When white seagulls course over the Kroger parking lot, you know that it's January and that it is cold.
The deep cold ruined the holiday period for upland hunting and by freezing even the open riffles of the creek and icing-in all the ponds and small lakes, it also spoiled waterfowling for the way I do it. So when a sudden warmup gifted us with three "balmy" days this week, I was eager to make the best of them.
But what did that Scottish Burns fellow - the poet - say about best laid plans? We had a big squirrel hunt in store for Tuesday, but Lady, the franchise dog, went to the vet instead of to the woods because of tick paralysis.
A tick in January? Global warming, Al Gore and his groupies might say. For a few seasons in the later 80's and into the 90's I found tiny ticks on he muzzles and under the chins of my dogs in January, often so many I would scrape them off with my figernnail like one would scratch away dandruff flakes. That stopped happening and my dogs had no adverse effects, yet one brown dog tick in an ear stopped Lady's legs from working and put her on the disabled list for the rest of January. The good news is that she'll be fine.
So Doug King and I took Dolly, the understudy dog, to the rough bluffs along Big Cabin Creek in the hopes that she would tree on her own, which she had never done, or that we would be able to find squirrels ourselves.
This is tough to do in winter and the scheme worked in finding only one fox squirrel, thanks to King's binoculars. But I was able to thread a slug through vines and twigs and bring it out for Dolly to gain the pleasure and experience benefit of having fur in her mouth.
At the end of our circular route Dolly went down a narrow wooded drain and made her first ever solo tree job on a young gray squirrel, so a rather low output hunt concluded with a significant milestone.
Wednesday was a gorgeous day, but I spent my outdoor part of it watching hundreds of geese over river bottoms and along the river - all beyond range of the new shotgun I would really like to blood on a honker, but which I am yet to fire in action.
I suppose I'm going to have to get some decoys before next season and try to hunt on my own, as I can't seem to interest anyone in an invitation to land I can access, but I am at the point where next seasons are becoming sketchy prospects.
Fortunately, my usual gang of guys and dogs are not my only resources in the squirrel hunting milieu. Before the weather turned nasty last month I had two hunts on Chalk Ridge with David Sapp and Zane Pope and their Mountain Curs Bob and Buddy. Sapp could not go on Thursday but Pope eagerly accepted my invitation to hunt a place in Fleming County without fence obstacles (fences are enemies even when you can legally cross to the other side) and without concern of dogs straying onto posted property.
It is a place of vast stretches of timber and steep Appalachian foothills where the gray squirrels are challenging for dogs to tree. A large tract of private land bordering the Fleming WMA creates a forest metropolis for squirrels that can intimidate small woods hunters such as we who are accustomed to Cabin Creek and the North Fork country from Tollesboro to May's Lick. It intimidates dogs also when they switch from the urbane fox squirrels of small woodlots and wooded hollers to forest infrastructure that stretches on and on seemingly without end.
Thursday was mostly overcast with intermittent periods of light rain that were not heavy enough to wet us until we were at the truck at hunt's end. A short time after we loosed Bob and Buddy, they were treed. They took us more than halfway up one of the steep bluffs after a squirrel that had sheltered in a high knothole, which happens often when squirrel hunting with dogs and even more frequently in that particular place. Such unproductive treeings when they are in physically demanding terrain, are serious chillers of enthusiasm, whether you are 70 or 21.
I wanted to hunt left of where we started and pass through the level area at the foot of the bluffs where a small ditch-like stream meanders. That route leads to a couple of abandoned home sites and to a nice woods road that goes deep into the hills and terminates at an old tobacco barn on the WMA.
But it is often the dogs and where they encounter game scent that dictate the route. As it worked out, we made that leftward shift a bit high, missing the road and ending up at the head of a small draw at the edge of open land in low brushy trees. Squirrels feel ill at ease in small trees and are more likely to jump and run off on the ground or "timber out" as is the term for leaving through the trees and not obliging by staying in place and trying to hide from the barking dogs and their human accomplices. This seemed to be the case because we could not locate the bushytail that was driving the dogs into frenzy, the particular focus of which was a small tulip poplar tree.
We had given up on this treeing when I stepped around the poplar and spied the gray, which had apparently been doing a masterful job at side-slipping to stay out of sight. I sniped it and saved us from the skunk. It greatly pleased my companion that the dogs had treed successfully.
We collected two more bushytails when the dogs treed along the little stream farther down it than I had even been before where the woods narrowed along a little grassy meadow. The dogs' focus was a gargantuan gnarly red oak, complete with at least one knothole, but such a monster tree seems to make squirrels feel secure enough not to avail themselves of knothole safety sometimes. Nearby in the thicket, Buddy stuck his nose in a smooth hole about waist high in a walnut and immediately began frantic barking. Obviously a squirrel had gone in that hole.
But I had a good feeling about the huge oak. The rut is on, and squirrels seem to like such large red oaks as sites for their amorous cavortings. We often find two or more males and a single female bunched up in such trees.
We check them out even if the dogs do not "hit" on them. The dogs had hit on this one, so I gave it a good once over and spotted a gray well up the trunk with some twigs and a vine giving it some cover. I got a round through the interference. The squirrel I felled was a sow. A bit afterward I spotted another gray on the side of one of the main trunks. Pope was still over in the area near Buddy and the walnut den where he had a good look at it and plenty of trees to rest his Ruger .22 for a clean head shot on the large boar gray.
"That's probably another boar that went in the knothole," I said.
That was our last shot of the day. We found the road and went as far as the old barn, which I photographed to post on a Facebook site for such things, and where Buddy went spastic on the entwined walnut and hackberry at its rear corner. We did not find the squirrel, which probably left the tree and hid in the rafters of the barn.
Squirrels love barns when they are in or near woods. One of the charming extras of the hunt is finding old home sites or barns and wondering about the people who have lived and worked in them.
The country and the hunt impressed my new young friend. "There is sure plenty of hunting here. Thanks for bringing me here. I've had fun," was his evaluation.
We had made the best of the little reprieve from outdoor-unfriendly weather.