With deer and duck seasons drawing to a close and winter weather chilling hunters to the bone, opting for the comforts of home can mean missing out on some of the most enjoyable hunting trips to be had; walking through the woods behind a good dog in search of a cunning fat or gray fox squirrel.
Squirrel season is Arkansas’s most liberal hunting season for game animals, opening each year on May 15 and lasting through the end of the following February. Also, each hunter can take up to 12 squirrels per day, if they wish.
“There are a lot of opportunities for squirrels in Arkansas,” said Brad Carner, AGFC chief of wildlife management. “The liberal seasons and harvest limits will not affect the resource, especially the engagement rate we see each year from hunters, so we offer as much opportunity as possible for hunters to have a chance to get into the forest.”
One such hunter who has made the most of that extra opportunity is Steven Fowler of Vilonia. In addition to being the supervisor for the AGFC’s Mayflower Wildlife Management Division, Fowler is an avid squirrel hunter, especially when he’s following his rat terrier Peanut or his feist Bo.
“Bo is really on the heavy end of still being called a feist,” Fowler said. “But Peanut is quite the rat terrier. I got Peanut first, and he does fine, but Bo is a real squirrel dog.”
True squirrel dogs, according to Fowler, don’t just look for squirrels as they walk through the woods, they roam while using their eyes, ears, and nose to track bushy tails.
While other breeds, like Fowler’s rat terriers, can make useful squirrel dogs, two families of dogs constitute the standard by which bushy-tailed hunters are judged: feists like Bo and curs. Feists are smaller, typically less than 30 pounds, while dogs tend to be larger. Some hunters prefer the small, easy-to-handle abilities of the feist, while others opt for the extra size of the dog, but both make fantastic hunting dogs if the buyer does their research and finds a pup from a proven line of hunting dogs.
“That’s really why I jumped at the chance to get Bo,” Fowler said. “There is a line of fights called ‘Galla Creek feists’ who are known for their excellent hunting skills. While the original breeder that produced Galla Creek feists had stopped breeding dogs, Bo came from hunting dogs that had those Galla Creek genes, he also had some good names on the other side of his lineage, so the likelihood of to become a good squirrel dog was high if he was well trained.”
Now four and a half years old, Bo has reached his potential and is producing very well for Steven and his 16-year-old son Gabe. They were able to claim first place in the Mayflower region open division at the recent AGFC Big Squirrel Challenge with some good sized gray squirrels harvested thanks to Bo’s nose.
“We didn’t hunt much early in the season this year because we were busy chasing deer, but we’ve been going into the woods pretty regularly since December,” Fowler said. “It can be a bit more difficult to hunt this late in the season, but a good dog really helps.”
Instead of standing still and waiting for a squirrel to appear, hunting behind a dog is all about walking and enjoying watching the dog work. They will spread out and re-register occasionally as you walk through the woods, constantly scanning the trees, listening to the woods, and sniffing the air for a squirrel. Once they find one, they run towards it, chasing it until it climbs a tree to safety. Once in the tree, the dog will bark and remain locked in that tree until the hunter arrives to hunt the squirrel.
“If I’m alone, I’ll bring a shotgun to shoot the tree squirrel,” Fowler said. “But if there are two of us, one will carry the shotgun while the other will carry a .22 rimfire rifle.”
Fowler says that the shotgun is used for squirrels that are hiding or those that are on the move, jumping from tree to tree. The .22 rifle is good for squirrels that are standing still or those that have moved a bit out of the shotgun range but are still visible.
“It’s also nice to have the small rifle’s magnified sight to scan the trees if you left your binoculars in the truck,” Fowler said. “There are also times when you just feel like going .22. Lately, it’s been dictated more by the ammunition I could find.”
According to Fowler, Arkansas has no shortage of public land to enjoy squirrel hunting.
“Personally, I prefer to hunt lowland hardwoods, and most of AGFC’s WMAs offer a lot of that type of habitat, particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the state, but the mix of pine and National Forest hardwoods in the Western and northern parts of Arkansas also offer good hunting opportunities,” Fowler said. “Lowlands just tend to produce healthier squirrel populations because they produce more acorns, hickory nuts, and other hard spars that squirrels eat. If you find that, you’re going to find some squirrels.”
Of course, one of the best parts of squirrel hunting occurs once you’re home and have prepared your harvest for dinner. While it may seem crude, the moniker “chicken with limbs” is an apt description of squirrel meat, as it lends itself incredibly well to comfort food cooking, such as stir-fry, squirrel and meatballs, and savory pot pies.