My back tight to the wide trunk of a white oak, the sun rising behind me was providing the first light in the tops of the two red oaks to my front.
It was still dusky in the bottomland, where the sun’s rays couldn’t reach.
It was cool — about perfect for an early December morning at our deer camp.
But it wasn’t whitetails I was waiting for. It was the first morning of the primitive weapon season, and the our rules allowed any other kind of hunting on that part of the property on the first day.
So I was waiting on squirrels, the ones I’d been watching for two weeks from the raised shooting house behind me. It was the stand I’d been hunting nearly every day watching for the monster 10-point I’d seen crossing just before season.
And, every day — like clockwork — I’d see a parade of squirrels come to those two red oaks and feed, and play and chase each other.
Gray ones, red ones and a couple of black squirrels would make daily visits, and I had been counting the days to the morning when I could take my .410 pump shotgun and hunt them.
The minutes passed and the sun slowly lighted more limbs, working its way down the trees. My eyes concentrated on the routes I’d been watching the squirrels take to their morning feast.
And they did come: first a pair of gray squirrels, coming the same way they always did, passing through a big pine tree. I saw them when they jumped from a small oak to the pine, followed them through the still-green needles and watched them pause before jumping over to the first oak.
They hit the oak, and within seconds were in perfect position. One was feeding near the trunk on a short limb, while the other ventured farther out along a long limb.
I picked the one closest to the trunk, which would leave me time to swing on the second before it could race back to thick cover.
Two squirrels in the bag.
I barely settled back down when I saw three more coming.
I could see two red ones — the Delta type, smaller than those big inland fox squirrels that are found all over Mississippi. They’re also a lot more tender.
The third one finally cleared the shadows, and I could see it was the most rare of the Mississippi squirrels: the black phase of the Delta red squirrel.
I was excited.
Getting all three would prove a challenge, so I decided to make sure I got the black one and then do the best I could on the reds.
The two reds got to the oak first, while the black went toward the other oak and arrived about two minutes later. Both trees and all three squirrels were within 30 yards.
I caught the black one sitting wide open on a juncture of two branches, fired and saw him start falling.
I swung to the other tree, and needed two shots to get one of the reds running through the limbs.
I couldn’t find the third one — the other red squirrel.
I sat tight and looked but just couldn’t get a glimpse of anything squirrely. So I went to collect my two kills.
Back in my spot, I kept scanning the tree for the second red one, but I didn’t see anything. If he was there, he was holding tight to a limb and wasn’t moving.
In the distance, I saw two more gray squirrels in the tops of trees about 75 yards away. They were coming, following the fence line at the edge of the trees.
I raised the little shotgun to my knee and waited.
They came straight to the oak where the red one had been, and they began what appeared to be a game of chase through the tree. They scurried up this limb, across that one, and then up and down the trunk.
I couldn’t get a good shot on them, so I waited. I’d seen this behavior for two weeks, and knew I could be patient. Their playfulness took them to the other oak and back.
And this time, the other red squirrel suddenly reappeared, apparently feeling it safe to finally move. Wrong!
All three went in the bag, leaving me one more to fill the limit of eight, something I hadn’t done in years.
I knew more would come, including some black ones, so I decided to wait for that opportunity. When one finally arrived, there were three gray squirrels already in the thee.
I was done.
December might be the heart of deer season in Mississippi, but it also is perfect for small game, like squirrel, rabbit and dove.
Sure, it’s tough to find places to hunt, but, ah, the rewards — the big pot of smoked-squirrel dumplings we had that Christmas are a perfect example.
Bow seson a perfect time to scout for squirrels
Tony Hinton of Jackson is a hunter’s hunter. If it has a season, Hinton will hunt it — and bow hunting is his passion, which helps set him up for his No. 2 choice.
“I love to squirrel hunt with my .22 rimfire, and I always find good places to hunt during deer season,” Hinton said. “It’s not that I bow hunt to scout for squirrel, but you know how bow hunting is — there’s a lot of down time while you’re in a tree, and you’re always on alert looking for something.
“That’s when I find my squirrels. I always have binoculars in the stand, and I hunt high in the tree and I love to hunt on ridges (along the Big Black River). I usually can see a long way, and I keep a little record in my head of where I see squirrels.”
