Doggin’ For Mountain Squirrels

The hills and hollows ring with the sound of a mountain cur as Bob Thomas hunts the north Georgia mountains for February squirrels.

Joe DiPietro | January 26, 2010

Bob Thomas, 68, of Morganton, and his mountain cur, Moe, display a nice mess of squirrels taken during an afternoon hunt.

The sound of a dog barking rang loudly through the mixed hardwoods on top of a mountain ridge in north Georgia. A sure sign to Bob Thomas, of Morganton, that his black mountain cur, Moe, had just treed a squirrel and was waiting on him. Carrying a .17 HMR rifle with a high-quality scope, Bob took off in Moe’s direction.

“As long as you get a good scope and hit ’em in the head, the .17 is the way to go,” he said. “It’s also a little more challenging than a shotgun.”

Before I could catch up to Bob, who darted nimbly through the thick undergrowth, I heard the crack of his rifle. I looked up and saw a squirrel falling out of the tall canopy.

Having “lived off the land” in Fannin County his entire life, Bob told me he’s always been a logger. He first began logging the north Georgia mountains with big bow-saws and mules and buggies with his father.

“I sold a bushel of sweet potatoes to get my first .22 rifle,” Bob said. “I’ve been squirrel hunting ever since. I just love it.”

I was carrying a 20-gauge shotgun during our hunt.

“Shotguns get the job done, but the squirrels are a lot easier to clean if you can get ’em with the .17 right in the head,” Bob said. “That .17 is much more explosive.”

Bob also knows his way around most all the public land open to hunting in the Chattahoochee National Forest, as he spent decades as an independent contractor logging and maintaining roads and trails throughout the region.

After decades of squirrel hunting and owning and training countless hunting dogs, Bob now hunts primarily with Moe.

“He’s probably the best squirrel dog I’ve ever owned,” he said. “He knows just what to do and how to do it. He’s got the best eye for a squirrel, too. If he sees one, he is on it.”

Taking the time to train your own dog is the best way to go. However, you’ve got to be able to put in at least three days per week training or hunting them in order to keep them in peak condition, Bob said.

“You see, some types of squirrel dogs smell with their noses to the ground,” Bob said. “What makes Moe different is he smells in the air. So when he gets to barking at a tree, there’s a squirrel in it somewhere. The hardest thing can be finding the squirrel. Moe is usually barking on the downwind side of the tree.”

Because of this, Bob prefers to hunt with a friend or family member.

“It always helps to have another set of eyes looking for the squirrel,” he said. “It’s also just nice to get out in the woods.”

Once Moe did his job, Bob and I began trying to do ours — finding and accurately hitting the little bushytails.

“Moe won’t get on the same side of the tree as me,” Bob said. “What he’s tryin’ to do is spook that squirrel over onto the side of the tree that I’m on.”

After a few trees without any success, Bob finally spotted a squirrel.

We worked together with Moe to get the squirrel in a position for a clear shot, then Bob steadied himself against a tree and fired. After the well-placed shot, the healthy, adult squirrel fell to the forest floor. Moe ran to check it out, and Bob followed to pick it up.

Bob, Moe and I spent another couple hours chasing bushytails and several were treed, but we didn’t knock another squirrel out of a tree.

“They must have fed early this morning,” Bob said. “The best time to hunt squirrels is early in the morning, in the late afternoon and right before bad weather.”

Many of the trees Moe caught wind of must have been covered with “cold sign,” Bob said, meaning the squirrels had been out feeding earlier but had gone back into their nests, holes and hollow trees.

We decided to give it a break and try again during the late afternoon.

Squirrels will often flatten out on branches, relying on their coloration to conceal them. A good squirrel dog, like Moe, will work to move the squirrel around to the shooter’s side of the tree.

At about 3:30 p.m., we entered a stand of mixed hardwoods. This time, I carried a scoped .22.

Bob started to explain how it was important to approach a treed squirrel slowly and to be sure to take your time looking if you don’t see a squirrel in the tree right away.

In just a few minutes, Moe got out in front of us and began barking up a big oak. Bob and I slowly walked toward Moe, and then Bob stopped me.

“Don’t you see that one up there?” Bob asked.

