I love to hunt whitetail deer and spend most of my year dreaming about November. But hunting whitetails is a waiting game, and I’ll be the first to admit there are some early mornings when I’m shivering in a cold tree stand overlooking an empty woodlot and wishing that I’d simply stayed in bed.
Those lonely days are the ones when I’m more than happy to call it quits after a slow midmorning with minimal deer movement and call up my friends for a squirrel hunt. Following squirrel dogs doesn’t require the patience or long hours a whitetail hunter has to endure, and it’s a great change of pace when you’ve spent too many hours in the tree.
Fun For Everyone
The more carefree, laid-back atmosphere of a squirrel hunt with dogs is a welcome relief when I’ve been hyper-focused on arrowing an elusive whitetail buck. You can hunt with friends, chat, drink coffee on the tailgate of a pickup truck while you listen to your dog work through a woodlot. Squirrel hunting requires little special equipment—a warm jacket, hunting license, rimfire rifle and pocket full of cartridges are all you really need. And, of course, you need a good dog.
Because of the more relaxed nature of squirrel hunting with dogs it’s also the perfect way to introduce youngsters or new hunters to the sport. Novices can talk and fidget, but they will likely spend most of their time wrapped up in the excitement of the chase. Plus, you don’t need to be in the woods at the crack of dawn to make the most of a day of squirrel hunting.
A Breed Apart
In addition to your family and buddies, squirrel hunting also involves your four-legged friend. I’ve seen all sorts of dog breeds used for squirrel hunting, including coonhounds, border collies, a Lab and even a Jack Russell terrier, but the most popular squirrel dogs are curs. In particular, the mountain cur, which is a hardy, intelligent, medium-sized dog with a distinctly American past. The breed was developed by early American settlers by crossing various hound and terrier breeds. It was originally an all-purpose dog used to herd livestock, hunt by scent and sight, bay hogs, and guard farms and families.
As such, mountain cur stock has never been diluted by show blood, and today’s dogs have been bred for hundreds of years as superb hunters and loyal companions. Mountain curs are also a hardy breed, with males weighing on average about 45 pounds and females slightly less. Another popular squirrel dog is the black mouth cur, which is thought to be the breed that served as the basis for Fred Gipson’s Old Yeller. Based on that dog’s physical description in the book and its versatility there’s little doubt that Gipson based the four-legged protagonist of his famous novel on early curs bred by American settlers in the eastern and southern United States.
Perhaps the best-known mountain cur breeder today is Allen Franklin of Sarahville, Ohio. Franklin’s mountain curs have amassed more than two-dozen state and world championships, and I had an opportunity to hunt with him a few years ago. His dogs put on quite a show. During a half-day hunt, his Cain and King Bud dogs managed to tree a half-dozen squirrels, and watching them work through the woods was both fun and fascinating. Unlike hounds that rely almost entirely on scent trails left by game, Franklin’s curs use their eyes and their noses. They cruise through the woods at high speed, dashing through trees while scanning the forest ahead for movement. When they see a squirrel, the dogs pursue it up a tree, and unlike their hound cousins, curs typically only bark when they have treed their quarry.
Training world-class squirrel dogs takes a great deal of work, but these dogs are highly intelligent and have unparalleled game drive that’s been bred into them over generations. Franklin told me the handler’s job is to simply introduce the dogs to game and wait as instinct takes over. After some time the dog learns to use its eyes, nose and even ears to locate game. From there, the chase is on.
Curs are loyal and protective family dogs, though they tend to be aloof with strangers. They haven’t forgotten their protective instincts, which makes them great watchdogs, and they keep their owner’s yard free of squirrels, stray cats and vermin. But their true love is treeing squirrels, and if you spend much time following these little dogs, it’s likely to become your true love as well.
Opportunities & Gear
Let’s face it, a brand-new hunter faces some serious challenges. Deer hunting requires lots of patience and persistence, not to mention good equipment and land on which to hunt. In my home state, most private land is locked in deer leases, so that means hunting public land, which can be a challenge. But even in Ohio, which is a densely populated state, there are plenty of public forests teeming with squirrels, so access is not an obstacle. I’ve also found landowners who aren’t willing to invite deer hunters onto their property are oftentimes willing to permit hunters to pursue squirrels. I always invite landowners along, and more often than not, they look forward to the next hunt.
Besides a good dog, you’ll need little gear to start your squirrel hunting career. Most hunters carry an accurate, scoped 22 LR rifle. Most any hunting load will work, though I’ve found CCI Standard Velocity and Stinger hollow point loads both do exceptionally well. I’m also a fan of Quiet-22, which reduces noise levels and doesn’t annoy neighbors or distract working dogs.
If handled properly, squirrel meat is delicious, and there are several good recipes available. My personal favorite is Sporting Chef Scott Leysath’s pot pie recipe, but simpler recipes like fried squirrel can also be quite good. As with any wild game, squirrel is a healthy alternative to store-bought meat.
This year, don’t spend all your time in the woods in a deer stand. When the bucks aren’t moving and your back is aching, it’s nice to have an exciting alternative to the all-day sit. And squirrel hunting with dogs is always exciting. Be warned, though, it’s a pastime that quickly turns into a passion.