A Dying Heritage That Still Lives in the Hearts of a Few
FOR MANY YOUNGSTERS, it all started with deer, doves or ducks. For me, hunting began with squirrels — thick, juicy fox squirrels that were either too lazy or too dumb to make a run for it when they heard the pitter-pat of small feet rustling in the leaves beneath them.
I can recall lots of childhood hunting trips, but the memory of one of my first solo kills remains so vivid that I can still see the hair fly when the No. 4 pellets connected with the fuzzy, red fox squirrel on that frosty, winter morning.
It was Christmas day and our family had gathered at my grandparent’s small farmhouse off Dublin Road in Collin County. All the presents were open and breakfast wouldn’t be ready for at least an hour. That meant plenty of time to slip down the white rock lane to the big woods.
I hadn’t gone far when I saw the bushy, red tail of a fox squirrel darting across a dim trail ahead. I watched as the squirrel bounded through the scattered underbrush before stopping at the base of a big oak tree. The squirrel stood on its haunches for a second or two, then scampered up the tree and vanished amid the maze leafless branches.
I scanned every limb and fork for signs of a foot, ear or hair, but saw nothing. That’s when I remembered an old trick my brother-in-law had told me about. Often times, when a squirrel detects danger on one side of a tree, it will hug the opposite side and stay still until it thinks the coast is clear.
Hoping to outsmart the squirrel, I picked up a stick and tossed it to the opposite of the tree while I maintained my post. The idea was to create some racket to make the squirrel think the danger had swapped sides.
The trick worked. Like clockwork, the squirrel came shuffling around to my side of the tree. I was ready, too. The single-shot 20 gauge found its mark and the squirrel came tumbling down in a mist of shredded tree bark.
I’ll never forget that hunt. Moreover, I’ll never forget how tough that big boar squirrel was when my mother fried it up the following weekend.
But I ate it—every bite. I was proud of that squirrel, and no one was stealing my thunder.
Not many kids get the opportunity to experience the thrill of squirrel hunting anymore. That’s sad, especially when you consider how popular a pastime it once was—particularly in East Texas.
For nearly a century squirrel hunting was king in the Pineywoods and parts of the Post Oak belt.
It was the foundation upon which families—sometimes generations of them—came together with groups of friends in remote locations. They came so they could immerse themselves in nature by day and socialize at night. Usually a steaming pot of cat squirrel backs and hindquarters was left to simmer in a rich, brown gravy until the meat fell off the bone.
Years ago, squirrels were among the main topics discussed around evening campfires just about everywhere east of the Trinity River—but not anymore. Like 22-cent gasoline and 10-cent hamburgers, the “squirrel camp” as many of our ancestors once knew it is pretty much a thing of the past.
To hear the old timers tell it, the tradition began to wane about the same time that Lyndon B. Johnson took office and whitetail deer populations began to rebound across the region.
As deer numbers increased throughout the 1960s and 70s, more and more hunters began turning their attention to antlers and away from squirrels.
That factor is credited with taking considerable toll on the popularity of squirrel hunting in the years that followed. Changing land use practices, the construction of several large reservoirs that inundated thousands of acres of primo squirrel habitat and the allure of big city life also contributed.
The proof of all this is plain to see in the numbers.
According to small game hunting surveys conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the number of squirrel hunters in East Texas has declined exponentially over the last three decades.
If the trend continues, fewer than 50,000 Texas hunters will grab a shotgun or .22 rifle and try to bag a few squirrels for the skillet this year. Compared to the more than 230,000 hunters who hunted squirrels the same year I started college (1981), the decrease has been nothing shy of drastic.
Is there hope for the resurrection of what appears to be a dying heritage? Probably not, and that’s unfortunate.
Squirrel hunting is one of the purest forms of the hunting tradition that can be enjoyed by all ages. It’s one that has captured the hearts of some and helped hone the woodsmanship skills of many.
Some of my dearest hunting memories date back to a remote squirrel hunting camp located along the western edge of Tyler County in southeast Texas. The camp was owned by the late Chuck Davis of Nacogdoches.
Davis named the camp the Sugar Creek Hilton after the spring-fed creek than ran the full length of the property. However, the old camp house it was far cry from any Hilton I’ve ever been to. It was more of a drafty shack with thin walls, homemade bunk beds, a wood-burning heater from hell and cracks in the floor big enough for a wood rat to squeeze through if you didn’t keep them plugged.
Davis was a jolly soul who liked a stiff toddy, but he loved his family, friends and squirrel hunting even more. I don’t recall Chuck being a particularly good shot, but he had access to one whale of a squirrel dog in ol’ Tiger.
Tiger was a short hair fiest/fox terrier mix that belonged to a fellow named John Stanley of Zavalla. Like Davis, Tiger was a rare breed who rarely met an enemy. He would hunt for anybody who was willing to take him.
The black and white dog weighed about 18 to 20 pounds and he carried it well. He was thick-chested with narrow hips and a wide head capped by perked ears that rarely seemed to relax.
Tiger was a “natural” in the squirrel woods. He had a nose like a redbone hound. However, my good friend the late Joe T. Rogers always believed that Tiger hunted with his eyes and ears more than anything else.
I should say something about heart, too, because Tiger’s was the size of Texas.
Joe T. is the man who introduced me to a side of squirrel hunting I knew nothing about until the late 1980s. In fact, I always held him responsible for the pack of Jack Russell terriers that lived at our house for the better part of 15 years.
At one time we had as many as five. Only two cared anything about hunting a squirrel, but neither was half as good as Tiger was. He was a self-taught wizard of the woods who lived for the fall and the crack of a .22 rifle on a crisp winter morning.
I’m thankful for the many opportunities I had to trail that dog through good squirrel woods. I’m even more thankful, that I was introduced to one of the purest forms of our hunting heritage at such an impressionable age.
Sadly, most kids will never get that chance.
closely before moving on.
SQUIRREL HUNTING FACT BOX
East Texas: Oct. 1, 2018 – Feb. 24, 2019 and May 1-31, 2019
Other Open Counties: Sept. 1, 2018 – Aug. 31, 2019
There are two sub-species of squirrels native to the East Texas area. Grey squirrels (commonly called cat squirrels) and fox squirrels.
Cat squirrels do best in low-lying bottomlands. They usually account for about 90 percent of the annual harvest in the Pineywoods region.
The larger fox squirrel is more common in the open, upland areas of the Post Oak region.
10 per day per hunter
Best Ways to Hunt:
• Still Hunting: Move quietly along a creek bottom or drainage and watch for signs of movement ahead. Stalk quietly within gun range. Still hunting is most effective when the ground is moist to muffle the sounds of crackling leaves.
• Behind a Dog: This is perhaps the most enjoyable way to hunt squirrels, certainly the most casual. A good squirrel dog will range out 100 yards or so in all directions. It hunts by scent, sound and sight. When a squirrel is treed, the dog barks to signal hunters.
Best squirrel guns & accessories:
• A scoped .22 rifle provides a hunter the best challenge. A shotgun loaded with No. 4s or 6s comes in handy when hunting wily cat squirrels prone to limb out or run.
• If you suspect a squirrel is present, it probably is. Always carry a pair of binoculars to evaluate forks, limbs and treetops
—story by MATT WILLIAMS