Most squirrel hunters typically walk quietly through forests, pausing every
few feet to stop, look and listen.
Periodically, they sit on logs to scan trees for movement or listen to the
sound of acorns dropping, branches shaking or tiny claws scratching rough bark.
Squirrel hunting with dogs offers a vastly different experience.
"Hunting squirrels with dogs is totally different than hunting without
them," explained Mark Beason, who learned to hunt
behind squirrel dogs while following his grandfather in the woods. "When
hunting with dogs, it's a matter of watching what the dog does. Hunting
squirrels with dogs is more like a dove hunt, more of a social activity. Dog
hunters don't need to be quiet or still. People can go hunting with several
friends, talk and enjoy a really great time. In my opinion, hunting squirrels
with dogs is the best way to involve youth in the outdoors, too."
We followed dogs through the forests with them sniffing for squirrel scent.
When they found something they liked, the dogs barked raucously. When dogs
"tree" a squirrel, they excitedly jump and bark at the base of the tree where
they believe the squirrel hides.
"It's amazing what dogs can smell," said Chester Thompson, a champion
squirrel dog trainer. "The dogs do the work and find the scent. People don't
need to keep quiet. They just listen for the dogs to bark. Each dog has certain
habitats and traits. I can tell by the bark and the wagging of its tail what
the dog is smelling. From 200 yards away, I can tell
if it's barking on a cold scent or a hot scent."
Not every "alert" resulted in a squirrel in the bag. Sometimes, dogs alerted
on a tree where a squirrel traveled and disappeared long before we arrived.
Frequently, dogs indicated a squirrel in a tree, but we couldn't find it.
Sometimes, we knew the squirrel hid in the tree, but it gave us the slip so we
moved on to other prey.
Hunting Late Season Is Best
Late season offers the best time to hunt squirrels with dogs. By late winter,
squirrels spend considerable time on the ground foraging for fallen acorns and
other morsels. That puts scent where dogs can find it. In addition, after the
leaves fall, squirrels find fewer places to hide in bare branches.
However, even in a tree devoid of foliage, these gray ghosts of the forest
can virtually disappear with ease. Masters of camouflage,
their gray to brown fur blends in easily with tree branches, bark and shadows.
Frequently, they jump into holes or crouch down in tree forks or other
crannies. A good pair of binoculars helps detect squirrels hiding high in a
tree. Often, they circle behind branches or tree trunks to put as much wood
between themselves and the hunters as possible.
"Many people think hunting squirrels with a dog should be easy, but it can
be extremely challenging," Beason said. "Squirrels
are cagy animals. They camouflage well and can be hard to spot even when treed
by a dog."
To start training pups, handlers begin with dogs having good bloodlines.
Many dog aficionados can trace the ancestry of their animals much better than
they know their own family histories. A champion squirrel dog with a good
bloodline might cost several thousand dollars.
"I won't just take any dog," Thompson said. "I try to find the best blooded
dog with good intelligence. That gives the dog a good start. It's born with the
ability to hunt. Squirrel hunting is in its blood. That makes training it
easier. Then, I take it into the woods and wear out a lot of shoe leather."
At about 8 weeks old, Thompson exposes a pup to squirrel hides or tails. To
make it follow scent, he takes a hide or a dead squirrel and drags it across
the ground before putting it in a tree. Then, he watches to see if the pup
follows the scent and barks as the base of the tree.
"If it will bark at the hide or dead squirrel, it might become a hunter,"
Thompson predicted. "Then, we take the pup hunting with a good trained dog. The
pup mixes with trained dogs and the dogs actually help train each other.
Sometimes, we catch a live squirrel and let the pup look at it."
Not all public properties allow hunting with dogs. In addition, seasons and
regulations may vary on some public properties so check the law before hunting
anywhere. Contact Thompson at 337-309-0908.
For a fine selection of hunting gear, click here.