Press Pros Magazine welcomes outdoors contributor Jim Abrams to our 2020-21 roster of writers. Abrams is a retired Ohio Division of Wildlife officer from nearby Hancock County whose life has centered around the outdoors and gifts of nature. He replaces our good friend Tom Cappell, who faithfully shared his tales of the woods and lakes for the past four years. We’re certain you’ll enjoy Jim’s obvious talent for writing what he loves.
By Jim Abrams for Press Pros
Her name was Cricket. When I got to know her she was already approaching her twilight of dog years but she was still ready to roll on the floor or fetch about anything you could throw that she could pick up. A black English cocker, Dad said she was the smartest dog he’d ever owned.
While she relished any ride in the car or walk in the woods, there was just one thing that she really seemed to hate…squirrels. Whether fox squirrels, gray squirrels, red squirrels or chipmunks, it didn’t matter. Something about those tree-dwellers just drove her a little bananas. Maybe it was because they could run up a tree and get out of reach so quickly.
September always brought her that opportunity for some revenge and it came in the form of squirrel season. Dad, who’d grown up during a time when hunting often determined how well his siblings would eat, loved walking those woodlots as much as Cricket hated squirrels. That made for quite a dangerous team for those sneaking tree rats.
At about seven years old, I was allowed to tag along to witness this duo at work. My job was to be quiet, a bit of a risky bet when it comes to kids that age. We’d walk about in what seemed to be an aimless wandering behind a lost dog who couldn’t get her nose out of the leaves. That’s when it would happen.
Cricket would freeze, nose lifted. You could see it from her stubby, gyrating tail to the clenched brows above squinting brown eyes. She had either scented or sensed the presence of an interloping squirrel in her world. Time for the little cocker to go to work. Dad would just smile.
No more caution or sneaking, Cricket would break into a dash in the direction her nose, eyes or instinct sent her. If the squirrel was on the ground, it would make for the nearest tree to scamper out of reach of the crazy animal chasing it. If it was already high on a limb, it would circle out of sight but not out of Cricket’s critically thinking doggy brain.
Dad would stop and wave the same order to me. Cricket would look back at him with glowering vengeance in her eyes and with; I swear…a smile. “Squirrel” is all dad would say and Cricket would break ranks and run to the tree. Front feet on the trunk, circling the tree and barking into the leaves until she was sure that she and the squirrel had made eye contact.
Then, Cricket would back off the tree opposite of us. In true squirrel form, it would circle the tree away from her all the while trying to keep the little dog in some view. The stare-down seemed to rivet the squirrel’s attention and Dad and I magically disappeared from the animal’s memory. The snap of the 22 rifle often came as a surprise because I’d also become enthralled in the standoff.
The squirrel would drop from the tree and thump into the leaves as Cricket quickly ran to check for a pulse. At that point, I guess the only thing Cricket would see was a good squirrel and she quickly ran off to find another. Her nose in the leaves, long ears perked and a little lighter in her step she carefully searched for her next victim.
I’m not sure if Dad taught Cricket, Cricket taught Dad, or if the universe just aligned perfectly to bring the pair together. Regardless, a lot of traditional Brunswick stew was made possible through their partnership.
Squirrels have been a mainstay of Midwestern hunting seasons since before there were seasons. There are two squirrels that will make up the hunter’s bag. Eastern gray squirrels were the original inhabitants of the state. They prefer large spans of hardwood forests and can be found roaming much of the unglaciated areas of Southeastern Ohio and along the Ohio River corridor.
The other squirrel in the state is the eastern fox squirrel. They’re the larger of the two and were not always native to Ohio. They didn’t move in until timber clearing and agriculture made the state more suitable for them to move into the Buckeye State. They especially like woodlots bordering streams, rivers and other water resources.
Squirrel hunting with dogs has been popular for as long as there have been dogs and squirrels. Even so, there are a lot of folks that haven’t even heard of the combination. Many are just more accustomed to canines chasing pheasants, quail and rabbits; many have forgotten the versatility that a squirrel dog offers.
As for breeds; besides Cricket’s bird dog lineage and un-birdlike hunting style, I’m not sure that there really is a “best” squirrel dog. There are some breeders out there who raise some great mountain cur, Feist and terrier lines that some feel are the epitome of what it takes to be a squirrel hunter. On the other hand, while working as a wildlife officer, I ran across a fellow who had bagged his limit with the help of his standard dachshund. We sometimes forget that many dogs’ pedigree originated in the hunting roles…including that dachshund and the standard poodle.
I guess if I had to make a recommendation to a serious purchaser, I would go with a reputable breeder after a little searching online and in various dog oriented magazines such as Full Cry; http://thefullcry.com/ or Fur-Fish-Game, https://www.furfishgame.com/. There are also several groups on Facebook which tout the sport.
It’s also hard to count out the little beagle. These versatile dogs have the nose and hunting heritage to do the job and it’s easy to find good stock. I’ve even heard of Labradors that do just fine. The traditional hunting breeds will always be your better choice.
Regardless of your decision, no dog learns to hunt without getting out of the house and into the woods. A morning walk will awaken the dog’s senses to what is hiding in the world around him and he will begin to pick up on things in which you show an interest. Much of what you want to teach the dog he already knows, it just needs to be encouraged.
Of course, you don’t need a dog to hunt squirrels. They just add a little extra frosting to the cake. Chasing them without a canine assist is also a pleasure. While you can use a 22 rifle or a shotgun, I’ve always thought of squirrel hunting as a sport for marksmen…and women, so I prefer a decent rifle.
The rest of the preparation is pretty straight forward. Most wooded areas near any waterway will have more than enough squirrels to keep you busy. Get permission and buy a hunting license and you’re ready to go. At that point it’s all about moving quietly, sitting still and patience. A squirrel call can help if you know how to use it, and can pretty much guarantee failure if you don’t.
Experience has taught me that the best teacher is; well, experience. You can gain it on your own or, if you’re smart, you can take along an old squirrel hunter. It will be time well spent if for nothing else but the stories you’ll hear.
Regardless, don’t forget to take along that seven-year-old that has so much trouble being quiet. He, or she, will remember you and those trips for a long time…I promise.
Jim Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard, OH 45867-0413 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.