Champ and Curly bounced excitedly around in their pen behind Randy Dunkley’s cozy log cabin on a wooded hillside in the Hurdle Mills community of Person County.
The 2-year-old treeing feists knew what was coming this cold winter morning — they were going squirrel hunting.
“They’re out of the original stock owned by my dad,” said Dunkley, 60, a taxidermist who is president of the N.C. Taxidermy Association.
Champ and Curley are granddaughters of Jake, one of Dunkley’s best squirrel dogs, and they’re descendants of Brownie, a treeing feist owned by Chandler Kirk of Mount Tirsa.
“Brownie was by far the best squirrel dog I’ve ever hunted behind,” Dunkley said. “My dad bought him from Mr. Kirk. I just hope these two dogs (Champ and Curly) can be half the squirrel dog Brownie was. He was what you’d call a natural. He didn’t have to learn much; he just knew how to tree squirrels.”
Once he discovered a squirrel by scent or sight and latched onto the squirrel with his eyes, Brownie would follow the squirrel and bark until his masters arrived.
“It didn’t matter if the squirrel had gone up a tree or was crossing from one tree to another,” Dunkley said. “Brownie would stay with the squirrel and bark at him until somebody came.”
One of a squirrel’s favorite tricks, once it’s been treed by a feist or has detected someone walking in the woods, is to climb a tree and hide on the opposite side from the disturbance. If anything moves on the ground, especially a hunter, the squirrel will move in an attempt to remain hidden.
Brownie knew that tactic and would lend a helping hand to his hunters.
“He’d back off from a tree, then move and make the squirrel move so the hunter could see the squirrel,” Dunkley said. “It was almost as if he was reading the squirrel’s mind.”
If a hunter failed to shoot and drop a squirrel from a tree, Brownie, not seeing a squirrel shown to him by the hunter, would be off on another search for more squirrels.
“He didn’t have much patience with you if you weren’t a good shot and could put a squirrel on the ground and show it to him,” Dunkley said.
Brownie sired a daughter named Candy, another good squirrel dog who later gave birth to a dog named Earnhardt, who was Jake’s daddy.
“Candy and Curley are the fourth generation of squirrel dogs we’ve had in the family out of Brownie,” Dunkley said.
Dunkley is the caretaker of several hundred acres of wooded property owned by Teena Koury of Burlington. Koury, an avid turkey and deer hunter, allows Dunkley to hunt squirrels on her land during the winter. He often takes Champ and Curly on trips through the hardwood-forested slopes because they’re usually filled with squirrels.
“The best places to find squirrels are where there are hardwood ridges and bottoms, places that have hickory nuts and acorns,” Dunkley said.
Squirrels love to eat these nuts, which make up a major portion of their diet.
Some squirrel hunters don’t use dogs. They’ll still hunt with scoped .22 rifles or shotguns, sitting at daybreak in the woods, waiting for squirrels to emerge.
Squirrels greet the day in a den tree by climbing out on a limb to scratch and survey the woods. Usually, they’ll emerge one at a time from a hollow, and a hunter with a .22 or shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot can pick them off one by one. As many as a half-dozen squirrels may become larder for the cooking pot by such a technique.
“I’d rather take the dogs, though,” Dunkley said. “I like to walk, it’s good exercise and the best training you can have for a treeing dog.”
Champ and Curley are in the learning stages of becoming good squirrel dogs, although Dunkley said they’ll probably never match Brownie’s prowess.
“Brownie was treeing squirrels when he was eight months old like he was a 5-year-old dog,” Dunkley said. “These dogs are just beginning to learn what they should be doing, but hunting and killing squirrels is pretty much all it takes to make a squirrel dog.”
To an unseasoned hunter’s eye, the two feists pretty much knew what to do.
Walking along an old woods road, Curly and Champ ran ahead of Dunkley, criss-crossing the road and ranging out of sight in the steep slopes on either side.
“Yip, yip, yip,” they barked after only five minutes.
“They’re onto a squirrel now,” said Dunkley, quickening his pace as he headed for the two barking dogs.
“I think that squirrel may have gone into that nest,” Dunkley said after arriving at his dogs, which were sniffing the ground and looking up at the nest.
The nest was in the top of a thin tree only about 20 feet tall. If a squirrel can’t find a hollow in a large tree, it’ll often dive into a nest made of leaves and sticks high off the forest floor to be safe from ground predators such as foxes or coyotes — or squirrel dogs.
After a quick shake of the tree, a bushytail emerged on the dead run and zipped through the branches until it reached a large oak and began climbing.
“I see him, too, Champ,” Dunkley said as the feists yapped away in a frenzy and the squirrel made for the other side of the tree.
Dunkley backed up against a big poplar and took aim with his scoped .22 rifle at the squirrel, which had flattened out on a high limb.
“Pop” went the .22, and the long-rifle bullet struck the squirrel beside the ear. The gray ball of fur came tumbling down, bouncing off branches until it struck the ground with a thud. The dogs piled on, shaking the squirrel for good measure.
“Hey, lemme have him,” Dunkley said, taking the squirrel away from the snarling dogs. “Let’s go find another one.”
The hunt continued with the frost turning to water droplets on the leaves, then quickly evaporating as the sun climbed in the sky. Squirrels were abundant, and the two dogs did their work well, finding a half-dozen shadowtails for Dunkley to drop through the branches with his .22-caliber Ruger, which had a 4X Redfield scope mounted on top.
The best days to hunt squirrels are in January, and that’s when Dunkley starts hunting in earnest.
“Up until the end of December, there’s too many deer hunters out there, so I’m like most small-game hunters and don’t go into the woods until January,” he said.
Especially good squirrel days occur are after a rainstorm.
“The dogs don’t depend much on hearing squirrels on the ground,” he said, “but when the ground’s wet, it holds the scent of squirrels, so it’s easier for the dogs to find ’em. I like the air temperature in the 40s so you don’t get so hot while walking. It also helps if the wind’s not howling, because squirrels don’t seem to move as much when it’s windy.”
Dunkley not only hunts gray squirrels, but he also usually makes an annual trip for fox squirrels. Curly and Champ perform just as well finding these bigger cousins of gray and red squirrels.
“Last year, we went to the Sandhills (Game Land) for fox squirrels,” Dunkley said. “I don’t think they’re as spooky as gray squirrels.
“After we got there, in 35 minutes, me and Jason (his son) killed two, and we left one up a tree,” he said. “Curly and Champ would take off like a bullet when they smelled a fox squirrel’s trail, and it didn’t take them long to find a squirrel because they’re so much bigger than gray squirrels. Fox squirrels also have a tendency to sit on limbs and look down at you instead of hiding.”
The statewide daily limit for fox squirrels is one per hunter, with the limit for red or gray squirrels being eight.
“I like squirrel hunting because it’s a really good teaching experience for kids,” Dunkley said. “For adults, it’s about getting some good walking exercise; it’s good for your heart. It’s also good training for training your squirrel dogs.
“I think squirrel hunting is good for kids because it’s pretty fast-paced. They get to look for squirrels, and they get to shoot a lot. You can teach ’em gun safety as well.
“It’s not like deer still-hunting where you have to sit in a stand for hours and only get to shoot maybe once a day. It’s hard for kids to have that much patience.
“If your kid has a squirrel dog, it’s also good for him to have that companionship. Jason grew up with Candy, and sometimes he’d take her out squirrel hunting after he got home from school. On Saturdays, I’d take Jason and one of his buddies, and we’d have a big time finding squirrels.
“Squirrel hunting with those boys gave me a lot of satisfaction.”