When leaves on the trees are as scarce as deer hunters in the woods, a new year must have turned, and that’s just fine with Dave Inman and Wally McAnulty because there’s no better time of the year for nearly limitless squirrel hunting opportunities.

With deer hunters out of the woods, hundreds of thousands of acres of public land across the state are waiting for squirrel hunters to take to the woods.

When squirrel hunting public lands, Inman, from Thomasville and McAnulty, from Holly Springs, don’t want to disturb deer hunters and want their dogs to be safe, so January is prime time.

With a season that only runs through January 31, the time for having the woods to themselves is limited.

“I’ve heard the state is considering extending the squirrel season through February and that would be great for us,” said Inman after a hunt south of Aberdeen.

The dogs

For most squirrel hunters, a day in the squirrel woods is a wait-and-watch affair, but for Inman and McAnulty, it’s about waiting and listening.

Turning loose their dogs in search of a hot squirrel track, they wait for “bays,” barks signaling the dogs have treed their quarry.

But Inman and McAnulty are as different a breed of hunter as are the dogs they hunt with, original mountain curs with an occasional feist thrown into the mix.

They have just about forsaken other hunting to devote their full attention to squirrel dogs. Former avid deer, turkey and bird hunters, they became obsessed with squirrel hunting and the canines that are special to the sport.

Hunting with dogs is a time-honored tradition in the Appalachians where highly versatile curs and feists have been used for generations to put meat on the table, from squirrels to bear or wild boar.

Even though curs and feists have been in the mountains since the pioneers settled there, a resurgence in squirrel dog hunting has been afoot only during the last decade.

“Around here, even five or six years ago, I could count everybody I knew that had squirrel dogs on one hand,” Inman said. “And now they’re everywhere; (the sport) has really boomed.”

Inman and McAnulty may hunt with “meat dogs” of the mountains, but it’s not subsistence hunting. They do it because they love to hunt with their special dogs.

“To be quite honest, you’d probably kill more squirrels if you didn’t have a dog because you’re going to sit at a den tree or an area where they’re feeding,” McAnulty said. “You can shoot several while you’re sitting there versus with a dog.”

A recent hunt began with a brace of dogs that had only one outward trait — their bobbed tails — readily identifying them as curs. Grizz, a large black cur that looked a bit like a lanky Labrador, belonged to Tim Cope of Churchland. Then there was Cash, Inman’s brindle cur that was smaller in stature than Grizz, as was Scout, McAnulty’s stud with a red-tinted yellow coat. Finally there was little Bo, the smallest of the bunch belonging to Rick Dennis, also from Thomasville.

Bo is a young brindle learning the ropes from the big dogs but sporting some nasty wounds on his snout from a lesson he learned about chasing porcupines during a hunt in Michigan.

This size and color differential is typical of curs, their standard calling for a weight between 40 and 60 pounds with a short coat in black, brindle, yellow or blue with white markings.

Feists look a like a smaller version of a cur, weighing in at 10 to 30 pounds.

One of the main differences between feists and curs is their hunting style,

The hunting style of curs is a little bit different, as they tend to hunt deeper, farther away from their handlers. They also tend to be more nose-oriented while feists are more sight- and ear-oriented.

Later in the day Inman brought out Lucy, one of his feists. If she didn’t hit a hot track pretty quick, she carefully scanned the trees before putting nose to ground again.

Hunting these dogs is a year-round sport, as the hunters work the dogs in the off season just as they do when hunting, except they don’t carry guns. The reward for the dogs when they tree a squirrel is some “good boy” praise instead of a squirrel falling out of the tree.

The other side of the squirrel dogs we hunted that day isn’t pleasure hunting but field-trial competition.

Scout and Grizz have earned champions’ awards. And, as any field champion, they come with a hefty price tag.

When I asked McAnulty how much his stud cur Scout cost, he laughed.

“That can’t be published,” he said. “It was a lot. I’ll put it this way, the dogs we hunted that day, if I’d have put them all in my truck, it would have doubled the value of my truck easily.”

McAnulty owns a new, fully-loaded Ford F-250 4x4 crew-cab pickup truck.

He breeds original mountain curs and is a member of the Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association.

“I charge $200 to $300 for puppies and usually keep a few puppies and get them started,” he said. “I can see how they do. Started (trained) dogs cost about $500 to $1,000.

“A dog that’s not only a good hunting dog but a good competition-style dog, you can’t buy for less than $5,000, and that would be a deal. A finished (totally trained) dog like that is hard to come by. If one comes up for sale, it’s usually not advertised; (the potential sale) is word of mouth.

“In OMCBA field trials, you can only hunt OMCBA-registered dogs, but there are other registries that we hunt our OMCBA dogs in. In open-registry field trials, such as the United Squirrel Dog Registry, you can have a Labrador that trees squirrels, so he’s a squirrel dog. We feel that’s a more true competition because it brings all comers. The National Kennel Club and United Kennel Club also register curs and feists.”

McAnulty competes in 10 to 15 field trials each year. His dog Scout has won numerous titles from several registries.

“This year we’ll have the first OMCBA field trial in North Carolina and Rocky River Squirrel Club will host that in February 2008,” said McAnulty, who is club vice president.

Inman started hunting squirrels with feists, but now he also hunts curs so he can compete in trials that are exclusively for curs.

“I like them both and haven’t completely switched over,” he said. “I tell these guys that I’m after a squirrel dog and the breed doesn’t matter. I’d rather have a good feist than a sorry cur and vice versa.”

