12/24/10 — OUTDOORS -- Mike Marsh

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OUTDOORS -- Mike Marsh

By Mike Marsh
Published in Sports on December 24, 2010 1:47 PM

While I hunt all species of game animals and birds in North Carolina, I have a special fondness for small game mammals. For me, the biggest trophy in the small game department is the fox squirrel.

A hunt for a fox squirrel can take place in only 23 counties, including Wayne. When I was young, fox squirrels could be hunted statewide until their population declined to the point where they were difficult to find.

To aid fox squirrel recovery, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission closed the season in most counties and then reopened a few over the years. The limit is one per day and 10 per season. The season is shorter than the season for red or gray squirrels, and ends on Dec. 31.

I have taken one to three fox squirrels each year for many seasons, hunting them primarily because they live in such gorgeous places. They inhabit longleaf pine-turkey oak forests, but also are found where there are old-growth hardwoods separated by open spaces, such as farm fields.

Gray squirrels out-compete fox squirrels in thick forests.

Last week, I drove to Bladen Lakes State Forest Game Land to hunt fox squirrels. While it has a mixture of forest types, the sandier upland soils are planted with longleaf pines. Prescribed burning conducted on a periodic basis helps keep the forest floor open. The soil also grows turkey oaks and live oaks, which survive fire in the understory and create a perfect fox squirrel habitat.

I had gotten a late start, but dismissed a mid-morning arrival at Bladen Lakes as nothing more than an inconvenience because fox squirrels are fairly laid back compared to gray squirrels. Fox squirrels are more active at mid-morning and mid-afternoon, while gray squirrels are more active in early morning and late afternoon.

Times they are active varies with weather and the game movement times coinciding with the Solunar tables, so the best time to go fox squirrel hunting is really whenever you get a chance to be in the woods.

Sgt. Andy Waldrop, an enforcement officer with the NCWRC, pulled up behind me as I was reading a map. I had previously found a place with several fox squirrel nests that are occupied season after season. But to get to them required parking along the highway then walking a half-mile.

Once we exchanged pleasantries, Andy looked at the map and pointed out trails that could be driven, which would get me much closer to my destination. We spoke for an hour or more about hunting and enforcement work, and Andy also checked the licenses of some other sportsmen who drove by.

I explained that I had not taken one of the rare color phase fox squirrels, which aside from the white nose, ears and feet has a coal-black body in many years.

"I'm surprised," he said. "I've seen lots of black fox squirrels at Bladen Lakes."

In the past, I typically shot the first fox squirrel that offered an opportunity. However, today I was determined to hold out for a black phase fox squirrel because I wanted one to mount. The black phase fox squirrel is strikingly beautiful and only occurs in a small portion of its range. It is a classic coloration in longleaf forests, likely evolving for camouflage against fire-charred pine bark.

Thanks to Andy's directions, I drove within 100 yards of my destination on a trail I had not used in the past. I set up a folding stool where I could see four large leaf nests and leaned against the scaly bark of a longleaf pine. I hadn't been there five minutes when I saw a dark shadow creeping out along a limb from one of the nests.

The crosshairs of a 3x9x32 Bushnell scope aligned just behind the squirrel's shoulder and the 20-grain Winchester Game Bullet fired from my Savage .17HMR rifle tumbled her from the tree.

I phoned Andy to tell him he must have brought me some good luck.

My black phase fox squirrel will be mounted as a Christmas gift to myself.