With dry leaves crackling underfoot, the squirrel sounded like a rampaging buffalo as it scampered across the ground to another tree.

We couldn't see our quarry through the extremely thick, nearly impenetrable thickets and low brush common to backwater bottomlands off Pearl River. In early season, thick, green leaves limited our visibility along the ribbon of dry shoreline to just a few feet.

On the patch of dry ground, brambles, vines, greenbrier and other entangling undergrowth made movement by anything larger than a squirrel virtually impossible.

Using our secret weapon, we approached our quarry with stealth until reaching a point about 15 yards from where the little furball vanished.

Suddenly, the still-unaware squirrel made a fatal mistake: It hopped onto a low branch and sat there munching an acorn in plain sight.

With the shotgun report, one squirrel fell to the ground while two previously undetected squirrels raced back into the swamps.

"With the leaves so crunchy and ground so thick, we could never have gotten this close to that squirrel without a boat," I said.

"Yes, but if we are going to go squirrel hunting, we better get going," Eric Yeates said. "The afternoon is getting late; let's put down our fishing rods and make the run up East Pearl to our main hunting spot.

"Wait, I see two more squirrels on the other side of the bayou. Let's get them first."

Yeates poled his flat-bottomed boat across the bayou. In the bow, I reloaded my Remington Model 870 20-gauge shotgun.

One squirrel climbed up a cypress tree and sat on a branch. Another jumped through branches spanning a small ditch leading back into the swamp. I nailed the one in the cypress with a load of No. 6 lead shot.

We raced to the spot in the water where it fell to scoop it with a net before it could sink.

"Okay, we can go squirrel hunting now," I said. "Wait. I see another one. Let's pole down this bank a bit."

Every time we decided to "go squirrel hunting," another bushytail hopped on a branch, barked from a tree or ran across the only dry ground in this cypress swamp - a tiny sliver along the bayou shoreline.

Finally, we gave up on the idea of "going squirrel hunting" and simply decided to stay in the boat. We poled down the small bayou, searching trees for telltale movement or listened to squirrels barking and scolding.

Although we never actually "went squirrel hunting" in this swamp along the Louisiana-Mississippi line, we probably saw about 30 squirrels and heard an untold number of bushytails. Some disappeared quickly; others seemingly ignored us as we approached in the boat.

In about three hours on a windy afternoon, we bagged 12 squirrels from the boat, only setting foot on dry land occasionally to retrieve an animal that didn't fall into the water.

In contrast, during five hours of plowing through heavy underbrush in the same general area that morning, we bagged only four squirrels. We saw many squirrels while hunting on land, but could seldom approach close enough to shoot. The crunching dry leaves under our feet trumpeted our slow progress as we delicately picked our way through briers, palmettos and other entangling growth.

Many Mississippi sportsmen use boats to reach their squirrel hunting spots, but don't actually hunt from boats. Occasionally, boaters might spot and shoot squirrels while traveling to or from a hunting spot, but they don't plan to hunt from the boat.

However, they're limiting themselves and missing outstanding opportunities at virtually untouched bushytails. By hunting directly from boats in swampy areas, sportsmen can exponentially increase their success.

"Hunting squirrels from boats can be highly productive," said Rick Hamrick, the small-game program leader for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks in Starkville. "In areas with a lot of thick underbrush, it's very hard to walk quietly.

"With a small boat, hunters can slip quietly along a stretch of water and spot squirrels. Hunters in small boats can also get into spots where others can't normally go and hunt areas that might be tougher to hunt on foot."

Federal laws prohibit hunters from shooting ducks or other migratory birds from boats under motor or sail power until the motor stops and all forward progress ceases. However, federal laws don't apply to resident game animals like squirrels.

"In Mississippi, it's unlawful to hunt any species - except beavers and squirrels - from a motorized vehicle unless the forward progress of the vehicle has ceased," explained Lt. Col. Sammy Fisher, the MDFWP assist chief of law enforcement in Jackson. "But it's legal to hunt squirrels and beavers from a boat under power in Mississippi. This statute applies to state management areas and private lands, unless otherwise prohibited by specific regulations for that property."

Quite often, the best squirrel habitat grows along stream shorelines. Typically, a small corridor of slightly higher ground runs between the water and swamps behind it. These narrow shoreline ridges often grow up with the best mast-bearing hardwood trees. From a small boat, sportsmen can very easily and effectively hunt these low ridges while covering large chunks of territory.

"Squirrels use the hardwood edges next to streams quite a bit," Hamrick advised. "In many areas, there's a little bit of higher ground right next to the shoreline because of the flooding regime for that particular stream. Often, sand or silt deposits along the stream edge during a flood. That builds up slightly higher ridges along the shorelines, which often grow up with hardwood trees that can be good habitat for squirrels."

While Mississippi sportsmen may use their outboard motors to hunt squirrels, hunters most often detect squirrels first with their ears. On still, calm mornings, sound travels quite far over the water. Sportsmen frequently hear claws scratching on tree bark, acorns dropping in the forest, branches shaking or squirrels chattering.

Gliding along silently in a canoe, kayak, pirogue or other paddle craft, sportsmen often locate squirrels from long distances and may sneak close to them. Pushing the boat forward with a small trolling motor could make hunting from a flatboat easier.

Naturally, the best hunting typically occurs in smaller, isolated backwaters and tributaries off main river channels. Some hunters tow canoes from larger craft and park the motorboat at a tributary mouth before paddling a canoe into the swamp to reach inaccessible, rarely hunted interior plots of land.

Others simply launch small flatboats or canoes into backwaters to either hunt directly from the boat or find remote places for walk hunts.

Sportsmen can also hunt several spots a day on foot, using the boat to move from place to place while scanning for squirrels next to the streams between spots.

"Any place that has mature hardwoods and streams would be a good place to hunt squirrels from a small boat," Hamrick explained. "People see the most squirrels where they can find mast-producing trees.

"Some areas on public properties go under-utilized because it's so difficult for most people to get to them."

There is one caveat, however.

"Navigable waterways belong to the public, but hunters need permission from the landowner to get on adjacent land to retrieve their squirrels," Hamrick said.

The bottom line is that this should be a great season to load the freezer up with squirrels.

"Our predictions are that we'll have a good squirrel season in 2012-13," Hamrick said. "We've had a mild winter and a really good mast crop in the fall of 2011. We've had unbelievably good mast crops for the past three years.

"We expect the squirrel population to be in good condition. Hunters should see a good many squirrels. We have a lot of public squirrel hunting opportunities on our wildlife management areas."