Inman’s had his share of good feists, including Lucy’s mother, Brandy, who was Super Grand Champion in USDR.

The squirrels

There are two fundamental differences between hunting for squirrels with or without dogs.

Without a dog, the squirrels do most of the work while the hunter sits and waits for them to move. When hunting with dogs, they push a squirrel up a tree and hunters carefully glass the treetops with binoculars trying to spy them flattened out along a limb.

Hunters “cast” their dogs in a fashion akin to quail hunting, then listen like a rabbit hunter for the distinctive bay of the dogs. Squirrel dogs differ from rabbit dogs in that they’re usually silent until they tree their quarry instead of singing as soon as they hit a hot track.

“The majority of the decent ones will “throw” one long cast, “locate” bark when they find the tree and then start ‘chopping,’ ” McAnulty said. “They’ll bark, bark, bark and you know they’ve treed a squirrel.”

North Carolina is home to several species of squirrels, including tree squirrels and flying squirrels. But the most common are gray and fox squirrels, with grays most prevalent and widespread.

No matter what time of year or whether you hunt fox or gray squirrels, the tactics remain the same for the using dogs. The difference is in how squirrels react.

“A big difference hunting fox squirrels with dogs versus gray squirrels is gray squirrels tend to hit the first tree they can get to and, then if they move, they move through the trees,” McAnulty said. “We’ve run fox squirrels 300 or 400 yards, just like a rabbit race, before they treed.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time when a squirrel ‘timbers’ (runs through the tree tops), it knows where it’s headed, and it’s headed to a hole or a nest. They know where they’re going, and they know every hole in the woods.”

“If they can’t find a hole to hide in, the squirrels flatten out as thin as they can on a tree to keep from being seen and they freeze,” Inman said. “That’s the way they are most of the time with dogs because the dogs have alerted them. That’s why binoculars are so important.”

“Early in the season, squirrels will ‘timber’ more and that goes back to the hawks and owls,” McAnulty said. “They feel more at ease running through the tree tops when there are leaves.”

The habitat

The primary requisite for squirrel habitat is trees with mast. Hunters can find squirrels almost anywhere in the state where there’s good mast. But some places are better than others.

“We utilize a ton of public land after deer season,” McAnulty said. “Ideally you want to hunt the dogs in large enough areas that if you don’t have success in the morning, you can hunt a different area without having to load up and move. There are tracts like that at game lands in all regions of the state.

“I’ve hunted from the mountains to the coast and everywhere in between and had good hunts at game lands.”

“As far as locations, about any of the game lands in the central and mountain areas hold a good population of gray squirrels, particularly the Uwharrie game lands and in the Pisgah National Forest in the mountains,” Inman said. “The Caswell game lands and public land in the mountains can be challenging because of the terrain.”

Game lands surrounding major reservoirs, such as Jordan and Falls lakes, offer an excellent variety of habitat suitable for squirrels.

Visit the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission web site at www.ncwildlife.com to buy a copy of the Game Lands map book or view them online. A new feature of the site is interactive mapping for the game lands by location and species.

“The best habitat is mixed hardwoods with some pines,” Inman said. “The big trees make it really hard to find the squirrels. The big timber tends to have more dens, so if you can find what we call ‘short timber,’ not 10-year old cutovers but not the big oaks like you’d find at an old home place.”

Habitat for still hunting or dog hunting should have a lot of squirrels nests because if there are nests, there are squirrels.

“You can just about ride down the road and find a good place by just looking for nests,” Inman said. “You don’t want (the woods to be) too thick, because the dogs will tree squirrels in there, but you still have to get to them. It’s best if (habitat) is a mix between wide open and a jungle.”

“Squirrels want to be where they feel safe,” McAnulty said. “If there’s food where they can be safe versus where it’s wide open, they’re going to go where they can be safe.

“It’s our game but their lives.”

The tools

Hunting squirrels requires a modest investment until a hunter can buy a fully-trained squirrel dog.

The staples are a shotgun or a scoped .22 rifle. Whether hunting with or without dogs, hunting parties should carry shotguns for running squirrels and a .22 for picking them off when they’re stuck tight to a high limb.

“I carry a Ruger 7722,” McAnulty said. “Another popular model is the Ruger 1022. Many guys customize them with lighter-weight barrels. A lot of guys like a lighter gun, such as 20-gauge youth model (shotgun). It’s a weight issue because you do a lot of walking behind the dogs.

“A squirrel’s hide is a lot closer to a deer hide as far as toughness. It’s not like a rabbit; you can tear a rabbit hide, so we use (No.) 4, 5 or 6 shot, not the lighter loads. It’ll take more than one or two pellets to bring down a squirrel.”

Inman also suggested improved or modified chokes for 12-gauge guns and full chokes for 20 gauges.

He goes high-tech when tracking his dogs, utilizing Garmin’s Astro GPS-enabled dog-tracking system. With GPS and radio tracking built into the hand-held unit and dogs fitted with collars, the unit can track and pinpoint as many as 10 dogs simultaneously. It will display direction and distance from the hunter to each dog on an LCD display.

Such units are improvements from older tracking collars and radio-antenna receivers that have been used for years. The unit also is a fully-functioning GPS unit, so hunters can find their truck after the dogs have led them miles away during a hunt.

New tools and trained dogs, a combination of high-tech hunting and older traditions, is perhaps the best combination for hounding bushytails across North Carolina.