I couldn’t see a thing until Bob pointed out the exact fork in the tree where the squirrel was hiding. The bushytail was lying against the trunk and branch as flat as could be. The animal’s camouflage was definitely good.

“You see him now?” he asked. “They’ll do that a lot of times. They’ll tuck right in against a limb. If they don’t do that, sometimes they will take off running from tree to tree, get in their nests or crawl into a hollow tree.

“Alright, now lean up against that tree there, and take him,” Bob said.

I backed up against the trunk of a small pine, got the crosshairs on the squirrel’s head and let one shot go. The squirrel hit the ground. Moe went to investigate, while Bob and I walked over to pick up the game.

“One of my favorite things to do is take my grandchildren squirrel hunting,” Bob said. “They just love it, and I love watching them. Two of my granddaughters would squirrel hunt every day if I could take them.”

Soon, Moe was on another squirrel. Again we slowly approached, but couldn’t see anything this time.

“I can tell there’s one on the other side of that tree because of the way Moe is raising cain,” Bob said.

We scanned all sides of the pine tree and couldn’t see a squirrel anywhere.

“I bet he got in that hole,” Bob said.

To remedy the situation, Bob took a downed limb and scraped the trunk of the tree loudly. Sure enough, a bushytail shot out of the hole and headed on up the tree. Bob dropped the squirrel with a single shot as soon as it froze.

“I don’t know why that works, but it does,” Bob said. “Sometimes, you can also shake a bush or small tree nearby and it will do the same thing.”

A head shot with a .17 HMR makes cleaning and eating bushytails easier than filling them full of lead shot.

When first trying to locate good populations of squirrels to hunt, Bob said it was just like hunting other game throughout the north Georgia mountains — find the acorns and you’ll find the game. Once the acorns are gone, the squirrels will move on to other fare like pine cones.

“They follow the food, that’s the bottom line,” he said.

Once again, we heard Moe in the distance barking hard. As we approached, we could easily see two squirrels in one tree.

“Boy, Moe sure is doing his job today,” Bob said.

Taking careful aim we each fired and dropped both squirrels. An important thing to remember when squirrel hunting is to always look back at a tree if the dog has indicated on it but a squirrel was not seen.

“I spend a lot of time looking at a tree,” Bob said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given up and walked away from a tree, only to turn around and spot the squirrel.”

One aspect of squirrel hunting that Bob said he loves is that “right when the squirrel hunting is the best, deer season is closed and nothing else is open.” Not to mention how much easier it is to see a squirrel once the leaves are off the trees.

Letting your dog(s) loose and riding the Forest Service roads can be a productive method of hunting squirrels, too, Bob said.

“Then you just ride along and listen for the dogs,” Bob said. “When you hear the dogs barking, stop the truck and hike into the woods and follow the sound of the dogs.”

Throughout the Chattahoochee National Forest, which stretches across much of northern Georgia, there is a whole lot of good squirrel habitat. The steep ridges of the Blue Ridge WMA was one area that Bob mentioned among his top public lands. Bob also mentioned the low-lying, mixed hardwood flats located in the parcels of national forest surrounding Lake Blue Ridge as particularly good.

One of the best WMAs for squirrels is the Chattahoochee WMA, near Helen. Other good public areas to hunt bushytails include National Forest parcels in the West Skeenah Road area, along Skeenah Gap, Coopers Creek WMA and Dawson Forest WMA.

By the time the sun began to sink below the ridges, Bob, Moe and I had managed to bag a nice mess of bushytails.

“You know, when I first started hunting squirrels it wasn’t so much for sport as it was to put food on the table,” Bob said. “I’d get home from school and head out squirrel hunting every chance I’d get. They’re really good to eat, too.”

Bob’s favorite way to cook bushytails is to quarter them and cook them in a crock-pot with a good cured pork chop, potatoes and seasonings.

“Well, Moe, you done good today,” Bob said as we got back to his truck. “You did your job every time, and we goofed it up a few times. But hey, that’s hunting.”

Georgia’s squirrel season closes Feb. 28. Combine that with the liberal bag limit of 12 squirrels per day, and it shouldn’t be tough to fill the freezer before the season shuts down until next August.

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