Blackmouths & Bushytails

Chase Wells of Vicksburg takes aim at a squirrel.

Tim Leonard’s blackmouth cur squirrel dog sat obediently on the tailgate of my good friend’s pickup truck as we quickly filled the magazines of our .22 rifles and crammed extra rounds of ammunition into the pockets of our game vests for good measure.

We would be hunting a 640-acre plot of old plantation land, chock-full of giant hardwoods where squirrels abound. The weather was typical for January in Mississippi –– clear and cold. Perfect for chasing bushytails with a well-trained squirrel dog.

“Let’s go, hunt ‘em up now!” Tim yelled to his dog as we entered the woodlot. Within a few minutes, we heard Sport off in the distance. His barks were violent in their intensity. “Sounds like Old Sport has one treed,” I said.

“You can bet on it,” Tim replied. “Let’s get to him before that squirrel gets holed up in its den.”

Quickly we jogged over to the tall red oak where we found Tim’s blackmouth cur, reared up on the trunk and gazing into the branches overhead. Maneuvering to opposite sides of the tree, we looked upward for any sign of our quarry. Tim shook a vine that curled up to the spot where Sport was staring and a fox squirrel shot up the side of the tree.

“There he is!” I shouted excitedly. “He’s on your side’ in the fork of that biggest limb.”

“I see him!” Tim shouted back as he shouldered his vintage Marlin lever-action rifle.

A single shot from Tim’s .22 was all it took. I watched as the lifeless shadow tumbled through the branches and struck the ground with a “thud.”

Old Sport was on the squirrel right away, shaking the rodent violently in his mouth, just in case it was still alive.

Tim retrieved the big fox squirrel and shoved it into his game vest. Before he had time to give the command, Sport was gone again in pursuit of another bushytail.

We hunted for another three hours. During that time, Sport treed 18 squirrels and we were able to kill 11 of them. But the number of squirrels we took home really didn’t matter; it was more about being in the woods with a good friend and a good squirrel dog.

Mississippi’s Squirrel Season

Mississippi’s hunting season for gray, fox, and red squirrels in all three zones of the state will run through February 28, 2007, with a daily bag limit of eight per licensed hunter. The hunting season for squirrels is one of the longest fall seasons and one of the most underutilized.

The Magnolia State boasts almost a million acres of prime squirrel habitat on more than 40 state wildlife management areas and nine National Wildlife Refuges open for public hunting. Opportunities abound for anyone wanting to hunt this crafty critter. Because of their abundance, squirrel hunting is one of the best ways to introduce a young hunter to the outdoors. As an added bonus, these little bundles of fur are excellent table fare. Most wild game recipe books have a variety of recipes for squirrel, with fried squirrel and squirrel and dumplings being two traditional Mississippi favorites.

Before deer and turkey hunting became so popular, squirrel hunting was the dominant hunting sport in the Magnolia State. Most youngsters who grew up in rural Mississippi honed their hunting skills by searching the branches of oak-hickory woodlots or creek bottoms for squirrels. And as any squirrel hunter can attest, bushytails are very efficient teachers.

There are a number of ways to hunt squirrels, from still-hunting with a .22 rifle to stalking with a shotgun, and all are very effective. However, when the leaves have disappeared from the hardwoods in late winter, I have found that no method is more fun than to hit the squirrel woods with a well-trained squirrel dog. That’s right, there are dogs that are trained and bred specifically for squirrel hunting.

A Squirrel Hunter’s Best Friend

Squirrel hunting dogs are becoming more and more popular lately. With the higher cost of gasoline and increased difficulty in finding a good deer lease, more sportsmen are turning to their own backyards or nearby public lands for hunting enjoyment.

Dog breeders have taken notice of this increase in popularity and are breeding some of the best dogs with the best traits that have ever been in the squirrel woods.

The two best breeds that are commonly seen in the field are feists and curs. Both of these breeds possess the necessary qualities to make outstanding squirrel dogs. Several other breeds have been known to produce a good squirrel dog from time to time, but with other breeds the possibility of getting a bad one is much more likely.

A good nose, good eyesight and good hearing are three attributes that a good squirrel dog must possess in order to hunt squirrels effectively. A great squirrel dog will be well above average in all three categories.

A squirrel dog uses its sense of smell when a squirrel is running on the ground, and just as importantly when the squirrel is moving through the treetops. Although it may sound strange, a squirrel almost continuously leaks urine as it jumps from limb to limb leaving a trail, thanks to gravity, on the forest floor. A good squirrel dog has the ability to follow this trail of urine the same as if the squirrel was running on the ground. That is the primary reason a good nose is an absolute necessity in a squirrel dog.

Although a good squirrel dog’s eyesight and hearing are not as important as his nose, they should still be taken into consideration. Good squirrel dogs instinctively follow a fleeing squirrel by listening for faint scratches on tree bark and the whoosh of the branches and leaves as the squirrel jumps from tree to tree. A good dog’s eyesight is most important once he has a squirrel treed. Many times a treed squirrel will jump from tree to tree in order to escape the dog. A good squirrel dog will keep the squirrel in sight, relying on his hearing and sense of smell if he happens to lose visual contact.

The natural instinct to tree squirrels occurs in Dachshunds, Terriers and an even broader group of dogs known curs and feists. Dachshunds and Terriers (such as the Jack Russell and the Rat Terrier) are relatively new to the sport and generally require some training. However, feists and curs (such as the Mountain, American Leopard, Tennessee Brindle, and the Blackmouth) are more instinctive hunters and usually require very little, if any, training. What separates curs and feists from other squirrel hunting breeds is their ability to make better use of all their senses.

Regardless of what kind of squirrel dog you use, it is a lot of fun to follow a dog through the Mississippi woods until it sniffs out a bushytail, gives chase, and keeps it treed until you arrive. And since there aren’t many squirrel hunters left, you can even hunt public land with little or no competition. But then, what hunter is going to complain about having a woodlot full of squirrels all to himself? MWW

About the Author – Cliff Covington is an active member of both the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association and the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Cliff is the outdoor columnist for the Port Gibson Reveille and a freelance writer with articles published in numerous outdoor magazines.