The weather lately, well, it hasn’t been very nice for the late hunters. To be fair, my son would argue that the weather has been amazing – he’s been spending his weekends in Pocahontas County lately blasting the slopes of Snowshoe. But to my dear Dad, I’ve been keeping the house fires burning by watching the weather for a bright sunny afternoon, a clear morning, or maybe just maybe, a day when the mercury comes out of the freezing zone on the thermometer. .
That’s the thing about small game hunting late in the season: the weather is always just part of it. Ask any rabbit, grouse, or squirrel hunter with more than a dozen Decembers under their belt and you’re sure to have some winter hunting tales. Here is my story from last week.
Boogie, a feist mountain hound and simply the best squirrel catcher I’ve ever had the privilege to walk through the woods with, shot down the mountainside like lightning. My hillside farm in Fayette County had a very different feel than it did in early fall: the hunting grounds were quiet. Eerie silence and stillness with areas of melting snow and ice producing a type of low-lying cloudiness, resembling fog, similar to wood smoke from a chimney sinking to the ground in cold, damp air.
As I stopped to rest my lungs from the frigid air, I heard Boogie let out a bark in a scream wrapped in beech mixed with spruce and rhododendron mixed in. He was solving the riddle of the smell and working on the solution of which tree the squirrel was in. As I walked towards the barks, I saw the turkey scratching itself on the sunny hillside. There was food, in the form of beech nuts, he was speculating. As well as a late season food source, there was plenty of protection from the open sky. I’ve found that food and a place to hide from predators (especially birds of prey like hawks and owls) are great places to find winter squirrels. Truth be told, Boogie has taught me that over the last decade of hunting with him. Squirrels move or migrate toward food and sometimes are not located where deer hunters saw them earlier in the season. With most good hunting dogs, they will show you game if you just let them.
That was exactly what Boogie was doing. When I got to him, he was barking and wagging his tail as fast as he could. I knew there was a squirrel in the tree. I could smell the squirrel. Over the years of hunting with him I have learned to listen to his bark. There is a difference in his vocalizations. If he uses his nose to locate a squirrel, his bark is solid. If you listen to the squirrel, he will bark some more. If he sees the squirrel, he will let you and everyone within earshot know that you had better be ready when you approach the tree and please come quickly.
This crust was more of the smell crust. He was confident. I also. I walked over to the tree and sat on a fallen log near the tree. I took out my binoculars and started scanning the trunk of the tree, the branches and the branches high up in its crown. At the top of the tree, I saw a tail hooked under a branch. The squirrel was well hidden. I made a move to the other side of the tree. Scanning through 10x binoculars, I found the squirrel again on top of the old beech tree.
It still amazes me to this day, after a long career of hunting squirrels with dogs, that a dog can locate an animal by scent in a tree five or six stories tall. I love squirrel hunting, always have since I was first introduced to it as a kid. As an adult, my love of squirrel hunting is directly related to the working dogs that hunt. Boogie and I had a great time in the winter woods, and I was glad to be a part of that day in the field.