the WMA or refuge deer seasons are closed.

By February, however, all deer seasons will be closed, and it sometimes becomes a squirrel hunter’s dream, as most everyone else has vacated the woods.

Pulling and shaking

For those who don’t have a squirrel dog, there is an alternative in February, and that’s to hunt with a couple of close friends or family members. Two hunters can make this work, but three are even better. Simply find an oak flat or area that has plenty of big oaks or mast producing trees and you’ll be in business.

Once you spot a big oak, simply let one person stay on one side of the tree while the other two circle to the other side. As they move around the tree, the squirrels will usually ease around to the side where the first hunter is, making for an easy shot. Sometimes there will be multiple squirrels, and it might take some keen eyes to spot them.

Once a squirrel has been spotted and shot, any remaining squirrels will probably make a hasty retreat by any means possible. Sometimes they run and jump to a tree close by, and the action can be real interesting and exciting.

It’s not always easy to hit a squirrel running or flying through the trees, even with a shotgun. It’s even harder if all you have is .22 rifle as some late-season hunters are prone to carry. Usually one or two of the hunters will carry .22 rifles, while another will carry a shotgun to back them up if the squirrels try to head for parts unknown in a sprint.

If no squirrel is spotted in a tree, then the hunters on opposite sides of the tree will pull and shake the vines going up the tree. If there are no vines, then you can grab a small sapling, and shake it violently and that will usually do the trick.

After hunting in an area a time or two, it will be easier to pick out the trees that usually hold the squirrels.

Once you get the hang of shaking vines and bushes, simply repeat the process over and over, and it can be almost as exciting as hunting with a dog — if you’ve got a good population of squirrels, that is.

Get in the game

If you want to give squirrel hunting with dogs a try and don’t know where to start, simply give Splain or Kennedy a call, and they’ll give you plenty of advice about where to start and how to find a dog. Contact Splain at (601) 922-8200 and Kennedy at (601) 940-1194.

And if they have time, they might even carry you hunting and give you some first-hand instruction.