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Mr. Mac and The Bushytail Gang: A Squirrel-Dog Revival in South Carolina
T. Edward Nickens
February 21, 2012
A squirrel-dog revival is happening in South Carolina's Piedmont Woods, and the hunter behind it all is Mac English. With his prized mountain curs and a deadeye--if unorthodox--shooting style, English drops 300-plus squirrels a year. And if you think that's good,
just wait till you try his squirrel chowder
Two hundred yards away, on the far side of a veil of ash, hickory, and muscadine vine, a dog breaks into a steady, chopping bark. Ark…ark…ark-ark-ark! Mac English doesn't miss a beat. "Whose dog is that?" he asks. He gives a playful smirk. The question is directed at English's grandson Colby, who's having a hard time fighting off a grin of his own. "My goodness," the old man says. "I just know I've heard that dog somewhere before." The barking grows incessant, more purposeful. "Could that be my Jack?" "I don't know, Papa," Colby says. He shakes his head, giving up the fight to keep a smile off his face. "Sounds like some ol' trash dog is ruining my Buckshot's chances again." English, 77, is lean and wiry with a head of white hair that's easier to follow through the woods than the man himself. He wears denim overalls and a battered hunting coat, and when his dog barks, it's time to go--but not until he's had a chance to rub somebody else's nose in the fact that his dog was first on the job. When you're hunting squirrels with squirrel dogs and the English clan of South Carolina's rolling, red-clay Piedmont, it's sometimes hard to say exactly what the quarry is: a squirrel, or bragging rights as to whose dog treed the squirrel.
Once upon a time, squirrel dogs were as common in the South and Midwest as cotton gins and working mules. These small-to-middling-size breeds--mountain curs, treeing feists, Kenner curs, treeing brindles, and the like--were a family staple with pioneer roots. "When our early settlers came into this country," English tells me, "they brought these little dogs with them and they hunted everything. They'd tree a coon or a squirrel, run a deer, run a hog. You couldn't get by without them." Such breeds are a part of American sporting literature as well. George Washington wrote about yellow cur dogs. Abraham Lincoln was a fan; a "short-legged fice" was hot in pursuit of bruin in his poem "The Bear Hunt." These treeing dogs figured in William Faulkner's "The Bear" and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, and the dog that played Old Yeller in the movie, many say, was a black mouth cur. By the middle of the 20th century, however, most of these specialty hunters had nearly disappeared, and with them a small-game tradition with a storied past.
But what I find here is a full-blown squirrel-dog revival, particularly when it comes to the original mountain cur breed. In 1957, four men who met through an interest in old-time mountain music formed a club to promote line breeding of original mountain curs. Today, the breed is recognized by the United Kennel Club, with dozens of breeders listed in the 49th annual yearbook of the Original Mountain Cur Breeders Association. There are now squirrel dogs from perhaps 30 breeders and bloodlines--a crazy-quilt mix of old-time mountain pride and modern demographics. In fact, squirrel dogs these days are all about the future, as interest in these little hunters is growing by leaps and bounds. At first, line breeding for squirrel dogs was a mountain-hollow niche that involved a few old-timers determined to hang on to the past. No longer. The Internet has linked squirrel-dog fans into a community. Membership on the website Squirrel Dog Central has tripled over the last few years. In North Carolina, my buddy Robert Edwards, who's joined me on this hunt, waited three years for his treeing feist puppy. The dollars involved only strengthen the legitimacy of the trend: These days, a pretty good young dog will run maybe $300. According to English, "a No. 1 squirrel dog, broke on deer and 5 years old, will bring you $10,000." And English is smack in the middle of it all, with a single-minded obsession with squirrel dogs, squirrel hunting, and the dying art of making a good squirrel meal. Retired for 22 years from his days working in the maintenance department at a nylon plant, he hunts as often as six times a week. Most years his hunting parties will take 300 squirrels or better; his record is a staggering 544. He's a major player in the comeback of the original mountain cur breed, and the star talent in a squirrel hunting video. His phone rings 52 weeks a year with folks wanting a puppy, advice, or a guided day in the woods. And he's equally known for what comes out of his black cast-iron pots as for what goes in them: fried squirrel with biscuits and squirrel-broth gravy, squirrel and dumplings, stewed squirrel with tomatoes, squirrel chowder… English is a one-man circuit preacher for the wonders of squirrel. But right now there's a three-dog racket pouring out of the woods, and already young Colby is 50 yards into the trees. English is right behind him, followed by his son Chad, grandson Chase, family friend Danny Southerland, plus Edwards and me. It doesn't take long to figure out that before I learn another thing about squirrel hunting with dogs the Mac English way, I'll first have to learn to keep up.
