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October 2010 cover image On the Scent

Squirrel Dogs Aren’t Glamorous, But They Can Sure Find Small Game

Curs, feists and terriers aren’t glamorous, but they can sure find squirrels.

By Henry Chappell

Mid-September in a North Texas creek bottom. Mature post oak, blackjack oak, bur oak, pecan, sycamore. Perfect fox squirrel habitat. Spider webs glisten in the rising sun.

I’m easing along, unburdened by shotgun and shell vest.

Somewhere ahead, Cate, my 17-month-old mountain cur, isn’t taking it easy. I haven’t seen her for several minutes, but every now and again I hear her panting while a flock of crows makes sure every wild thing in the woods knows there’s a man and dog in the neighborhood.

Squirrel season won’t open for another two weeks, and we’re training. Cate knows something of guns and game, having spent much of her puppyhood following experienced dogs through the woods. Through summer, after much gleeful, unfocused snorting about during May squirrel season, she treed scores of yard and park squirrels, a few opossums and a garbage-can-raiding raccoon.

But a half-tame squirrel won’t flatten out on a branch 50 feet up in an oak, or run 60 yards along fallen logs, over stumps and jumbled deadfalls, then up into the canopy to leap and scurry to a nest or hollow den tree.

So we’re in the woods, without the help of mature dogs, to see how much Cate has absorbed.

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The first clue comes in the form of a yelp up a gentle rise to my right. Cate has struck, probably ground scent. Minutes pass. I hear nothing but bird song. Then a long, low bawl farther up the rise, followed by a clear, rapid, chopping bark. She’s looking up; she’s treed a squirrel.

I hurry toward her, praising and reassuring her as I would a bird dog on point. The hill steepens. Sweat drips from the brim of my cap. She sounds only a few yards away, but I can’t find her in the dense foliage. Finally, I spot her flopping ears as she leaps up on the trunk of a post oak.

I don’t see a squirrel, but then I rarely do at first glance. So I back away from the tree, and study it. Up and down the trunk, along each branch, each junction. I move around the tree in widening circles, stopping often. Cate is hysterical — panting, slobbering, barking when she can gather a breath. After about 10 minutes, I glimpse movement along a branch near the top of the tree, then rusty tail bristles in a shaft of sunlight. If squirrel season were open, this one would go in the skillet.

A few years ago, I nearly gave up hunting. For the first time in my life, I could imagine spending October through February backpacking, birding and fishing instead of, not in addition to, following bird dogs.

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I have little interest in hunting without dogs. For me, trophy racks simply can’t compare to competent dog work. Turkey? I’ll never get around to practicing yelps and clucks because I’m too busy blowing the pea out of my dog whistle.

Problem is, my most recent bird dogs have come nowhere near their potential because good quail hunting has been so scarce over the past dozen years. Sure, there have been a few “up” seasons, but, for the most part, weather patterns and mysterious factors that continue to vex biologists have conspired against the kind of hunting that made Texas’ rangelands famous among serious bobwhite hunters. A weekend hunter can’t make a sure-enough bird dog with only a skittish covey or two in a long day’s hunting. Currently, reports from quail country are heartening. Maybe Maggie, my middle-aged German shorthaired pointer, will have a good season or two before retirement. I’m hopeful, but not optimistic.

In the fall of 2003, while researching an article for this magazine, I fell in with Donny Lynch, an East Texas backwoodsman and old-school dog man. Lynch grew up running coon and squirrel dogs in the Sabine River bottom in Shelby County. For the past 30 years he’s hunted the big woods near his home in Marshall.

Chance, a rat terrier, Minnie, a feist, and Molly, a mountain cur, greeted me when I pulled into Lynch’s camp early on an October afternoon. I assumed we’d begin our hunt a few hours later, when squirrels would be more active. Instead, we hit the woods in the middle of a 70-degree day. The dogs treed a squirrel about two minutes from the truck, and except for brief intervals during which they snorted up fresh scent, they pretty much stayed treed.

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I got to thinking.

And I continued thinking over the next four frustrating years while Maggie struggled because I couldn’t get her into wild birds.

Then one afternoon in June 2007, Lynch called and said, “I found you a cur dog.”

Perhaps he caught me at a weak moment. Maybe he sensed a crack in my resolve. In any case, less than 24 hours later, we stood in a backyard in Minden, La., ankle deep in a litter of 5-week-old mountain cur puppies.

The sire’s owner pointed to a scrappy yellow female and said, “I’d pick that one. She’s rough as a cob.”

I did. She is.

Squirrel dogs aren’t fashionable. You won’t find them accompanying nattily clad models in high-end sporting catalogs. Instead, you’ll find them featured in folksy publications written by folks who wear overalls, gimme caps and knee-high rubber boots.

Although it’s a rare country boy who doesn’t fondly recall a nondescript farm dog that treed squirrels with amazing accuracy, modern squirrel dogs typically fit into three categories: curs, feists or terriers.

