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Barking up bushytails

9/21/2009

The woods are quiet. Jim Rhea cups an ear. "Listen," he says.

In the distance, we hear a short bark, then another.

"He's treed," Jim tells us. "Let's go."

We find Jim's black-and-white treeing cur, Limbgripper Ranger, reared up on an oak, gazing into the branches overhead. The dog barks again.

"Where is he, Ranger?" Jim asks. "Is there a squirrel up there?"

Jim shakes a vine that curls up to the place the dog is looking, and a gray squirrel shoots up the side of the tree.

"Get him, boys!" Jim shouts.

My sons — four of them, ages 6 to 14 — have been standing at the ready. Each shoulders his shotgun, trying to get the fleeing cat squirrel in his sights. But the squirrel is quick. It starts to timber, jumping from one tree to the next, before one youngster finally fires. The shot finds its mark, however. The squirrel plummets to the ground.

Ranger races to the fallen animal, gingerly picks it up and takes it to Jim.

"Which one of you guys killed this fine bushytail?" Jim asks.

"I did," Shaun says, smiling.

"Then bring yourself over here, young man, so I can put it in your game bag. Ranger'll have another one treed before you can say ... "

Booorroo!

Ranger has already treed again. The boys are all grins. As we follow Jim through the woods to another squirrel, there's a big ol' smile on my face, too.

In the fraternity of treeing dog enthusiasts, Jim Rhea is legendary. He owns R & R Kennels in Wynne, Ark., where he raises and trains some of the world's finest pedigree squirrel dogs.

He's well-known in field-trial circuits. Dogs from his Limbgripper line (Limbgripper Buck, Limbgripper Danny, Limbgripper Jack, Limbgripper Ranger and others) have won every major award in the sport, including dozens of state, regional, U.S. and world championships.

Limbgripper Ranger, the dog that treed squirrels for my sons, recently was inducted into the National Treeing Cur Association Hall of Fame. (The Limbgripper name, in case you haven't figured it out, is a Southern colloquialism for squirrel.)

I've often hunted behind Jim and his dogs. I've come away amazed every time — amazed at the astounding treeing abilities of Jim's dogs, and amazed at Jim's ability to train so many dogs so well. It's a sport Jim's been immersed in since he was a child.

"My grandpa started me hunting squirrels with dogs when I was just six," he relates. "And I enjoy it just as much now as I did then.

"When you're working your dog, you don't have to slip through the woods like do when you're hunting turkeys or deer. You can talk to your buddies and enjoy yourself. If there's anything more thrilling than watching a good squirrel dog operate, I've never done it."

To many people, the words "cur" and "feist" equate to the word "mutt." In the world of squirrel hunting, however, curs and feists are registered dogs of pure breeding. A well-trained dog may sell for thousands of dollars.

"Almost any canine, from a poodle to a German shepherd, can be taught to tree squirrels," Jim says. "The best dogs, however, are those bred especially for this purpose. The mountain cur, black-mouthed cur, leopard cur, treeing cur, feist, treeing feist and mountain feist — all registered breeds — are some of the ones used by squirrel hunters."

Jim starts working with dogs when they're pups, giving them close daily contact almost from the time they are born. He starts training them before they're weaned at eight weeks old.

"A dog can be trained a lot when he's just a pup," he says. "You don't have to take him to the woods right away, but you can teach him to handle, to get in the truck and to obey basic commands like 'No,' 'Come' and 'Sit.'

"You should start shooting a gun around the dog at an early age, making a gunshot part of his everyday life, so he won't be gun-shy. Getting a dog to handle well and knowing who you are before you take him hunting is important."

Jim's pups are usually four or five months old before he takes them on their first hunt. He says your first task in field training is to get the dog interested in chasing a squirrel. He does this using squirrels caught in live traps.

"Let your pup smell the squirrel through the cage," he notes. "Get him excited about it, then hold the puppy and turn the squirrel loose. Usually, if the pup has any ambition, it'll run the squirrel up a tree."

Rhea notes that this kind of training develops the proper hunting instincts that drive the dog to find squirrels.

"Pups must know what it is you want them to do, what you want them to hunt," says Jim. "If you don't have a live trap, drive a puppy around when he's young, and when you see a squirrel, turn him loose on it.

"Another good way to start them is to find someone who has a good squirrel dog, and take the pup along on a hunt where you're killing squirrels; let it see what's going on. If you shoot a squirrel, pick it up and tease the puppy with it. That gives him a desire to follow a squirrel's scent."

Work with your dog regularly, even if only a few minutes each day. Teach it that the proper response brings game and praise, and improper conduct brings a reprimand. With enough practice, the dog should eventually, and nearly always, do the right thing.

Jim points out that many good squirrel dog prospects are ruined by mistakes during training.

"Never shoot squirrels your dog hasn't treed," he says. "If you see a squirrel running through the woods, don't shoot it unless your dog trees it first. Don't do any shooting out there, period, unless your dog trees."

Hunters should also remember that a good hunting dog of any breed will chase almost anything that moves until it finds out what to hunt. The dog will be more fun to hunt with and will produce more squirrels for the gun once it knows which game is permitted and which is taboo.

"Don't ever shoot any 'off' game while training your dog," Rhea says. "If you want your dog to be a good squirrel dog, then you surely don't want to shoot any rabbits; you don't want to kill a deer or anything like that until he's been trained to hunt squirrels only.

"After you get a dog trained, you may be able to shoot a rabbit in front of him without messing him up. But when you're training one, he's just like a kid. If you want to keep a kid from drinking, you shouldn't take him to the beer joint with you."

The last time we hunted together, Jim and I leaned against a tree, watching my boys search for a squirrel Ranger had treed. Jim looked at me and smiled a devilish smile.

"What are you grinning about?" I asked.

"I was just watching you and those boys," he said. "Watching you guys have fun makes me happy."

He turned then and headed for the oak where Ranger was treed.

"OK, boys, get ready," he said. "I'm gonna shake this vine, and we'll see what jumps out. Remember, safety first. Watch your gun barrels. Keep your safety on until you see the squirrel..."

Hunting with Jim and his extraordinary dogs is a step beyond the ordinary. It's unforgettable. My sons will vouch for that.