With deer and duck seasons winding down and winter weather chilling hunters to the bone, opting for the comforts of home may mean missing some of the most enjoyable hunting trips to be had; walking the woods behind a good dog in search of a fat fox squirrel or crafty gray.
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 next February. Additionally, each hunter may take up to 12 squirrels per day, if they’re so inclined.
“There’s ample opportunity for squirrels in Arkansas,” Brad Carner, AGFC chief of wildlife management, said. “The liberal seasons and bag limits won’t impact the resource, especially at the rate of participation we see each year from hunters, so we offer as much opportunity as possible to give hunters the chance to get in the woods.”
One of those hunters who have taken full advantage of that extra opportunity is Steven Fowler of Vilonia. In addition to being the supervisor of the AGFC’s Wildlife Management Division in Mayflower, Fowler is an avid squirrel hunter, especially when following behind his rat terrier Peanut or his feist Bo.
“Bo is really at the heavy end of still being called a feist,” Fowler said. “But Peanut is all rat terrier. I got Peanut first, and she does good, but Bo is a true squirrel dog.”
True squirrel dogs, according to Fowler, don’t just look for squirrels while walking the woods, but roam while using their eyes, ears and nose to track down bushytails.
While other breeds, such as Fowler’s rat terrier, can make serviceable squirrel dogs, two families of dogs make the standard by which bushytail hunters are judged: feists like Bo and curs. Feists are smaller, typically less than 30 pounds, while curs tend to be larger. Some hunters prefer the small, easy-handling abilities of the feist, while others go for the extra size of the cur, but both make fantastic treeing dogs if the buyer does their research and finds a puppy from a proven line of hunting dogs.
“That’s really why I jumped at the chance to get Bo,” Fowler said. “There’s a line of feists called ‘Galla Creek feists’ that are known for their excellent hunting abilities. While the original breeder who 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 probability of him becoming a good squirrel dog was high if he was trained well.”
Now at 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 at the Mayflower region open division in the AGFC’s recent Big Squirrel Challenge with some good-sized gray squirrels harvested thanks to Bo’s nose.
“We didn’t get much early season hunting in this year because we were busy chasing deer, but we’ve been going to the woods pretty regularly since December,” Fowler said. “It can be a little harder to hunt this late in the season, but a good dog really helps.”
Instead of staying still and hoping for a squirrel to show itself, hunting behind a dog is all about walking and enjoying watching the dog work. They’ll range out and check back in occasionally as you walk the woods, constantly scanning the trees, listening to the forest and smelling the air for the hint of a squirrel. Once they find one, they race to it, chasing it until it scurries up a tree to safety. Once at the tree, the dog will bark and stay locked on that tree until the hunter arrives to harvest the squirrel.
“If I’m by myself, I’ll bring a shotgun to shoot the squirrel out of the tree,” Fowler said. “But if there are two of us, one will bring the shotgun while the other carries a .22 rimfire rifle.”
Fowler says the shotgun is used for squirrels that tuck away in cover or those that stay on the move, jumping from tree to tree. The .22 rifle is good for squirrels that stay put or those that have gotten a little out of range of the shotgun, but are still visible.
“It’s also good to have the magnified scope of the small rifle to scan the trees if you left your binoculars back at the truck,” Fowler said. “There are also times when you just get the itch to go with a .22. Lately, it’s been dictated more by what ammunition I could find.”
According to Fowler, Arkansas has no shortage of public land to enjoy squirrel hunting.
“I personally prefer to hunt bottomland hardwoods, and most of the AGFC’s WMAs offer plenty of that habitat type, particularly in the south and east portions of the state, but the mixed pine and hardwoods of the National Forest in the west and north portions of Arkansas offer good hunting opportunities as well,” Fowler said. “Bottomlands just tend to produce healthier populations of squirrels because they produce more of the acorns, hickory nuts and other hard mast the squirrels eat. If you find that, you’re going to find some squirrels.”
Of course, one of the best parts of the squirrel hunt occurs once you’re home and have prepared your harvest for the dinner table. While it may seem crass, the nickname “limb chicken” is a fitting description to squirrel meat, as it lends itself incredibly well to comfort food-cooking, like deep frying, squirrel and dumplings and savory pot pies.