Contrary to popular use, “cur” isn’t a pejorative reserved for dogs of questionable heritage. According to legend, the name derives from the medieval practice of docking a dog’s tail, or “curtailing.” During the Middle Ages, only aristocracy could own hounds. Peasants relied on versatile, workaday mutts bred to herd livestock, guard the family hovel and hunt whatever game could be poached from feudal masters. Since they paid a dog tax based on the length of the dog from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, peasants cut costs by cutting tails.

Naturally, settlers from Western Europe brought their curs to North America. Through selective breeding, curs became more tree-oriented as meat- and hide-minded frontiersmen discovered the utility of dogs interested in climbing game. Over time, regional types arose to meet the challenges of widely varied terrain and quarry.

Today in Texas, the most common and readily available cur types are the mountain cur, the yellow blackmouth cur and the treeing cur. Although the legendary Catahoula is often referred to as the Catahoula cur, the breed excels at hog hunting and rough-and-tumble stock herding more than treeing.

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Mountain curs developed along the southern Appalachian frontier, particularly in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where they tracked and treed squirrels, opossums, bears, raccoons and anything else that could be eaten or profitably skinned.

The type nearly disappeared after World War II as mountaineers left the subsistence life for factory jobs in northern cities. Fortunately, a few mountain curs survived in the remotest parts of the mountain South until the 1950s, when devotees formed the Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association to preserve and strengthen the breed.

The modern mountain cur runs 35 to 45 pounds. Well-bred pups train easily and possess keen prey drive and treeing instinct. Although they’re quite fierce toward game, mountain curs tend to be friendly and affectionate toward people.

When an old-timer in the Big Thicket referred to a “cur dog,” he meant yellow blackmouth cur. While the lithe, quick mountain cur fits steep Appalachian slopes (and the timbered hills of the Red River area in far North Texas), the burly yellow blackmouth is perfectly adapted to the sloughs and thickets of deep East Texas.

Yellow blackmouth curs typically weigh 40 to 55 pounds. Although bloodlines developed primarily for hog hunting and stock work may be light on treeing instinct, other lines excel at squirrel and raccoon hunting.

Hunters often interbreed curs of different types or cross curs with hounds. With proper documentation and proof of working ability, these hybrid curs can be registered with the National Kennel Club and United Kennel Club as “treeing curs.”

Native Southerners, especially those with rural roots, call any small dog that trees squirrels a “feist,” “fice” or “fice-dog.”

Nowadays, breeders are developing feists of more uniform appearance and performance. A few minutes spent with a good feist will give new meaning to the word “feisty.”

Feists are terrier-like in appearance and temperament and working-class in origin. Their lineage goes back to terrier breeds developed in Great Britain for the purpose of hunting small vermin. Poor immigrants brought their terriers with them to North America and, during the late 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, bred the versatile little dogs for increased hunting and scenting ability by crossing them with curs, beagles and other scent hounds.

Today, common breeds include the DenMark feist, the Mullins feist, Thornburg feist and the catch-all treeing feist. Consistent with their terrier background, feists are fearless and incredibly alert, but also companionable and easy to train.

Rat terriers are increasingly popular with Pineywoods squirrel hunters. Jack Russell terriers are just catching on, and the breed’s recent success in sanctioned hunting competitions should boost its popularity.

Which type should you choose? Honestly, it makes absolutely no difference.

OK, if you prefer small dogs, choose a feist or terrier.

In any case, concentrate on proven working ability. Get to know experienced squirrel hunters. Attend a few organized hunting competitions. If possible, watch the sire and dam work before buying a pup.

You’ll have no trouble exposing a squirrel dog to game. Every neighborhood and park in the eastern third of the state is full of semi-tame squirrels. A treed park squirrel sitting in plain sight will whip a promising 4-month-old pup into a bawling, bug-eyed, frothing fit. Do consider your neighbors and respect local leash laws, however.

Take your pup on short walks in the woods as soon as he’s finished a full course of vaccinations.

Good prospects start treeing animals at 8 months to a year old. Praise a young dog when he trees an animal, especially when you’re sure game is there. He’ll get more confident and accurate with experience.

Most squirrel dogs love to retrieve. Start your pup fetching as you would any gun dog, with lots of tossed toys, tennis balls or small dummies. Keep it simple. Don’t expect the precision and immaculate deliveries you’d demand of a retriever.

Keep obedience training simple as well. The dog must come when called and load on command. For convenience and safety, most hunters teach “sit-stay” and “heel” as well. “The way to train a hunting dog is to take it hunting,” Donny Lynch says. That’s easy to do with a squirrel dog because every woodlot east of Interstate 35 holds squirrels, and some of the best hunting can be found in East Texas’ national forests and wildlife management areas.

It took a few years, but I’ve realized that I simply want to hunt with dogs, regardless of breed or quarry. For simplicity and access to good hunting, you can’t beat squirrel dogs.

For more information on squirrel dogs, check out these books and websites:
•   Squirrel Dog Basics by David Osborn: personal.negia.net/treetop/
•   Full Cry magazine: www.thefullcry.com
•   Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association: www.omcba.com
•   Squirrel Dog Central: www.sqdog.com
•   United Kennel Club: www.ukcdogs.com
•   National Kennel Club:www.nationalkennelclub.com

 

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