Squirrels southern style: hunting bushytails with a Parnell's Carolina Cur.
With Poncho otherwise occupied, I ran after the squirrel, trying put it up a tree before it could escape into a Carolina bay, otherwise known by its Native American word, "pocosin," meaning "swamp on a hill." These jungles of bay trees and shrubs, pond pines and briar-studded vines present hunters and dogs with some of the thickest vegetation on Earth.
A small black blur rocketed past. Moments later, Poncho was barking "treed." The culmination of a three-year hunt for a certain southern fox squirrel was about to be realized. When I eventually reached the pond pine Poncho was leaping against, I saw sunlight shining through its tail as though through a cloud.
Poncho is the nickname of Bruce's Bandit, a Parnell's Carolina Cur, a breed recognized by the National Kennel Club and U.S. Dog Registry. Trujillo is a part-time charter captain and semi-retired machinist. He lives on the N.C. coast near Wilmington, but grew up at the other end of the state in the mountains near Waynesville.
"When I semi-retired, I had time to train a dog again," he said. "When I was young, I had pointing bird dogs, bur there are not enough quail and grouse anymore to train them well.
"I gave my father a Ruger 10/22 rifle 20 years ago and wound up inheriting it. A friend in Haywood County had one of Parnell's dogs and liked it so much he convinced me to investigate them. I had talked to people who had Mountain Curs. They were big-running dogs and I did not want a big running dog."
Trujillo went straight to the source and called James Parnell, the breed's originator, in Hartsville, S.C. When Parnell could provide a male puppy in time to train for hunting season, Trujillo called Haney Hancock in Camden, S.C, who raises Stephens' Stock Mountain Curs and Parnell's Carolina Curs.
"I've been squirrel hunting since I was 15 and I am now 57," Hancock said. "My first dog was a feist. I also trained bird dogs until I got a Carolina Cur about 14 years ago. I like Stephens' Curs, but they are better for 'coons. I hunt Carolina Curs for squirrels.
"Carolina Curs start fast and clean up good in the end," Hancock continued. "Some dogs will start quick and fizzle out. Carolina Curs keep going and, when you think they've done all they can, they do something else that blows your mind."
Now age 70, James Parnell said his Carolina Cur was the progeny of accidental breeding 20 years ago.
"If I had these dogs when I was a young man, I would have been the toughest thing that ever walked in the squirrel world," Parnell said. "Treeing is bred into them. They start early and only a very few don't turn out. They also make good pets."
Parnell had raised Stephens' Stock Mountain Curs for years and still raises a few. The first Parnell's Carolina Cur was sired by a tiny feist named Pee Wee and a Stephens' Stock Mountain Cur named Kate.
"I gave them to my friends because I was raising the two other breeds," he said. "A few years later, I found out they were better dogs then feists or Stephens' dogs. Eventually, the National Kennel Club and the United States Dog Registry asked me to register the breed because they were winning so many trials."
Parnell hosts annual squirrel dog trials at Alcolu, S.C., open to all breeds and gives awards to the top ten Carolina Curs. A few other breeders in the Carolinas raise them.
"I raise 100 puppies or more every year and guarantee they will run and tree before they are a year old," Parnell said. "Maybe 10 have come back over the years and of those, we turned out about five, so I may have had five that did not turn out."
Trujillo bought Poncho three seasons ago. We had known each other for many years. We lived in Wilmington and fished together until he spent a few years in the Blue Ridge Mountains with his aging mother. Then, out of the blue he called because he knew I was a dedicated squirrel hunter.
It takes some doing to find good squirrel woods on the coast, but I took him to my best hunting spots. The first thing Poncho did was chase a marsh rabbit. During that first year, he also chased deer. While Trujillo was breaking him from chasing anything but squirrels, Poncho treed 40 gray squirrels and one fox squirrel for the gun.
We found the fox squirrel in one of my special places. It was a standard gray phase southern fox squirrel, with a black head and white nose, ears and feet. Trujillo was walking away from the tree after 20 minutes of fruitlessly looking aloft when I gave him my binocular and told him to look at the end of a limb, rather than against the trunk of the longleaf pine where a gray squirrel would likely have been hiding.
"I see him." he said. "He looks just like a longleaf cone!"
