Bruce Trujillo is a semi-retired machinist from Castle Hayne, who works a few days a week and carries a few fishermen offshore fishing, but he’s really waiting for squirrel season to come around. His year-round passion is watching and hearing his dog, Poncho, a Parnell’s Carolina Cur, tree squirrels.
“We get out for at least a few minutes every day,” Trujillo said, “but treeing squirrels around the house is a different matter than treeing them in the wild. The first thing you have to do is find a place to hunt them, and many of the coastal game lands have only fair squirrel habitat, at best.”
As a result, Trujillo enjoys taking Poncho on road trips. While some hunters travel far and wide to hunt deer, ducks, turkeys and other big game, his hunting trips are for arboreal rodents. Last December, he headed to the Sandhills Game Lands, which cover more than 65,000 acres in Moore, Hoke, Richmond and Scotland counties, to try his luck with fox squirrels. He had heard that the habitat was perfect for fox squirrels and, for him, the oversized, often-colorful squirrels are tantamount to big game. The first thing he did upon his arrival was to stop at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Hoffman Depot, where he spoke with Chris Jordan, a forester who has worked at the depot for nine years.
“Most squirrel hunters hunt for the first two weeks of the season in October, before the deer hunting season comes in,” Jordan said. “It is a popular place for hunting deer with dogs, so you have to share the space. It seems like squirrel hunters thin out when deer season begins, but they come back after deer season goes out the second Saturday in December. We probably have a dozen hunters a year that actually come by the depot to talk to us about hunting fox squirrels and most of the hunters use dogs to tree them.”
Jordan said on a typical day of working, riding through the game lands, he sees one or two fox squirrels. However, on a day with misty rain, he may see seven or eight.
“Rainy days are best,” he said. “If you have a good dog, you should tree several fox squirrels.”
That is good information to a squirrel hunter who is looking for a particular color phase. While most Sandhills fox squirrels have grey backs, reddish brown to golden sides and facial patterns that are strikingly similar to the markings of a gray fox, a good portion of them are black with white nose, ears and feet.
“I have always wanted a black one,” Jordan said. “I mostly see black fox squirrels when I am working, but I have never taken one. When I am hunting, all I see are the reddish-brown or some other color phases. Most hunters view fox squirrels as trophy animals that they take home for mounting. A lot of them say they have a preference for a black one”
Jordan said hunters should look for cornfields, which the Commission plants throughout the game land. Fox squirrel sign around cornfields is obvious.
“We usually plant two-dozen cornfields. We rotate them so they are in different spots every year,” he said. “A fox squirrel will grab an ear of corn and tote it a quarter-mile to its favorite spot before eating it. Fox squirrels also like long-leaf pines and hardwoods. Find both types of trees in a given location, and you will find fox squirrels. They forage on pine cones, then move to the hardwoods when the hard mast falls. They also make their leaf nests in oaks and hickories, and you will see them in bottom areas that have some hardwoods adjacent to pine stands.”
Trujillo drove down one of the sandy roads away from the depot, checking for fox squirrel tracks on an overcast day with a light, intermittent rain.
“They are much larger than gray squirrel tracks,” he said. “They often cross the road in the same places day after day.”
Once he found a likely looking place, he let Poncho out of his kennel. Poncho ran through the pine and turkey oak forest, stopping here and there to check the wind with his nose. It wasn’t long before he began barking.
“He’s trailing a squirrel,” Trujillo said. “If he stops and starts looking up a tree and barking his head off, there’s a squirrel up there.”
It happened just that way a half-dozen times. However, the dog never stayed with the tree very long after Trujillo arrived.
“I think the squirrel has been moving around all morning and the damp conditions are making it hard for the dog to locate which tree the squirrel is actually in,” he said. “Then again, a fox squirrel could have been up one of those trees and I just could not see him. But I don’t think so, because Poncho did not tree solidly.”
Trujillo was carrying a .22 rifle, which he seldom does. He usually carries a shotgun.
“I usually use a 20-gauge Browning Citori loaded with No. 6 shot,” he said. “It is light and easy to carry and gives me instant selection of two chokes. I like improved cylinder and modified. But, today is special because this is a trophy hunt. It just seems right to be using a .22 rifle to add the shooting challenge to the hunt.”
Trujillo’s next stop was a cornfield. Walking only a few yards revealed ears stripped of their shucks. A trail littered with shucks lead nearly 200 yards to a short-leaf pine. Poncho ran back and forth, casting for scent, before barking constantly at the base of the tree. Its canopy was absolutely chock full of cones, and the tree was enormous.
Thirty minutes later Trujillo had yet to spot the squirrel. As he was leashing the dog to move to another spot, his hunting partner finally spotted it. A single shot from a .22, and the squirrel fell, almost hitting Trujillo.
“I have never seen one that color before,” he said. “The fur on its tail and lower sides is as golden as yellow Stren hi-vis fishing line.”
The all-day hunt continued, with Poncho barking and trailing, stopping at several trees. He trailed what appeared to be several gray squirrels into thick bottoms, where nests and cavities in tree trunks hid them too well for Trujillo to see them.
Eventually, the sun was setting. Trujillo had walked several miles and driven many more. He found a stand of mature longleaf pines full of big cones that had an understory of mature turkey oaks with acorns on the ground.
“A fox squirrel should be here,” he said. “Let’s give it one more try.”
Poncho hit a hot trail quickly, following it to a dense stand of pine, sweet gum and black gum trees in a bottom. When he began barking and looking up into a large blackgum, Trujillo moved around the tree, shaking some saplings.
The squirrel was unable to tolerate the commotion and began running from tree to tree. Poncho followed, keeping track of it by scent, sight and sound. The squirrel ran to the end of a longleaf limb, where it did its best to imitate a pine cone.
Steadying his rifle against a tree trunk, Trujillo took the shot. The squirrel hit the ground and Poncho nearly caught it. The squirrel had a duller coloration than the one taken that morning, but was still of the typical Sandhills color phase.
“We hunted all day for two fox squirrels,” he said. “I was hoping to get them in time to hunt gray squirrels, too. If you add up all the training and upkeep of the dog, scouting for the right place and finding it then making an all day hunt of it and finally hold a 3-pound fox squirrel in your hand, it is an exceptional hunt. A fox squirrel is truly the trophy animal of North Carolina’s small game.”
HOW TO GET THERE — From Raleigh, take US 1 south through Southern Pines to Hoffman. The NCWRC depot is on the right, about a mile south. Several county roads leading north and south from US 1 at Hoffman provide access to different sections of the Sandhills Game Lands.
WHEN TO GO — Sandhills Game Lands is a three-day-per-week public hunting area, open Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.Open season on fox squirrels is Oct. 12-Dec. 31. The season for gray squirrels runs through Feb. 29. Most squirrel hunters wait until deer season ends Dec. 12 to take to the woods.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Shotguns shooting loads of No. 6 shot or .22 rimfire rifles are both adequate weapons for fox squirrels. When hunting with dogs, one hunter should carry a shotgun and the other a scoped .22 loaded with long-rifle hollow points.
HUNTING INFO — N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, Hoffman Depot, 910-638-3984.
ACCOMMODATIONS — Quality Inn Suites, 400 Broad St., Rockingham, 855-849-1513.
MAPS — N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Hunting/Game-Land-Maps/Piedmont//Sandhills.pdf; DeLorme’s North Carolina Atlas & Gazetteer, 800-452-5931, www.delorme.com.