Many hunters in the southeastern parts of North Carolina act as if they’d lost their best friend once deer season ends.
But some whitetail hunters switch gears and scan the skies for opportunity, hunting ducks, doves and quail. Those in the know stalk smaller mammalian prey in the same forested habitat that provides some of the Tar Heel state’s best deer hunting. “Sometimes I don’t even wait until deer season goes out to hunt squirrels,” David Franklin said. “I see them from my tree stands all season long. They steal the corn from my deer feeders, and sometimes I like to thin them out.” Franklin keeps his deer feeders operational, except during the spring when baiting for turkeys is illegal. But squirrels can be hunted over bait, just like deer. “I use an old Stevens semi-automatic .22 rifle that dad gave me,” he said. “I hunt from the tree stands sometimes. But I would really rather walk through the woods when conditions are right. “A still morning when there’s a melting frost that, a heavy dew or fog, or after a good rain is the best time to hunt squirrels. I look in the areas where I’ve actually seen squirrels while hunting deer hunting and in the areas where I’ve seen plenty of squirrel sign.” Squirrel sign consists of leaf nests, gnawed openings in hollow den trees, pockmarked areas where the arboreal rodents have dug up “squirreled” away acorns, gnawed acorn and hickory nutshells and stands of trees where squirrels have been heard scolding one another or a predator. “If you listen during quiet mornings, you can hear a squirrel barking from a long way off,” Franklin said. “They’re entering breeding season and food resources are becoming scarce. Squirrels competing with each other and chasing each other make a lot of racket. “If you listen closely, you can really narrow down your hunting area when they’re being active.” Franklin hunts Wildlife Commission game lands as well as his own hunting territory. Holly Shelter Game Land in Pender County, and Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land and Suggs Mill Pond Game Land in Bladen County are some of his favorites. “I used to hunt with a club that leased part of Holly Shelter Game Land,” Franklin said. “There were always lots of squirrels to hunt along the drainages and hardwood stands.” When Franklin stalks thick cover, he hunts with a shotgun. The maze of oak and gum tree limbs make for difficult shooting with a rifle, even after the leaves have come off the trees. “I like to hunt with a 20-gauge shotgun because it handles fast and is light to carry,” he said. “Sometimes all you get is a shot at a squirrel running along the ground or scurrying around a tree trunk heading for a den, so there’s no time to get on him with a scoped .22. “I use No. 6 lead shot. It doesn’t take a heavy load to kill a squirrel, and you don’t want to shoot him up so badly you ruin the eating.” Franklin wears his turkey-hunting vest when he is hunting squirrels. It has lots of pockets to carry harvested squirrels, hold shells, a compass, water, snacks and other conveniences. But the most important thing about a turkey vest is that it has a back pad and cushioned seat that drops down by popping a couple of snaps. “If I find a place I would like to hunt because of all the sign but the squirrels aren’t moving, I find a big tree to sit against,” he said. “You may have to sit there for an hour before the squirrels start moving after they’ve seen or heard you enter their territory. “They get warier as the season goes on. The stupid ones get eaten by birds of prey, foxes, bobcats or are killed by human hunters. By January, only the smarter squirrels have survived.” Franklin finds the best times to take a seat for squirrels are early and late in the day when stalking conditions aren’t perfect. Dry leaves and twigs crunching like cornflakes underfoot make it difficult to stalk squirrels in most locations. However, there are ways to stalk silently even when the forest floor is dry as a tinderbox. “At the game lands, there are plenty of sandy roads that allow quiet walking,” he said. “Some of them lead through stands of tall pines with some scrub oaks underneath. Those areas have fox squirrels along with the gray squirrels. “Good fox squirrel habitat always has sandy soils and any trail through the pines will have quiet footing. If the woods are open and the walking is quiet, the hunting can be better if you use a .22 rifle. Shots can be long and you can spot the squirrels before they see you.” Franklin likes to hunt the areas of Holly Shelter known as the Bear Garden Tract near Shaw Highway. Many trails lead to the Northeast Cape Fear River and the river flood plain holds the most squirrels. Most of the habitat is home to gray squirrels, but he also runs across the occasional fox squirrel. Another good place to hunt gray squirrels at Holly Shelter Game Land is along the run of Trumpeter Swamp located off Trumpeter Road at the southwestern corner of the game land. The cover is thick, but some hardwoods along the swamp run hold gray squirrels. “Bladen Lakes has the better fox squirrel habitat in the more upland areas,” he said. “But I also like to hunt from a small john boat or canoe, and that’s mostly a gray-squirrel hunting opportunity. “The Northeast Cape Fear River offers some good float hunting for squirrels at Holly Shelter. There’s also some good hunting along the Cape Fear River at the Singletary Tract at Bladen Lakes, but it’s harder to get up the Cape Fear riverbank to retrieve a squirrel because it’s so steep and slippery. “When I’m float hunting, I like to have a partner