Delta Tree Rats

Don’t have access to private land? So what? In the Delta, you can kill all the squirrels you want on these public areas.

Will Harmon

September 23, 2009 at 10:07 am  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

1: Delta National Forest, 2: Twin Oaks WMA, 3: Panther Swamp NWR
1: Delta National Forest, 2: Twin Oaks WMA, 3: Panther Swamp NWR
“So far, he had been hunting as he advanced, moving slowly and quietly and watching the ground and the trees both. Now he went on, his gun unloaded and the barrel slanted up and back to facilitate its passage through brier and undergrowth, approaching as it grew louder and louder that steady savage somehow queerly hysterical beating of metal on metal, emerging from the woods, into the old clearing, with the solitary gum tree directly before him. At first glance the tree seemed to be alive with frantic squirrels. There appeared to be forty or fifty of them leaping and darting from branch to branch until the whole tree had become one green maelstrom of mad leaves, while from time to time, singly or in twos and threes, squirrels would dart down the trunk then whirl without stopping and rush back up again as though sucked violently back by the vacuum of their fellows’ frenzied vortex.

— The Bear by William Faulkner

 

 

This account describes the final scene in the story as young Ike McCaslin emerges from the forest and finds veteran woodsman Boon Hogganbeck working frantically to put his malfunctioned gun back together at the base of a lone gum tree near the forest edge.

As Boon beats mercilessly at the broken gun, squirrels trapped in the tree race up and down the trunk and throughout the canopy, looking for a way to get back to the safety of the big woods only a few yards away.

Faulkner describes the loss of the Mississippi wilderness, the loss of the “big woods,” in this famous short story, and along with it the loss of the wildlife and the innocence of a young man.

In the story, young Ike travels with his elders twice a year, down to the big woods in the Delta for weeks-long hunting excursions. After hunting a legendary bear named Old Ben for many years, Boon finally kills it, with the help of a half-wild dog named Lion.

Not long afterwards, the owner of the hunting camp sells the timber rights, and the hunting group realizes that the vastness of the wilderness is slowly slipping away with each trainload of timber hauled to the mill.

No doubt Faulkner used fiction to describe the reality of what was actually happening to the Delta at the turn of the 20th century. Most of the land was being cleared, and as the trees vanished, so did many species of wildlife, such as the panther, red wolf, black bear and passenger pigeon.

Fortunately for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts, some of it was saved. One only has to travel 60 miles northwest of Jackson to find a remnant of what the Delta used to be.

Delta National Forest, between Holly Bluff and Rolling Fork, comprises nearly 60,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest along the Sunflower River. This is the same area where President Teddy Roosevelt went on his famous bear hunt, guided by legendary local Holt Collier.

Located within this vast expanse of oak, gum and palmetto, is Sunflower Wildlife Management Area. Just across the Sunflower River to the west lies 5,800-acre Twin Oaks WMA, and all but approximately 500 acres here is mature bottomland forest.

Not too far to the east lies Panther Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, situated in the lowlands near the Yazoo River. Of the nearly 39,000 acres in Panther, 21,000 of it is bottomland forest.

Just south of Panther sits 8,300-acre Lake George WMA, which consists primarily of 20-year-old reforested cropland. I think Faulkner would be proud to see that Ol’ Ben, Boon and Ike could roam through more than 100,000 acres of Delta forest in 2009.

If you’re looking for bears, you probably won’t wander through the south Delta long before you find one. The black bear is making a strong comeback in Mississippi, and many individuals can be found in the woodlands mentioned above.

But if you have visions of gum trees full of bushy tails, you will be pleasantly surprised if you step off of the beaten path and into the south Delta forests between the Sunflower and the Yazoo.

According to biologists, there are two species of squirrels in Mississippi — the eastern gray squirrel and the eastern fox squirrel. The grey squirrel is the smaller of the two, weighing in at just over a pound and measuring approximately 10 inches from nose to base of tail. They are mostly white underneath and grey above.

The fox squirrel is more than double the weight of the grey, tipping the scales at about 2 1/2 pounds, and measuring 10-15 inches from nose to base of tail. There are two subspecies of the eastern fox squirrel, commonly known as the hill country fox squirrel and the Delta fox squirrel. Further subdivided, the Delta fox squirrel comes in both the red and black varieties, although you will probably find more of the red coloration than the black.

Locals know the eastern gray squirrel as the “cat squirrel” because of the cat-like call they make. If you spend much time in the Delta woods, you will see both red and black fox squirrels, and the cat squirrel.

Mark Morrison, president of the Mississippi Hunting Dog Association, is an avid squirrel and raccoon hunter, and has a camp near Delta National Forest on the outskirts of Holly Bluff. He hunts squirrels almost exclusively with dogs, and has placed his hounds in the top 10 of the Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association hunts in various states around the Southeast approximately 35 times since 2003.

You may recognize his name, or his dog, Apache, because Apache was featured on the August 2007 cover of Full Cry magazine. Apache was given this honor after winning the OMCBA’s 50th Anniversary Squirrel and Coon Hunt, as well as the Champion class of the bench show.

