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Squirrel hunting tradition still very much alive

7/27/2006

Before the modern revival of deer and turkey hunting, squirrel hunting was the dominant hunting sport in every state east of the Mississippi.

In fact, there was a time when opening day of squirrel season was a legitimate reason to keep the kids home from school to head to the woods with squirrel dog in tow.

Though times have changed, and squirrel hunting isn't considered a valid excuse to miss school anymore, lots of hunters still anticipate August with dreams of old bushytail.

That's because in most places squirrel-hunting season is one of the first to open and is a great opportunity to break in new dogs, hunters and gear.

Squirrel dogs

That's right, there are dogs trained and bred specifically for squirrel hunting.

Fifty-years ago, it was not at all uncommon for a home to have a squirrel or tree dog. At the time, squirrels were the most widely distributed and abundant game animal, and the meat they provided was an important part of many meals.

A squirrel dog is any dog that will hunt and that also has a natural instinct to chase squirrels; this would include terriers and dachshunds.

Over the centuries, hunters have selectively bred these dogs into what they call curs and feists.

Size is the main difference between a cur and a feist. A typical mountain cur weighs around 40 pounds, where a feist is generally much smaller.

A good cur or feist needs little training outside of watching other squirrel dogs work. They separate themselves from other hunting dogs by making better use of all their senses.

Where a good upland bird dog will rely mostly on his sense of smell, a squirrel dog learns to listen and watch for animals in the woods.

A good cur or feist likes to hunt very close to the hunter, and will thoroughly work a small area before moving off.

Though not nearly as many homes keep a dog specifically designated for squirrel hunting these days, hunting with curs and feists is by no means a dying tradition.

The National Cur and Feist Breeders Association organizes the largest squirrel hunting event in the world every year. It is held annually near rural Oden, Ind.

The event is sanctioned by the National Kennel Club and annually draws as many as 100 dogs from all over the United States and Canada.

No weapons are carried in the competition and no squirrels are harvested. Points are given to a dog for simply treeing a squirrel.

The hunt

It is likely squirrel hunting has waned in popularity over the years because of all the other options hunters have in today's woods.

Early duck, goose, dove and even deer seasons in some places have scattered hunter's interests. The result has been less pressure on squirrels and very healthy populations in places where they have ample habitat and food.

Fox squirrels and gray squirrels are the two most hunted species across the Midwest.

Fox squirrels are most abundant where woodlots and agricultural fields dominate the habitat. Grays are mostly creatures of the big woods.

Most squirrel hunters agree that gray squirrels are tenderer to eat, but they can be more difficult to hunt than fox squirrels.

Most gray squirrels never touch the ground, leaping from tree to tree for food or when pursued. If you don't get to them quick, they usually timber-out and find a den inside a hollow tree.

Generally, they hang close to nut trees in the fall and migrate with the maturing fruit trees. Grays also seem to prefer hillier terrain.

Fox squirrels are larger than grays, and are more likely to be found near farm fields, where they prefer to eat waste grain left behind by farmers.

It is easy to locate areas where fox squirrels live because of their conspicuous leaf nests at the tops of trees. It is not only unethical, but also illegal in most states, to shoot into or disturb leaf nests or squirrel dens at any time.

Unlike grays, fox squirrels often stay put when treed and live most of their life in the same area. They are most active from dawn until 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. until dark.

Often gray and fox squirrel habitats overlap; and when a corn field is present, it is possible to determine which species is most abundant.

Fox squirrels drag the entire cob up a tree and eat all but the cob, which often is cut up, as well. Grays bite the kernel from the cob and only eat the germ portion, dropping the rest of the kernel to the ground.

Hunters without dogs need to rely on their own senses to be successful. They must either slip quietly through the woods, or take a seat to listen and watch for activity.

Cutting exposes a lot of squirrels, and refers to the sound squirrels make when they open nuts and drop the shells to the forest floor.

Listening for cutting squirrels is most effective early in the season when forest nuts are ripening. In the Midwest they primarily target acorn, hickory and beech nuts.

Because all squirrels are difficult to skin, hunters should take a plastic bag and knife along on the hunt; skinning is much easier when the squirrel is still warm.