The pungent leaves on the ground and those few remaining on the black twigs of twisted scrub oaks were shaped like turkey tracks. The turkey oak leaves were intermingled with the pickup sticks longleaf pine straw.
The decomposing leaves wafted a rich aroma of fall wafted from underfoot all the way up to the nose. To anyone who ever slipped through the woods crooking his neck to cramping, trying to spot prey in the treetops, it smelled like perfume.
"If you wait until the afternoon to hunt fox squirrels, the woods get awfully noisy," said Basil Watts, a retired Cape Fear River pilot from Southport. "The leaves dry out and crunch like cornflakes when you walk on them. The last thing you want to do is let him know you're coming."
Watts was slipping cautiously through the woods, constantly eyeing an overly large squirrel's nest he had discovered in case the resident caught out in the open should make a run for safety.
The nest was midway up a medium-tall blackgum tree at the edge of a water-filled sinkhole depression. Such sink hole oases, which are intermittently wet and dry, are typical topographical features of eastern North Carolina's sandy land country acres of dune-like ridges covered with longleaf pine trees.
Beneath the stately pines - officially designated as the state tree - were typical scrub oaks, the turkey, blackjack and live oaks evolved like the longleaf pines to survive and thrive the frequent fires coursing through accumulated pine needles and deciduous leaves cast to the forest floor.
Unlike gray squirrels, the fox or "cat" squirrel, tends to stir later in the day and retire from feeding by mid-afternoon. The fox squirrel's time table is one reason gray squirrel hunters miss their chances at the larger member of the genus sciurus. The other is fox squirrels live in a completely different type of habitat than their smaller cousins.
Every N.C. hunter is familiar with the nest-building habits of the gray squirrels that live statewide. But fox squirrel aficionados such as Watts look for larger nests in the right type of habitat.
"I don't shoot many fox squirrels," he said. "We have some that come to the bird feeders in our yard in Southport and my wife likes to watch them.
"She'd kill me if I killed one of her fox squirrels. But I really would like to shoot a black-phase fox squirrel to mount. I've shot plenty of them. But now I want to mount one and can't find a black one."
The black phase is just one of many color phases of fox squirrels in North Carolina. As the squirrels habitats range westward and northward, they become less varied in coloration, which runs mostly to reddish or brown. But most hunters think the black phase of the fox squirrel, with its accompanying white nose, ear tips and feet is among the most beautiful of small-game animals in this part of the world.
In fact, Watts said if the black fox squirrel isn't the official N.C. small-game mammal, it certainly should be.
"Any fox squirrel is a trophy, no matter what color it is," Watts said. "I once had a friend who wanted one to mount. I found where a black one was living and we went to hunt it the next day.
"He shot and missed, shot and missed and shot and missed until he ran out of .22 bullets. He shot up nearly a box of ammo trying to hit it. He really wanted to shoot it with a rifle, but it either hadn't been sighted in or his eyesight wasn't as good as he thought it was.
"He finally took my .410 (shotgun) and killed it. We must have chased that squirrel for half a mile through the pines before he finally got it."
For those unfamiliar with the fox squirrel, its habits are as different from the gray squirrel as are its habitat needs. Similar to a feline, the fox squirrel would rather run along the ground than take to the trees. Only when pressed too hard with the chance of being caught does a fox squirrel climb to the safety of higher places.
Once in a tree though, the cat squirrel's undoing is its overly confident sense of security as it will typically look down at his pursuer - much like a mule deer's fatal mistake of stopping at the top of a ridge to look back at whatever made it run for the hills.
Watts was hunting the squirrels at Bladen Lakes Game Land in Bladen County.
Tom Padgett is the N.C. Wildlife Commission's District 4 wildlife biologist, and the county is one of several southeastern counties within his working jurisdiction.
"A fox squirrel may not be as wary as a gray squirrel," Padgett said. "But they are much more difficult to find. Fox squirrels are much more scarce than gray squirrels because their remaining habitat is smaller and they don't compete well with gray squirrels, which are much more aggressive.
"A few hunters shoot fox squirrels where their ranges join. But the ranges of the two squirrels ranges rarely overlap in the South as they seem to do in the northern and northeastern United States.
"In North Carolina, gray squirrels live in the denser swamps and hardwoods while fox squirrels live in the open understory areas, although they may be found in much lesser numbers in different habitats.
"In North Carolina, their stronghold is in the longleaf pine savannahs of the coastal plain that are routinely burned."
When asked where he'd hunt fox squirrels, Padgett named the Green Swamp Game Land in Brunswick County, Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County and Bladen Lakes and Suggs Mill Pond game lands in Bladen County.
"The Singletary Tract, Breece Tract and the main tract of Bladen Lakes Game Land are all likely to have a few fox squirrels," he said. "The Nature Conservancy (which owns the Green Swamp Game Land) is doing lots of burning and opening of the forest at Green Swamp and that should increase the available habitat for fox squirrels.
"A lot of prescribed burning is done at all of these game lands and that practice helps fox squirrels. There are also places at private property that have remnant populations in Sampson, Robeson, Scotland and some other nearby counties."
