MELBOURNE — If he hadn’t been 30 minutes late, Tim Weaver and I would have hunted more squirrels Monday in Izard County.
Weaver and I hunt together every year around this time, and you should know the route by now. Hwy 67/167 to Bald Knob, then Hwy. 69 through Batesville to Melbourne.
As is my wont, I found a better way that wasn’t. This time I went up the highway. 5 through Heber Springs and Mountain View. I might have been just in time if not for a thick fog in Little Rock and an even thicker fog in Heber Springs that forced me to slow down to a crawl. It’s probably a good thing because deer go nuts in the wee hours of the morning, waiting to disable a vehicle.
I only saw two deer along the trail, standing on the edge of a cliff at the side of the trail, up the hill from Allison. Fortunately, they stayed in place while my truck crept past. I did see a lot of squirrels running along the trail though. Each of them made me regret my tardiness and made me yearn for a destination that seemed eternally over the next ridge and around the next bend.
Weaver was patient and assured me that starting 30 minutes late wouldn’t hurt our chances one bit. There was not a hint of wind, and the sky was a deep blue.
“Wind is what kills squirrel hunting,” Weaver said. “We couldn’t ask for better conditions.”
Our partners for this hunt were Arlo and Emmett, both mountain dog and coonhound mixes. Arlo, 7, was a boy when Weaver and I started hunting together five years ago. He was the clumsy but enthusiastic understudy back then, but now he’s a very accomplished veteran.
2-year-old Emmett was named for Weaver’s granddaughter, Emma. He wanted to name Weaver’s new gypsy Emma in his honor, but Weaver bought a male puppy instead. Undeterred, Emma named him Emmett.
Emmett has drive and desire, but he’s still learning. How he knows what he’s supposed to do, but he hasn’t figured out how to do it.
Also, he is deferential to Arlo. She doesn’t get in Arlo’s way, so she does her own thing when they run together.
“I took him out on his own and he took down his first squirrel,” Weaver said. “When Arlo is here, he does the same thing, he runs around doing his thing. Once he’s confident, he’s going to be a good dog.”
Arlo has a deep, raspy bark. Emmett’s bark is higher and sharper. If the trees barked from different places, we trusted Arlo more. Our faith was not misplaced.
Fortunately for hunters, tree squirrels tend to sit high in a tree while a dog gets dramatic. Weaver and I hear the first distant barks of Arlo. After following the direction, we sped through the rough, mountainous terrain and eventually reached Arlo. Emmett scratched and barked with equal zeal at an adjacent tree. We ignore Emmett and scan Arlo’s tree.
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Just as we were about to declare a false alarm, Weaver said, “There it is! On the last big branch of that little V to the right. It’s all balled up!”
“I don’t see it,” I told him.
I stood behind Weaver and looked over my shoulder at the barrel of his gun, which was pointed at the squirrel. A flash of sunlight illuminated a small patch of gray fur on the squirrel’s back, making it stand out slightly from the darker gray of the limb.
My Browning Sweet Sixteen sent 1 1/8 ounces of No. 6 lead skyward, dropping the squirrel into Arlo’s eager jaws. Arlo spun like a rodeo bull to stop the squirrel from stealing Emmett.
“My squirrel!” Weaver scolded him, as if he was ending a fight between two brothers.
Relieved of the chipmunk, Arlo and Emmett ran up the hill to find the next game. Minutes later, Arlo barked again. His voice was weak.
“It’s very out there,” I told him.
“That’s something you get into with these mountain dogs, raccoon dog crosses,” Weaver said. “They tend to be wider.”
Through green brambles and bushes, we catch up with the dogs. Again, Emmett barked at a different tree than Arlo, and again we ignored him. Minutes later, Weaver stuffed our second squirrel into his bag.
We didn’t have to go that far for the third squirrel. Arlo only barked a few times, but when we caught up with him, he trotted in slow circles around the area.
“One probably passed by this morning, and Arlo’s just checking out an old scent,” Weaver said.
I glimpsed movement on my periphery and looked at a small tree next to me. A gray squirrel climbed slowly up the trunk, its body crushed.
“He is here!” I yelled. As I slung the gun over my shoulder, the squirrel spun around to the other side of the tree as Arlo did his trunk-scratching dance. The next time I saw the squirrel, it was perched on a small branch about to jump onto a pine tree. My first shot missed, but the second was true.
“I don’t know how these dogs do it,” Weaver said. “You think of all the things a squirrel touches. It’s right here in this tree, and then it’s right here in this tree. And then it runs across this log and goes to this tree here. It would be a hard road to follow, I think.” .
Meanwhile, Arlo and Emmett vacuumed logs at an angle where a squirrel had clearly stepped on. The smell was stale enough that they didn’t stick around.
Around 11 a.m., the barking took on a different tone, which Weaver interpreted as a scam. As a judge, she has heard the best of them. It was Arlo trying to make something out of nothing. Finally, we caught up with him trying to get an armadillo out of his burrow.
“Hey, let’s make it stop for a minute so we can take some photos,” I told him.
“Arlo, come on!” Weaver ordered.
Arlo ran off, apparently to find another squirrel.
“He’s afraid he’s trying to get me to take him back to the truck,” Weaver said, laughing. He wants to keep hunting.
He barked at the trees again a few minutes later. We knew she was lying, but we had to check it out anyway.