The Mac Effect
Squirrel hunting with dogs barely resembles my boyhood passion of hunkering down under a huge oak and waiting for targets to appear. It's fast-paced and active, but something else is at work to bolster the future for these dogs, and that's the fact that squirrel dogs and squirrel-dog hunting are particularly suited to the exigencies of modern life. Compared with many hound breeds, a 20-pound feist is more family-friendly and easier to keep in the house. Some states are lengthening their squirrel seasons to attract more hunters, so opportunities to chase bushytails are now available from summer through the end of winter. And part of the growth in squirrel hunting with dogs is coming from the ranks of coon hunters weary of late-night races and rabbit hunters struggling to find good hunting grounds. As a kid English hunted squirrels the way everyone else hunted squirrels. "Until I was 8 or 9," he says, "I loved to sneak into some hickory trees before daylight. Back then, everybody still-hunted and we all used shotguns. I didn't know what a .22 rifle was." Then, in 1950, English went hunting with his "first known squirrel dog," and he's never looked back. He founded the South Carolina Squirrel Hunters Association, whose Whitmire, S.C., headquarters hosts the squirrel hunting world championship, and he's single-handedly nurtured a squirrel-dogging craze that has helped reshape hunting in the region. These days, there are upwards of 30 hunters with squirrel dogs within a 15-mile radius of Whitmire, and almost without exception there is a connection to English. "He has people he's never even heard of calling him on a weekly basis," Chad English says. "People in the Wal-Mart stop him in the aisles. 'Are you Mac English? I saw you on the Internet.' We tease him about being a celebrity, but he's not doing it for the attention. He's just doing what he's always done, and he loves to show other people what he loves. And it just seems like it's caught fire."
At the base of a soaring shagbark hickory, Jack, Buckshot, and a yellow cur named Ann are putting up a fuss. Unlike coon dogs, most squirrel dogs are silent on the track. Their job is to find a hot scent trail, narrow it down to the last tree climbed by their quarry, then pin the squirrel to the branches by raising a ruckus that keeps the animal's focus off the hunters below. Now the dogs have their heads back and tails wagging, barking to beat the band, clawing at the tree, then backing off to watch the topmost branches in case the object of their desire starts "topping out" or "timbering," jumping from tree to tree in an attempt to find safe haven. If dogs can smile, these three are. I am, too. After all, four grown men, two kids, three dogs, five guns, and thousands of dollars' worth of high-tech optics and GPS dog collars surround a squirrel in a tree--or at least, a tree that may hold a squirrel. Much of the intrigue of squirrel hunting with dogs, I'm learning, is the challenge of actually trying to spot a squirrel whose life depends on staying hidden. These little jokers are wizards at disappearing in plain view. To find them, you never look for the squirrel itself. You look for a little piece of swollen limb, the dark spot of an eye, a piece of bark that looks slightly unbarkish, a lump on a branch, the sharp point of a squirrel's ear sticking out from a piece of moss. And all of this is at 80 feet high or better. But this time, thank my lucky stars, the squirrel is stretched out on a sunny branch like a college kid at Daytona Beach. Not that it's easy. I'd been warned to bring my best game to South Carolina. "That man can read a squirrel dog in the woods like nobody I've ever seen," says Tree Time Kennels owner Russ Cassell, whose original mountain cur, Culbertson's Wild Rose, is a world champion squirrel dog. "It's uncanny to watch, like he knows everything they're thinking."
