Take a dozen or more eager youth, add a half-dozen feisty dogs with an eagerness to squirrel hunt, mix in a few adults who love being with kids and dogs in the woods, add a dash of surprise, season with a brace of bushy-tails, and you have the perfect recipe for a Saturday of fun in the February woods.
No need to be too quiet, the dogs will be out front doing the hunting, just one of the grand things about squirrel hunting with dogs.
For most hunters dragging 60 or pushing 70, squirrels were the top game hunted during their youth. For today’s youth, who are accustomed to the fast-paced world of gaming and social media, it may be the least boring of all hunting venues. They can walk in the woods, marvel at sights and sounds, discover new things, shoot guns, watch dogs, listen to men talk of hunts past and present, and feel included as active participants.
Best of all, it gets kids outside, away from the distractions of society.
To promote the experience, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation and other organizations sponsor a Youth Squirrel Hunting Initiative. It includes a series youth squirrel hunts annually as a means of introducing youth to the simple joy of hunting.
Unlike deer hunting, where quiet and stillness are practiced virtues, squirrel hunting with dogs allows movement and conversation well suited to the restless energy associated with eager youthfulness.
The annual events begin with registration and classroom instruction. The young hunters are lectured in the basics of game identification, rules and regulations of hunting on a wildlife management area and hunter safety. The safety aspect of the hunt is emphasized and reinforced with several conservation officers covering all aspects that might be encountered during the day’s activities.
Following a provided lunch, target practice is held so that each youth has an opportunity to shoot a shotgun several times. For some of the youth this is the first time they have fired a shotgun in preparation for a hunting outing.
“The shooting activity is very basic,” WMA Supervisor Paul Windham said. “We just want to reinforce the safety aspect of keeping the finger off the trigger until ready to shoot and allow them to feel the recoil. Each child gets to shoot at a squirrel target which they are given to keep.”
Following the target practice the youth are divided into groups or casts, which are assigned to dog handlers and supervisory adults. Mississippi Sportsman tagged along with one such 2013 cast to document the hunt.
Chad Dacus and William McKinley of the MDWFP directed the group while Kenneth Latham handled the dogs, Hammer and Hoppy. The Mississippi Hunting Dog Association volunteers its time and resources to support the statewide youth hunts each year.
“A few of our kids have been in the woods before,” said Dacus, since named chief of wildlife for the MDWFP. “For others it is a first time to witness the wonderment of the woods. They see tracks and signs of wildlife activity. They have an opportunity to see the dogs in action and make a kill if they want to. In the years I’ve been associated with the youth hunts I’ve seen many a boy or girl mature into a hunter during an afternoon hunt. It’s like a rite of passage to be in the woods with the grown-ups, to be treated with respect and courtesy.”
As the cast headed into the woods near the convergence of Caney Creek and the Strong River in Smith County, hopes were high the dogs would soon tree. A few squirrels eluded the hunters, finding safety in holes, but soon enough Hammer and Hoppy joined voices in what would be the first successful tree of the afternoon.
It was a tall oak with a sheath of rattan and muscadine vines. The hunters circled the tree and searched for any sign of movement or abnormal shape that might be the prey. McKinley, a deer biologist with the MDWFP, was the first to spot the grey squirrel, hugging tight to the tree in fork of a limb.
It was Nick Buckman, 14, of Forest who had the steady aim and dropped the first bushy-tail of the afternoon.
The houndsmen released their dogs and the hunt continued. Within minutes Hoppy was again treeing. Hammer soon joined in and the pace of the hunters quickened toward the eagerly barking dogs.
Trent Phillipson of Pisgah was on the gun this time and joined in the search for the squirrel. This tree was bigger than the first with many more limbs and more places for a squirrel to hide. Trent finally found the target and let the little 20-gauge sound off. The squirrel was dead when it hit the ground.
Later, several more trees proved the dogs meant business. However the squirrels had holes close by to dash into before the hunting party had time to respond. Another squirrel set a new limb-sprint speed record as it traversed the treetops in search of a safe place to hide. Try as they might the young hunters just couldn’t keep up with the nimble rodent.
“Squirrel hunting allows kids to be mobile,” McKinley said, as he laughed at the situation. “These critters have a better view of us than we do of them. As there is no doubt in anybody’s mind they can scurry through the trees at top speed.”
Another tree was a tall thick-trunked swamp pine. As with many of the trees in the national forest, vines of several varieties encircled the trunk. Within this tangled mass was a nest constructed of dried leaves. Such nests are common haunts for squirrels, and sometimes other species of tree dwellers. At some point a young hunter was encouraged to shake a vine in hopes of scaring a squirrel from the nest. To everyone’s surprise it was not a squirrel that emerged, but a large raccoon.
This allowed the adults to add another conservation and resource management lesson to the squirrel hunt. Raccoons are edible game and one of the adults knew a man who was always willing to receive a fresh coon. Raccoons are also a predator of wild turkeys during the spring nesting season, when they seek out nests and eat the eggs. The raccoon’s fate was left for the youth to decide, and since it seemed to them like a win-win situation, it was targeted for harvest. The houndsmen, not wanting to allow their dogs to be adversely influenced by the kill, removed the dogs some distance from the tree before allowing the shooting.
The shooters used a half-dozen or so shot shells before the raccoon was dispatched. Chase Nelson of Madison was on the gun when the last shot performed the coup d grace. The boar coon hit the ground with a resounding thud, where upon the guns were emptied and all came to examine a critter taken in fair chase, rather than being hit by traffic on a busy roadway.
“You should never kill something without just cause, or unless you intend to use it,” Latham said. “I want to commend you boys for being safe, and understanding the importance of always knowing where everyone, both people and dogs, are before you pull the trigger.”
As the afternoon faded the swamp began to darken. A few more trees failed to result in another squirrel, but the spirits of the hunters were high as they strung out toward the parked vehicles. In the end, everyone got to shoot a gun and see a squirrel dog in action. They all vowed to return the next year, or encourage their parents to become more involved in small game hunting.
“While they may not be aware of it right now, these kids, some of whom have never hunted at all, have completed a rite of passage,” Dacus said. “It is so wonderful see these boys get so excited and learn that this (the opportunity to hunt public land) is here and open to them.”
Seven hunts are scheduled for 2014, all on Feb. 8 on public lands around the state. The deadline for application was Jan. 20. To check if any openings remain, contact the Mississippi Wildlife Federation at mswildlife.org or (601) 605-1790.
To learn more about youth hunting opportunities for all types of game, contact the wildlife bureau at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks at mdwfp.com, or by calling 601-432-2400.