The following season, Poncho treed 95 squirrels for the gun, including three fox squirrels. I also let Trujillo in on my secret when we hunted that special place a few more times. Last season, Poncho treed 83 squirrels for the gun, including four fox squirrels, one of which was quite memorable.
A wildlife technician had told me about a white fox squirrel he had seen and I hunted it during those three seasons. The first season was mostly a still hunting affair, except for the day Poncho treed his first fox squirrel. Back then, I had not told Trujillo about the white one. Over the next two seasons, I swore him to secrecy and we kept trying.
Last season, a technician told me where he saw the white fox squirrel the day before. I called Trujillo and we headed to the game land again. As we hunted, we came upon two other hunters, Shelton Buck and Sam Todd from Lexington, N.C. They recognized me immediately and told me they were there because they had never taken a fox squirrel and wanted one to mount. I had written several articles about fox squirrel hunting that named different places and they had picked this particular game land.
Since they had driven several hours from home to try their luck, we agreed to show them how to hunt fox squirrels. If Poncho treed any of them except for a certain color phase, they could take it. We did not tell them it was white. Nearing the end of a four-mile circular walk without treeing a squirrel, Todd suddenly stopped and stared.
"What is that?" he asked.
It was as though he had seen a ghost. I gave chase. Poncho gave chase. While Poncho barked at the tree, Trujillo caught up. The dog followed the squirrel as it ran, treetop to treetop. When it finally stopped, I centered the scope crosshairs of a Remington 541-T .22 rifle on its shoulder. When it fell, Trujillo ran to take it from Poncho before his teeth could damage the skin.
The fox squirrel was leucistic, which may be even rarer than albino or blond. It had no pigmentation in its hair, but had black eyes, footpads and claws. I have yet to find another reference to a leucistic fox squirrel, but blond is a known color phase. In The Old Man and the Boy, Robert Ruark mentioned a dirty blond fox squirrel he and the Old Man spotted at nearby Southport, N.C.
"How rare is a white fox squirrel?" Beck asked.
"Rarer than a Boone and Crockett buck, I imagine," Trujillo said. "You will probably never see another one."
We talked about how using a dog to hunt fox squirrels allows hunters to check out several if they are looking for a certain color phase. In North Carolina, there are various combinations of gray, black, gold and other colors.
"The difficult part about hunting fox squirrels is keeping the dog out of the oaks, where gray squirrel scent is heavy," he said. "That was probably his longest trail. I knew it had to be a fox squirrel because the trail went across a wiregrass ridge, through turkey oaks and longleaf pines. Poncho eventually barked 'treed' at the biggest longleaf on the ridge. I looked up and there he was there. All I did was shoot it with a .22 rifle."
I took the other fox squirrel that day with a shotgun. Trujillo's favorite tactic is for one hunter to carry shotgun loaded with No. 6 shot and the other to tote a scoped .22 rifle. The rifleman can take a squirrel with only the tiniest part of its vitals showing from the top of the tallest tree. The shotgunner can take a squirrel running through the treetops, while the dog tracks it using its eyes, ears and nose.
Trujillo said ease of training and companionship are his favorite reasons for owning a Carolina Cur. He lost 25 pounds by the end of Poncho's first season because he trains nearly every day.
"He stays in the house and, when I walk out the door, I am training," he said. "We tree squirrels in the backyard and on public and private lands close by."
Trujillo uses the same whistle and voice commands he used with bird dogs. He uses an electronic collar to reinforce commands.
"At first, Poncho wanted to chase rabbits and deer," he said. "But he stopped after I called him off the scent a few times using the whistle and collar. He used to want to keep squirrels and it was a fine line between having him stay aggressive enough to kill a wounded squirrel and teaching him give it to you. He did not want to let go, so it was a standoff.
"I taught him to stay still while I walked up to take the squirrel. Then, one day, at the end of last season, I shot a gray squirrel that fell in a thick, swampy place. I clawed my way in to find Poncho and take the squirrel. I could not find him, so I came back out and there he was sitting beside my rifle where I left it leaning against a tree with the squirrel in his mouth. I no longer had to go to him because he learned to retrieve."
As Trujillo told me the story, I knew Haney Hancock was right about these game little dogs. Carolina Curs just keep going and, when you think they've done all they can do, they do something else that just blows your mind..
BY MIKE MARSH
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2017|
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