Some of the best hunting comes at the tail end of squirrel season.
Bare branches make tree-hopping squirrels easier to see on frosty February mornings in the woods. Arkansas’ squirrel season opened May 15 and closes today. Hunting pals Gary Wellesley of Jane, Mo. and Chris Denham of the Garfield area picked Feb. 17 to squeeze in one last squirrel hunt.
Bright sun popped above a ridge an hour after dawn, but didn’t do much to warm the 28-degree morning. Each hunter carried a .22-caliber rifle while strolling across a spacious hay field with hardwood forest on each side.
Nary a squirrel showed itself, but the men were confident they’d bag the main ingredient for a tasty meal of fried squirrel and gravy. That’s because Spec the Wonder Dog was leading this hunt. That’s what Wellesley, Spec’s owner, affectionately calls his tail-wagging buddy.
Spec, a 2-year-old male, has a nose for sniffing out a squirrel’s whereabouts and alerting his hunting humans. If the squirrel is up a tree, Spec launches into a barking frenzy, jumping up and down and pawing the tree like he’s trying to climb it.
Spec is of the feist breed, which are small hunting dogs that resemble Jack Russell terriers. Spec, to be exact, is part mountain feist and part Mullins feist, Wellesley explained. Their ability to track down squirrels is instinctive to these small bundles of canine enthusiasm.
It wasn’t long into the chilly morning that Spec was hot on the trail of the day’s first squirrel. Spec leaped and leaped next to a tall oak, yapping like there was no tomorrow at the squirrel high up in the branches.
The long, accurate shot that Denham took was testimony to his keen marksmanship, and the first squirrel in the bag was a fine tracking demonstration by Spec the Wonder Dog.
“Let’s go get another,” Wellesley said, patting his four-legged buddy on the head and offering him a dog biscuit. But Spec wasn’t interested, as if to say, “Later. Right now we’re hunting.”
Winter is the favorite squirrel hunting time for Wellesley and Denham, even though the season is open during spring and summer. Trees with leaves make it harder to see squirrels, even when dogs like Spec point them out.
Thick woods generally mean more gray squirrels, Wellesley said, while red squirrels prefer more open forests.
“You go to a golf course and what do you see? Red squirrels,” Wellesley coached. Both make fine table fare, but red squirrels are larger and have more meat, he added.
Some hunters prefer shotguns for squirrel hunting, but a .22-caliber rifle is ideal, especially in winter when squirrels are easiest to see. Each hunter’s rifle was equipped with a scope.
A novice isn’t going to walk out of a sporting goods store with a new rifle and be crack shots like Wellesley and Denham who have been hunting most of their lives.
“A .22 is good — for people who can shoot one,” Wellesley noted. That, he said, takes practice.
Not only are the two men best hunting pals, both are active in Rogers Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3031. Denham is an officer with the post. Wellesley retired not long ago as Arkansas state VFW commander.
“I’m 75, just entering my second childhood,” he laughed.
The hunter worked his way up a wooded ridge alongside Denham. Now and then their rifles popped. Spec got another rub on the head.
“Let’s go find another,” Wellesley whispered with a smile.