And English's prowess isn't limited to keeping up with canines. "Mac English has an extreme, over-the-top pride in shooting squirrels in the head," Jim LaPratt explained on the phone a few weeks earlier. A diehard Michigan squirrel dogger, LaPratt runs the website Squirrel Dog Central, the virtual bible of the sport. "He's turned it into an art form." English hunts with a Ruger 77/22 with a Leupold Rifleman scope and shoots standard-velocity CCI rounds, a load very close to competition ammo. He favors solid bullets over hollow points, because the only sin more unforgivable than missing a squirrel's noggin is ruining its flavorful meat. Before the hunt English warned me: "Boy, you shoot a squirrel and there ain't no need to run up there and jerk him up off the ground and put him in your vest where nobody can see him. We got to inspect him, and this crowd will raise sand if there's a hole anywhere but the head." My first shot on a squirrel, earlier in the hunt, brought down a heap of scorn from English, and I'm sure it wasn't all in jest. "Oh, Lord," he said, holding my squirrel with two fingers like a soiled diaper. It was a picture-perfect gallbladder shot, with bits of red guts pushed out the far side of the ribs. "Oh, goodness. Somebody else is going to have to carry this. Looking at it just about makes me sick." Now I have a rock-steady rest, a squirrel silhouetted against the sky, and English at my elbow. He's not letting me off easy. "It just don't seem right," he says, "that squirrel sitting out there in the open. Really, you ought to be ashamed taking a shot like that." The crosshairs waver for a moment, and English pours it on. "My goodness, you ought to have some mercy on that poor little squirrel, all stretched out in the sunshine." I left out half a breath and squeeze. "Oh, Lord, look at the squirrel. Glad that ain't my shot. No excuses now." The rifle goes off and the squirrel tumbles. The dogs are barking and my buddies are whooping and Mr. Mac is hoofing it to the tree. It's a small squirrel, a yearling tender as a green bean, and already English can taste it. "That's a fryer, boys! Get the dogs! I don't want a tooth on him!"
Allow Me, Boys
Training a squirrel dog is as simple a thing as you can imagine, according to English. As long as you start off with a squirrel dog. "About the only thing you can do is get a squirrel dog that comes from squirrel dogs, and get that puppy in the woods," he says. "If squirrel hunting's in him, it'll come out. And if it ain't, well, you got a long road ahead." There are ways to tip the odds in a hunter's favor. Many tie a squirrel tail to the end of a cane pole and run it up, down, and around the base of a big tree, with the puppy in hot pursuit. Others live-trap a squirrel and place the trap and squirrel on the ground and open the door in front of the puppy. "That young dog sees that squirrel going up a tree," English says, "and most times, that will do the trick." The end result is to get a dog "just pure eat up with squirrel," English says, and watching what happens then is the great delight of squirrel-dog hunting. Early the next morning, we're hunting a big swath of Sumter National Forest--open bottoms along timbered creeks thick with vines and scattered pines in the hardwoods. I lean against a big beech tree, its late-winter leaves still hanging on, and watch Buckshot work the woods. He's a 30-pound shorthair vacuum cleaner, muzzle to the ground, sucking up scent. Buckshot runs around a tree (sniff-sniff), hops on a fallen log like a chipmunk (sniff-sniff), docked tail wagging. He inspects a tree stump (sniff-sniff), then a rock pile (sniff-sniff). He worms through a copse of cedars (sniff-sniff) anywhere a squirrel might run. Now he's off wide open through the woods, nose stuck to the ground, around a white oak (sniff-sniff), then a red oak (sniff-sniff). Something catches his attention, and Buckshot is on his hind legs, paws on the oak trunk, dancing halfway around the tree (sniff-sniff) but whatever it is isn't quite enough because suddenly he's off again, disappearing into the woods.
And when he trees, it's Katy-bar-the-door. A single bark makes us cock our ears toward Buckshot's general direction, and then he opens up with a steady, bawling get-here-and-get-here-fast chop. "Whose dog is that, Papa?" Colby yells as we dash through the woods. Blackjack and Ann are already at the tree, joining the fray. What happens next is just one more aspect to the Mac English aura. At the tree we're all searching for the squirrel, binoculars picking apart each tree fork and knothole. "Can you see him, Mac?" someone asks.
"Naw. Can you?"
"Uh-uh." "Is that him? See where the tree forks and forks again? Go up the right fork to where that piece of moss is on the trunk. I think I see a little piece of leg right there." Yes, it is. We all jockey for position. There's only one shot, though, a tight angle to the squirrel's head, flattened against the trunk. And there's not a tree positioned correctly for a rest. Which means it's up to English. Years ago, he and his brother perfected a shooting position, tailored to the demands of a high-angle shot with no rest and no margin for error. Within seconds the man who's nearly 80 years old is on the ground, legs interlocked like a pretzel, gun barrel at a 45-degree angle. This time, it's me who fights a smirk. There is complete pandemonium at the tree--three dogs leaping and barking and clawing, and four hunters looking up in the branches with hands stuck in their pockets--and the old man balls up on the ground. Crack! My mouth drops open as quickly as the squirrel drops from the tree. That shooting lane couldn't have been half an inch in diameter, a pinprick of clear sailing between vines and twigs and branches, maybe 170 feet to the target. I look down at English, and he hasn't moved a muscle. Now he's smiling at me. "I do believe," English says, "that squirrel has a headache."
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