It was a glorious fall morning, with the sunrise having long since burned away the frost. I’d agreed to meet a friend to hunt one of the South’s most unique game animals, but unlike our days of early rising for hunting most other game such as waterfowl or white-tailed deer, this hunt was going to begin after the sun was already casting shadows in the woods.
“I’ve already found a couple over-sized nests,” said Basil Watts. “Their occupants should be stirring soon.”
Watts was referring to the nests of tree squirrels. And while most hunters in North Carolina are familiar with the nest-building habits of the gray squirrels that live statewide, he’d discovered the outsized nests of fox squirrels, the largest tree squirrels in the nation.
Also known as cat squirrels, the fox squirrel is the small game trophy animal of Southern hunters. In the Carolinas, hunting fox squirrels takes on the air of a hunt for trophy whitetails or any other game animal of high enough esteem to grace a den after returning from a taxidermist.
The challenge of out-crafting Southern fox squirrels lies in the fact that they live in isolated habitats. On many public lands in the South, shooting fox squirrels is prohibited because of their rarity. In North Carolina, the bag limit is one per day, and the season is shorter than it is for other squirrels. And that’s because fox squirrels need lots of space because of their narrow habitat needs. They occupy larger ranges in more northern or Western states, but in the Carolinas where Watts and I hunt, the hardest thing about hunting fox squirrels is finding a place where their populations are high enough to ensure some hope of success.
We were hunting one of several North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) Game Lands in the southeastern part of the state. The WRC manages hunting opportunities on hundreds of thousands of acres of prime fox squirrel habitat in the state’s coastal plain. Farms and urbanization have destroyed much of the historic fox squirrel habitat outside public game lands and national forests across the South.
One management goal of coastal plains forests in the South is ensuring the survival of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which is rare due to shrinking habitat. I mention this fact because although the woodpecker’s habitat needs aren’t a perfect match for those of the fox squirrel in this region, they’re close enough that their ranges overlap. Longleaf pine forests manipulated by prescribed burns are key to finding fox squirrels in the Southeast. The longleaf is fire resistant and thrives with frequent fire in the under story. Burns that are timed so closely together to aid woodpeckers often destroy scrub oaks such as the turkey oaks that fox squirrels need. But fox squirrels will still be found on the fringes of even heavily burned longleaf stands, especially where the sandy soils of longleaf pine forests border pocosins, swamps and Carolina bays.
In the Carolinas, fox squirrels feed largely on longleaf cones, but they also eat scrub oak acorns and the acorns of larger oaks in the drainages such laurel, willow, southern red and water oak. In other parts of their range, they inhabit only open woodlots of mature hardwoods. Fox squirrel ranges can overlap the ranges of smaller gray squirrels, which usually prefer the secrecy of the denser lowland forests above open pine forests.
Heavy feeding on longleaf cones leaves mounds of cones at the base of preferred feeding trees of fox squirrels, while gray squirrels seem to eat cones and drop the stubs and cuttings wherever they finish eating. Fox squirrels also make larger nests than gray squirrels. If you find a huge leaf nest in a longleaf pine out in the open or in a small stand of hardwoods within a longleaf plantation, you’ve found a likely place to shoot a fox squirrel.
Basil and I trudged into the forest with our .410 shotguns, treading on a thick carpet of pine needles for silence. As we approached a small Carolina bay perhaps an acre in size, water could be seen shining through the thick under story vegetation, and Spanish moss draped the cypresses and water oaks overhead. The low, wet topography had kept this island of fox squirrel habitat untouched by prescribed burns. A couple of large nests, several tree cavities with their edges gnawed by squirrels and a daybed, which is a sunning nest without a top often built by fox squirrels, extended at various heights above the water. Gnawed pinecone needles could be seen everywhere among the pines surrounding the damp spot.
Watts positioned himself on one side of the small bay while I walked to the other. I made a series of whistles with a Mr. Squirrel call and saw a slight movement in one of the trees. Watts’ double-barreled .410 barked and a beautiful fox squirrel tumbled from a limb within 10 feet of one of the nests. I continued to call like a squirrel being attacked by a hawk, watching the surrounding pines for signs of movement and listening for alarm barks of an agitated fox squirrel. But there were no other squirrels giving away their positions.
