A small dog sniffed his way through the forest, stopping here and there to cast his eyes skyward with his front paws against the trunk of a tree or to nose-nudge a longleaf pine cone. Colored similarly to a Doberman pincher, the dog was easy to see against the scaly-gray pine trunks and autumn-orange turkey oak leaves.
“Poncho smells a squirrel,” said Bruce Trujillo, 62, a semi-retired machinist and charter boat caption. “I hope it’s a fox squirrel.”
Poncho is a Parnell’s Carolina Cur. When Trujillo reduced his workload last year, like many outdoorsmen, he had the urge to return to doing what he enjoyed in his youth.
“My friend had a feist dog when I was a kid in Haywood County,” he said. “We hunted every day of the season, after school and on Saturdays.”
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Trujillo had been working Poncho almost daily in hardwood forests near his home in Castle Hayne, encouraging him to bark up the tree. He would leash Poncho to the tree and walk in wide circles around it to teach him to remain at the tree until it was time to move on. Now 18 months old, the dog had developed the sharp nose, keen eyes and sensitive ears necessary to be a squirrel hunter. His master also benefited from the training.
“I’ve lost 25 pounds,” Trujillo said. “The walking is as good for me as it is for Poncho.”
Poncho had treed many gray squirrels. If it was not hunting season, they were safe. Sometimes during hunting season, the arboreal rodents hid in hollow trees. Other times, the squirrels were treed where Trujillo could see them and he took them with a 20-gauge Browning over-under loaded with No. 6 shot or with a Ruger 10-22 semi-automatic .22 rimfire rifle with a 4x scope.
“I use solids instead of hollow points in the .22,” he said. “It doesn’t mess up as much meat and I love eating squirrels.”
Poncho was now ready to hunt trophy small game. The longleaf pine and scrub oak ecosystem of the coastal plain are home to fox squirrels, which grow twice the size of gray squirrels. For $5, Trujillo had purchased an over-the-counter small game permit to hunt at Suggs Mill Pond Game Land in Bladen County. The game land’s managers perform prescribed burning, which enhances habitat for fox squirrels because they prefer foraging on open ground to leaping from tree to tree.
Trujillo kept up with Poncho in an intermittent rain. The dog treed once, but no squirrel was aloft. The wetness and wind made trailing a squirrel difficult.
“He must have moved on,” Trujillo said. “Let’s try to find another one.”
Poncho began barking up a longleaf pine. Despite walking all around it, Trujillo could not see a squirrel. He was getting ready to leave when he saw a pine cone that looked too large and was not bobbing much in the wind. Looking through his rifle scope, he spotted a fox squirrel.
“Wrapped around that pine cone, he was perfectly camouflaged,” he said. “I’m glad I looked one more time.”
After the shot, Poncho grabbed the squirrel – it took some coaxing to make him release it.
“What a beautiful fox squirrel,” Trujillo said. “This is completely different from hunting gray squirrels. Poncho is used to treeing a lot more than one squirrel during a four-hour hunt.”
On the way out, Trujillo stopped at the Suggs Mill Pond depot and spoke with James Smith, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Technician II. It turned out that Smith also hunts fox squirrels.
“I hunt them when it turns cold,” he said. “It seems to me that fox squirrels move more in December. I have a Jack Russell terrier named Suzie. Sometimes, if I’m going out for gray squirrels she trees a fox squirrel. But, gray squirrels are in the creek and river bottoms in the hardwoods and fox squirrels are more likely to be on the pine ridges. They are usually in longleaf stands, but sometimes I find them in loblollies.”
Smith also said Bladen Lakes and White Hall Plantation have fox squirrels. To hunt White Hall Plantation, an over-the-counter small game permit is required. Bladen Lakes is open without a special permit on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. While gray squirrel season continues through Feb. 28, fox squirrel season ends Dec. 31. The bag limit for gray squirrels is eight, but hunters may take only one fox squirrel per day and only in certain counties.