Hinton’s goal each archery season is to get one trophy buck and one doe to fill his freezer, along with a second doe to donate to charity.
That usually takes him through October and November.
“Then I go back and start hunting those squirrel spots,” he said. “That’s my favorite game food. I love me some squirrel — fried, stewed, or in dumplings, even grilled. When the season is over, my freezer is filled.”
The timing is perfect for Hinton, who is a squirrel stalker. He does a good bit of walking and a lot of sitting, following his mental list of squirrel hotspots from his time in a tree stand.
“By December, the leaves are mostly gone and I can see them in the trees,” he said. “In October and November, it’s tough hunting alone to always find them. Once the leaves are gone, if I see him, there’s a real good chance I’m going to get him.”
His tips for success are pretty simple:
“Obviously, the first thing is to find good places,” Hinton said. “Second, learn to be a good woodsman, and by that I mean how to move in the woods without sound and limiting your visibility. I love to hunt in dark sneakers, when I can, or Bean boots because I feel like I have a better feel for the ground and can be quieter.
“I use anything I can for cover, and I move from tree to tree. I never stop in the open.”
A lot of Hinton’s squirrel trips turn into scouting trips, too.
“I am always looking for feeding areas and other squirrel signs, like cuttings and things,” he said. “Usually, the places I’ve mentally stored from deer hunting run out before my want-to does or the season ends, so I am always looking.
“I also talk to other deer hunters, and when I hear one say he or she is done for the year I ask them about squirrels and wrangle an invite or two.”
Kenny Latham of Ludlow is just the opposite of Hinton. He is a squirrel hunter’s squirrel hunter. From October through February, it’s about all he does with his spare time.
“Me and Hoppy spend about every day we can in the woods,” said Latham, referring to his three-legged grand champion hunting dog. “We’re fortunate to have some family land we can hunt during deer season, plus a lot of other land around Scott County where we can hunt.”
A regular at squirrel dog competitions, Latham also uses the network of dog handlers to find places to hunt.
“The great thing about squirrel hunting in December with a dog is that enough leaves are off the trees so that, once Hoppy trees, we can usually find the squirrel in the tree,” Latham said. “It’s a lot easier in December than it is in October, that’s for sure.
“That’s why I love to hunt with children as much as I can. Young eyes sure are better at finding them.”
Rabbit hunters look to Delta in December
Given a choice, Hardy Williams would rabbit hunt every day of his life. Unfortunately, he gets very few chances in December near his home in Meridian.
“Nobody wants rabbit hunters running their dogs through their properties during deer season, so I just don’t have many places to hunt,” Williams said. “The public land available over here is overrun with deer hunters, and they want me messing them up about as much as I want to be walking around woods with people in trees with rifles.
“And that’s not very much.”
So, like most die-hard rabbit hunters, Williams heads west.
“We will be heading to the Delta and hunting the agriculture fields,” he said. “Up there, December is prime. It’s not too long after the farmers clipped their grain crops, and the turn rows, ditch banks and creek bottoms that aren’t big enough to hold a lot of deer are filled with rabbits. We don’t have to compete with deer hunters that much.
“I have several farmers that will let me come anytime in December, and I keep finding more. I invite them to join us, and a lot of them do — and if they don’t care to join us, then I share the kill, and leave them with a few skinned and cleaned rabbits.”
The narrow strips at the edges of the fields and ditches are perfect, Williams said, because “we don’t have to use big packs of dogs. Three or four dogs can work a stretch easy; just be sure you have one good jump dog and one good leader to lead the chase once the rabbit is up and going.
“That allows us to keep several dogs in the boxes in the trucks so we can have fresh ones for the afternoon. One thing about a good Delta hunt, there’s a lot of rabbits and a lot of room for them to run once you jump them. The races are good, and you can use fresh dogs in the afternoon.”
Williams said the pressure to find local hunting will increase this year with the changes in deer regulations.
“When I do hunt at hunting camps, I concentrate on anything green, like food plots, and I could always find a few camps where I could get access during the primitive weapon season in early December,” he said. “But this year, with primitive weapons basically gone (on private lands, deer hunters can use their weapon of choice including rifles and shotguns), I’m worried that I won’t have many chances.”