Watts’ trophy was a little wet from falling into the water, but you could still see its characteristic gray body, black head and white nose, ears and feet of the typical Southern color phase fox squirrel, although we’ve taken fox squirrels in the same are that were silver, black or gray with white noses, ears and feet. Albino fox squirrels also exist in the Carolinas, adding to the fascinating reasons for hunting them. Few mammals exhibit the different colorations found in Southern phase fox squirrels, making many individuals taken by small game hunters one-of-a-kind trophies.
Tricking A Fox (Squirrel)
Fox squirrels have exceptional eyesight and hearing and are capable of spotting or hearing hunters’ movements from long distances. “This one probably watched me as I came here to scout this spot while I waited for you to show up,” Watts said. “It had to have watched us approaching the second time, but a fox squirrel would rather hide than run into a hole or nest.”
The most important thing we did was head into the woods later in the morning, compared to the usual schedule for hunting gray squirrels. While gray squirrel hunters rise before dawn, hitting the woods just before daylight and again right before dusk for the best chances of success, fox squirrel hunters can afford to be lazier in their hunting.
“A fox squirrel is like a fat old man,” Watts said. “It doesn’t want to get up too early and it doesn’t like to stay out too late.”
After hunting white-tailed deer in Southern fox squirrel habitat for decades, I had to agree with Watts’ assessment. I had one deer stand overlooking a powerline that stretched for miles through outstanding fox squirrel habitat, and I used binoculars to watch fox squirrels climbing the wooden power poles to gain access to the wooden cross bars, which made ideal perches for sunning. The fox squirrels normally sunned from approximately 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and fed in the surrounding forest for a few minutes before and after those times. The rest of the time they were in their nests or inside hollow trees or otherwise taking it easy with minimal movement.
It was a challenge to take them by stalking or by waiting near their preferred sunning poles. If they spotted my approach while sunning on the poles, however, they would either stay on the crossbars, playing ring-around-the-rosy and hiding from view where it would be unethical to take any shot near a live wire, or if I was out of range, they’d run down the poles and beat a hasty retreat for the safety of the forest. Once they hit the ground, there’s no way a man can outrun a fox squirrel.
A gray squirrel runs through the trees, but a fox squirrel likes to run down trees and escape along the ground. Because of this habit, hunting them can be similar to jump-shooting rabbits. Therefore, a shotgun is the best firearm to hunt with while walking through the woods watching for fox squirrels. And No. 5 or No. 6 lead shot will do the job nicely for adding a warm, heavy sensation to the game bag.
Many hunters, however, prefer using rimfire rifles when sitting and waiting for fox squirrels to show near sunning or feeding areas. Shots in the longleaf stands preferred by these big squirrels can by at the extreme end of shotgun range and this is another reason why many fox squirrel hunters prefer using rifles.
Often, the only way a hunter will know a fox squirrel is nearby is after he hears the scratching sounds of the squirrel’s toenails and sees bits of bark falling from a pine as a fox squirrel inches up and around the trunk to hide. But they aren’t as wary as gray squirrels, however, and they usually poke their heads around the tree to watch the area if they believe they haven’t been seen or if they think they’re high enough to be out of danger. The same curiosity that makes them scold predators also makes them keep their eyes on predators, and this trait is another flaw a hunter can use to his advantage.
A hiding fox squirrel is often betrayed by its tail. In fact, the tail was the first thing Watts saw when his squirrel moved in response to my calling. The fox squirrel’s plume-like tail waves in the slightest breeze or at the slightest movement and becomes quite animated if the squirrel begins scolding the source of its irritation.
Hunters with squirrel dogs can have a fine time with fox squirrels because of their tendency to run along the ground and stay put when achieving the relative safety of a tall tree. But for hunters who don’t have dogs, using squirrel calls is an excellent option to make a treed squirrel show itself.
The bark of a fox squirrel is much deeper than that of a gray squirrel 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. Haydel’s Mr. Squirrel Call (Model SW-92) is a whistle and works by imitating the sounds of a young squirrel in distress.
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 work only a small fraction of the time, but they’re one more thing to try when you can’t seem to find these critters. Anything a hunter can do to sharpen his craft can help him out-smart the Southern fox squirrel.