Padgett said he likes squirrel hunting because it's not as competitive as hunting antlered buck deer for their trophy status. He hunts squirrels, including fox squirrels, with a .22 caliber rifle.
He said hunters are prohibited from possessing handguns for any type of hunting at Bladen Lakes Game Land. But handguns complying with N.C. hunting regulations can be used at the other game lands, along with rifles and shotguns.
"There's something about squirrel hunting that brings you back to your youth," he said. "Walking the woods with a .22 is as basic as fishing a creek with cane pole and a worm on a hook under a cork. It's simple, relaxing and fun."
Padgett said the best way to hunt fox squirrels at Bladen Lakes and Suggs Mill Pond game lands is to park at one of the gated roads and walk into the interior.
He also said since the fox squirrel season coincides with the eastern deer season, squirrel hunters should be courteous to deer hunters and watch carefully before shooting upward for safety. There could be deer hunters in tree stands nearby. He also said using a squirrel dog would be a good way to increase the odds for taking home a fox squirrel.
"Anything you can do to cut down on the footwork needed to find a fox squirrel is going to help," he said. "A good squirrel dog could increase your chances, if he doesn't get too bored searching for scent in acres of pines.
"We don't have a sound handle on fox squirrel populations. They don't have the high densities of gray squirrels and hunters don't really hunt them much except for their trophy value.
"Most hunters will take one incidental to gray squirrel hunting for a mount. In fact, some hunters will not shoot one because they are such unique and rare animals. Many hunters would rather just sit quietly and watch them.
Most of the time, I see them when I'm hunting deer or other game and shooting a fox squirrel is the farthest thing from my mind."
Phil Stone is a WRC wildlife technician and crew leader at Holly Shelter Game Land. He said fox squirrels live at the game land but they're typically scattered.
"I see them from time to time so I know they're there," he said. "The only two I've ever killed were near the depot and one of them is mounted. It's on the depot wall for anyone to see.
"I see them on the pine ridges where there are red oaks, white oaks and mineral soil. I've seen them at the second power line traveling the Lodge Road from the west gate, all around the Old Duck Pond and at the 17 Field near the campground close to the eastern gate."
Stone said he has seen all color phases of the fox squirrel at Holly Shelter Game Land. He also has sighted them at other areas of the game land.
"I've seen the black ones with white ears, gray ones with red, all-gray, red, brown, every fox squirrel color you can think of," he said. "Each one is different and that's why each one is such a trophy.
"There are a few dedicated fox squirrel hunters that hunt them on the pine ridges. They find them by scouting for places where they've been feeding.
"Fox squirrels leave big piles of pine-cone cuttings at the bases of the trees, and that's the best fox squirrel sign you're going to find. You may find a fox squirrel's nest if you look hard enough."
But Stone said if you want to hunt outfox Holly Shelter's fox squirrels you should put on track shoes and leave hunting boots at home.
"A fox squirrel would rather run than hide," he said. "He might run 100 yards or more when he spots you. Then you have no idea which tree he's climbed or whether he's still going strong along the ground.
"You might see some bark dropping down where he's climbed the tree or hear his toenails scratching along the tree trunk. Then you look up and he's looking over a limb or around the trunk, looking at you. Once you spot him, it's usually easy to take a fox squirrel. He's not as good at hiding as a gray squirrel."
Watts slipped silently into shooting position. It was well into the morning and all the gray squirrels had headed for their nests.
He pulled out a Mr. Squirrel call. Sucking air through a hole in the bottle-cap sized stainless steel disc, he made squealing noises that sounded like a squirrel being attacked by a hawk, or perhaps like a hawk screeching shrilly after killing a squirrel.
A few feet from one of several nests located around the dark-water sinkhole, there was a slight movement. Discomforted by the alarm calls, a fox squirrel climbed higher in the tree, away from the nearest nest. His enormous tail swung in the soft breeze like the fluff atop a stalk of pampas grass.
Watts' Nobel double-barrel .410 fired one load of No. 6 shot and the fox squirrel fell to the dankness. It was a typical southern fox squirrel, not the black phase he had been hoping for.
"He's got a black face, white nose and ears and white feet but the rest of him is gray," Watts said from somewhere in the thick bay vegetation rimming the ephemeral pond. "But he's beautiful. Anytime you take home a fox squirrel, you're taking home a trophy."
The bark of a fox squirrel is different from that of a gray squirrel. The barking is much deeper in tone and easily recognized with some experience. Sometimes a bellows-type squirrel call, such as the Knight & Hale 4 in 1 Squirrel Call, Model 601, will set off a fox squirrel's chattering or barking. The Haydel's Mr. Squirrel call, Model SW-92, is a whistle. It works by imitating the sounds of a young squirrel in distress being attacked by a hawk.
Sometimes, a distress call merely makes the squirrel move a bit, as was the case with Watts' squirrel. But I've also seen fox squirrels race out of their nests in response to a distress call. Calls only work a small fraction of the time. Still, calls are one more thing to try when you can't seem to find one of these unique small game animals. Anything a hunter can do toward sharpening his woodcraft may help him out-craft the southern fox squirrel.