That's commonplace in southeastern North Carolina, but the Nances and their friends, Michael Smith and Paul Singletary, didn't have their dogs on the trail of deer, raccoons or bear. They were targeting squirrels.
"They've treed a squirrel already," Terry Nance said. "When you hunt squirrels with tree dogs, the action is constant. It's a great trip for impatient hunters, because there's never a dull moment. It's not like still-hunting when you are just sitting in the woods, waiting for something to happen; the dogs are going to make things happen. We take lots of kids from our church; once we take them, they're hooked on hunting because it's never boring."
The Nances have always kept treeing dogs, starting out with 'coon dogs, but Cory Nance said he gave up 'coon hunting and deer hunting to hunt squirrels.
"I was working shift work when I got out of 'coon hunting and into squirrel hunting," he said. "Now, I still have tree dogs, but I'm home at night."
Nance said another reason he switched to squirrels is that it is easier to find a place to hunt squirrels than other game. He said hunters took more than 200 squirrels with the help of his dogs the previous season.
"People who won't let you hunt deer usually don't care if you hunt squirrels once deer season is out," he said. "In January and February, you can always find a place to hunt squirrels. Some people think there a fewer squirrels this time of year, but we usually shoot 20 or 30 over a morning's hunt."
The Nances were hunting in the Big Swamp near Bladenboro, but they said the hunting is also excellent at Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land, which is open for public hunting three days per week.
"Bladen Lakes has lots of squirrels," Terry Nance said, "but the taller timber where most hunters go is not the best place for hunting squirrels with dogs. You need a young, mixed stand of hardwood and pine. It needs have thick overhead cover and underbrush. Mature hardwood trees have too many hollows for squirrels to hide in, and there aren't as many squirrels. The thicker cover of younger timber allows squirrels to escape predators, so more of them survive, especially late in the hunting season."
The Nances said that the advantage of hunting at Bladen Lakes Game Land is that they can always hunt there during deer season. However, out of courtesy for deer hunters, they don't release their squirrel dogs, mountain curs, until mid-morning, after most deer hunters have left the woods.
The first fit of action led the hunting party to a tree where Nance's dogs, Coal Train, Daisy and Rocky - along with the rest of the pack - were barking. The tree contained a squirrel's nest, but no squirrel. Cory Nance found a wild grape vine leading up the nest and gave it a tug. The squirrel ran out, and Singletary connected with his shotgun.
Michael Smith was armed with a semiautomatic .22 rifle, and Terry Nance had a .22 semiautomatic pistol with a scope sight, because a rifle interfers with his ability to handle the dogs, but Cory Nance was unarmed.
"Even if you carry a rifle on a sling, it gets in the way when you are putting the dogs on leashes or when you are moving through briars and vines," he said. "Carrying the pistol in a holster leaves both hands free to push aside branches, grab dogs or poke a stick into a hole where a squirrel might be hiding. It's amazing how much more fun a hunt can be when you carry a pistol. You don't think about it at all until you have an opportunity to shoot."
Terry Nance's pistol is a Ruger Mark II, as accurate as a target-grade .22 rifle. He uses a variable-power scope. While most squirrel hunters use hollow point ammo, he uses solids.
"With a solid bullet, I can shoot a squirrel from any angle, and it won't tear up the meat," he said. "You don't know what kind of shot will be presented when a dog has a squirrel treed. Usually, you only see parts of the squirrel. The best place to shoot them is in the head, but that isn't always possible."
"I don't care if I shoot a squirrel," Cory Nance said. "For me, its all about the dogs. Having several hunters with different types of guns helps when they surround a tree. If the squirrel starts running across the limbs, the hunter with the shotgun can shoot it. If it's hiding in a fork, everyone can shift around until it moves a little so you can see it. A scope on a rifle or pistol helps you find a hole in the branches to shoot through."
Cory Nance showed the downed squirrel to Coal Train, then the dogs headed off into the woods. The hunting was fairly slow, with only a couple of squirrels bagged during the first hour. The ground had been covered with frost, but once the sun burned the frost away, the action heated up.
"We really don't have to get up early," Terry Nance said. "The best hunting happens at mid-morning, after the squirrels have been feeding on the ground and left lots of scent."
The hunt led into the yard of a farmstead. The hunters knew the owner, and he came out of the house to greet them warmly. He had problems with squirrels in his outbuildings and wanted the hunters to try their luck. They treed and shot two within a few yards of a shed.
The hunt wound down just before noon. The action had been constant as promised. Every time the hunters picked up a squirrel, the dogs were already tracking or treeing another one. The dogs were leading the hunters, connecting the dots from one treed squirrel to the next.
"A squirrel hunt leads you through some pretty places, and there's always lots of walking, but you can walk at any pace you want," Cory Nance said. "You can go fast or slow, depending on your mood and whether there are young or old hunters along. You have to know the territory well. It helps to know where the roads and paths are located, so you don't walk yourself out. Having tracking collars on the dogs assures that you can leash them before they go onto property where you don't have permission to hunt or before they cross a road."
The hunters circled back to their pickups and loaded up their dogs. Their bulging game vests held 22 squirrels.
"That's another advantage hunting squirrels has over hunting deer or 'coons." Terry Nance said. "You always come home with something good to eat."
HOW TO GET THERE/WHEN TO GO - To reach Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land from Raleigh, travel I-40 east to Benson and I-95 south to Fayetteville. Take NC 53/210 south toward White Lake, then take NC 53 about 30 miles to the game lands, which are on Ruskin Rd. and NC 242. The Singletary tract is eight miles farther south, beyond White Lake, on NC 53. Gray squirrel season is open through Feb. 29. The game lands are open for hunting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. The game lands has a good population of fox squirrels, but the season for fox squirrels closes Jan. 31.
GUNS/LOADS - Handguns may not be carried on the game lands, and except for muzzleloaders, no rifles in calibers above .22 rimfire may be possessed. On private property, hunters may use .22 rimfire revolvers and pistols in any caliber and any barrel length for hunting squirrels. Hunters using .22 rimfire handguns and rifles should use long-rifle solid bullets to minimize meat damage. Shotguns in 12- through 20-gauge, plus .410 bore, loaded with No. 6 shot are excellent for taking squirrels treed by dogs.
DOG INFORMATION - Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association, http://www.omcba.com/.
ACCOMMODATIONS - Days Inn, Elizabethtown, 910-862-7344. Bladen Lakes Game Land, 910-588-4964, has primitive campgrounds.
MAPS - North Carolina Game Lands maps are available through the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission website, www.ncwildlife.org. DeLorme North Carolina Atlas and Gazetteer, 800-452-5931, www.delorme.com.