“I primarily look for river bottom hardwood forest lands, usually in parcels of at least a section (i.e., 640 acres) of contiguous woods since I hunt with dogs and want them to have plenty of room to run,” Morrison said. “In the earliest parts of the season, it’s good to likewise have some pine mixed in, as the squirrels are often cutting cones during this time of year before turning to mast later in the season. Of course, the presence of vines is always a good sign, both in terms of finding squirrel populations and getting them to move once treed by the dogs.”

Morrison does most of his hunting on public lands in the Delta, primarily WMAs such as Twin Oaks, Sunflower, Leroy Percy, Shipland and Mahannah. His favorite location is Twin Oaks.

“The advantages to using a dog are that you get to work in conjunction with ‘man’s best friend,’ which brings joy and a good deal of exercise to small-game hunting,” he said. “Kids are especially receptive to hunting with dogs as they have a natural love for them, and using this method likewise means that children don’t have to be as quiet as they would if still-hunting.

“The action is often fast and furious at the tree as a treed squirrel will timber or run out from one to the next. It’s generally very safe, so long as all participants understand that there’s to be no shooting at squirrels below a 45-degree angle. This is best to ensure the safety of both the dogs and hunters surrounding a given tree.”

Morrison’s favorite time to hunt, surprisingly, is early in the season. He explained that he felt that the younger, early season squirrels seem to be less “dog educated” than squirrels that had been hunted long into the fall and winter. He said that early season squirrels are less pressured, especially on public lands.

“By contrast, and even though the leaves are gone by this time, January/February hunting may be more enjoyable temperature-wise, but often here in Mississippi the sows are bred and don’t get far from their dens,” he said. “There is an ideal, short period of time in between, toward the end of each calendar year or in early January in which squirrels rut, and you can rack up on them as you can deer because they are moving often and everywhere for breeding purposes.”

What is ideal bushytail hunting weather for this Squirrel Machine? A drizzly, cool, fall day with little wind.

“Obviously, overly windy days are not conducive to hunting squirrel,” he said. “Squirrels tend to hold tight around their dens and nests on these bad days. However, a cool fall day, with temperatures around the 40- to 50-degree mark and a light drizzle, seems to be ideal.

“In the early part of the season, the heat is a consideration for both hunter and dog, as both tend to wear down quicker, and thus it’s important to keep both well hydrated.

“In short, bring water for you and hunt your dogs around water sources. Especially dry conditions do not make for successful squirrel hunts with dogs. The reason is simple: In order for a dog to consistently tree squirrels, the game has to leave a sufficient scent trail on the ground.”

This is more likely when, at a minimum, you have a nice dew from the night before. As mentioned previously, a light drizzle is also a very helpful occurrence. Frost, later in the season and as it melts into the forest floor, is likewise a good thing. Further, a hard frost is essential to getting the trees to turn loose of their leaves, making it easier to spot treed squirrels.

Morrison prefers to wait until the sun has risen to hit the woods with his dogs. Allowing the squirrels time to come down to the ground and leave scent for the hounds is vital to his success with the dogs. He takes a break before noon and hits the woods again at about 2 p.m.

And since he also hunts coons with the same dogs, Morrison may hit the woods again just after dark and tromp around until just before daylight. Then it’s time to switch from nocturnal to diurnal and give the squirrels another run.

With the vastness of the woods in and around Delta National Forest, a man who likes to hunt could spend a lifetime chasing his quarry and never hunt the same tree twice.

So maybe the wilderness hasn’t all vanished. Maybe there is someplace in the Delta that represents Faulkner’s “big woods,” where a man can find an Ole Ben or a gum tree full of frantic squirrels. That “someplace” could possibly be along Highway 16, between the Yazoo and Sunflower rivers where there is plenty of forest to be found.

 

Then he saw Boon, sitting, his back against the trunk, his head bent, hammering furiously at something on his lap. What he hammered with was the barrel of his dismembered gun, what he hammered at was the breech of it. The rest of the gun lay scattered about him in a half-dozen pieces while he bent over the piece on his lap his scarlet and streaming walnut face, hammering the disjointed barrel against the gun-breech with the frantic abandon of a madman. He didn’t even look up to see who it was. Still hammering, he merely shouted back at the boy in a hoarse strangled voice:

“Get out of here! Don’t touch them! Don’t touch a one of them! They’re mine!”

The eastern grey squirrel, commonly called the cat squirrel, is the smaller of the two squirrel species in Mississippi. Weighing about a pound and measuring 8-10 inches in body length, this squirrel is lightning fast in the trees and a joy to hunt.
The Delta fox squirrel comes in two color phases. The most common is the red phase, but certain areas hold the black phase in greater numbers.
Both cat and fox squirrels feed on trees such as oaks, hickory, walnut, mulberry and persimmon.
Eighty primitive campsites are scattered throughout Delta National Forest. If you don’t mind roughing it, you can enjoy fantastic squirrel hunting just a few steps from your tent.
 

View other articles written Will Harmon


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