to paddle. We take turns shooting and paddling. I usually hunt with my son, Matt. “We always use shotguns while float hunting because it’s hard to get the crosshairs of a scope on a target as small as a squirrel from a moving canoe. Lots of squirrels act as though a canoe is part of the landscape. Sometimes they just keep feeding or sunning when you approach in a canoe. Some of them will run away, but I think a lot of squirrels get used to seeing fishermen along the rivers.” At Bladen Lakes State Forest, the Cape Fear River hardwood bottoms offer some of the best gray squirrel hunting. But fox squirrels live at the pine ridges where plenty of turkey oaks occur in the understory. Fox squirrels eat longleaf pine nuts, leaving piles of stripped pine cone cores beneath favorite feeding trees. Hunters should watch for this feeding sign if they’d like to bag a fox squirrel. “A fox squirrel is lazier than a gray squirrel,” Franklin said. “He usually won’t come out at first light but waits until it warms up a bit. Then he stays active for a couple of hours before resting until the early afternoon before becoming inactive again. “But you still may run across a fox squirrel at any time of the day, whether he’s resting or feeding. They aren’t as wary as a gray squirrel. Sometimes they just run up a tree and peek around the trunk to take a look at you. “They make the toughest shooting by spotting you when you are too far for a shot and running long distances along the ground before they just disappear.” Ken Shughart, the WRC’s crew leader at Suggs Mill Pond and Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land, said good squirrel hunting exists at these two public-hunting areas. “The Singletary Tract at Bladen Lakes has good squirrel hunting along the Cape Fear River,” he said. “There are at least 11 gated trails off the main entrance that can be stalked and lead all the way to the river.” The N.C. Forest Service conducts a lot of prescribed burning at Bladen Lakes. Many of the burns are set in the oak and hickory forests, yet the low intensity of the fires doesn’t seem to harm the trees while still opening up the understory. The open understory creates excellent opportunities for squirrel hunting. “The main tract of Bladen Lakes has more fox squirrel habitat,” Shughart said. “But there are some good areas off Sweet Home Church Road with hardwood ridges. The area around Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest off Highway 242 is a good place. The woods around the Bladen Lakes Elementary School at Johnsontown road are also good. “Hunters need to be aware of safety zones. The safety-zone boundaries are marked and are shown on the game-lands map.” Bladen Lakes State Forest has 32,400 acres, including the outparcel known as the Singletary Tract located at N.C. 53. Holly Shelter Game Land has 64,743 acres, but it’s probable that less than 10 percent of the total area of the game lands comprises what most hunters would consider good squirrel hunting habitat. Another game land that squirrel hunters may overlook is Suggs Mill Pond, which has 9,200 acres and about the same proportion of good squirrel habitat. “You need a special hunt permit for hunting small game at Suggs Mill Pond,” Shughart said. “All you have to do is go to a license dealer and pay the $5 fee to obtain a permit because there’s no limit on the number of small game hunters. Some hunters are not going to go to the extra trouble and pay $5 just to hunt squirrels. Turnbull Creek runs through Suggs Mill Pond Game Land and it has lots of oak timber. There are also fox squirrels at the upland ridges in some locations.” Todd Cooper, a WRC Wildlife Enforcement officer for District 4, covers the lower part of Bladen County. “We have several groups of hunters who come here with dogs to hunt squirrels,” he said. “The use of dogs for hunting deer and bear is prohibited on the Singletary Tract of Bladen Lakes State Forest, but they are allowed for other game including squirrels. Some of the hunters come from a long distance to hunt with their dogs in the open forests we have at Bladen Lakes.” Hunting squirrels before January with dogs has caused a few complaints from deer still-hunters at the Singletary Tract. But there’s plenty of room for everyone to spread out. Hunters who see a vehicle parked at a locked gate can automatically assume there’s a deer hunter in a portable stand or on the ground somewhere along the trail beyond the gate until Jan. 2 when the deer season ends. After that date, there should be no conflict because there are plenty of woods and squirrels to share. Hunters reading this in late December still have the opportunity to hunt fox squirrels. The season for fox squirrels ends December 31. The bag limit for fox squirrels is one per day, two in possession and 10 per season in eastern counties specified in the WRC Regulations Digest, including Bladen and Pender. The gray squirrel season ends Jan. 31. The bag limit for gray squirrels is eight per day, 16 in possession with a season limit of 75. Under a local law, it’s illegal to possess any firearm in a powerboat while on the Cape Fear River in Bladen County until after deer season ends Jan. 2. At the Singletary Tract, the use of centerfire rifles is prohibited. The public ramps that provide boating access to the Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land along the Cape Fear River are located at Elwell Ferry and Lock and Dam No. 2. Boating accesses to the Northeast Cape Fear River near Holly Shelter Game Land are at Holly Shelter and Sawpit Landing at the end of S.R. 1512.