Wilson Post Blogs
We called them 'tree rats'
By JOHN L. SLOAN
Bob was barking almost like a man hollering. Then I woke up. Uncle Lloyd was banging on my bedroom window. I had overslept for a squirrel hunt on Alligator Bayou. I may have been 13. I expect it was 1957, and we were going to enjoy one of the state sports of Louisiana- a hunt for tree rats. We were taking Bob, an Arkansas, natural bob-tailed fiest and a squirrel-treeing marvel.
Squirrel hunting is almost a state sport in Louisiana. It ranks right up there with alligator hunting, fishing, pig roasts and crawfish boils. In proper circles, football is not even mentioned. With Bob, on a good day, in the right place, with good scenting weather, you could tree 50-75 tree rats.
Hunting with a squirrel dog is a lot different from still-hunting where you slip quietly through the woods, moving slowly and stopping often to listen for the sound of falling acorn or hickory husks or a shaking tree branch. “With a dog you drag your feet. Still hunting you barely set them down,” opined Uncle Alphus, the senior member of our crew.
I grew up and learned woodcraft and how to hunt and a variety of things squirrel hunting the swamps of Louisiana. The season opened in mid-October and there was no school that day, should it happen to fall on a weekday. It wouldn’t matter if it had, nobody would have gone.
There were few if any deer and the ducks weren’t “down” yet, still hiding up North. Therefore, we hunted tree rats. Since squirrels are a part of the rodent family, the name is not improper.
We spent days on the bayous and in the swamp getting cricks in our necks and wearing out our eyes scanning treetops. If we were following Bob, a heaping helping of exercise was guaranteed. One will walk a lot behind a good treeing dog.
We ate a lot of squirrels in those days. They are standard fare in jambalaya and you leave the heads on because the brains are the best part. The young ones are good fried with a “settin” of eggs and cathead biscuits for breakfast. In Louisiana, unless we went to the hills, most of the squirrels were fox squirrels-large ones-and came in a variety of colors from the common red to black or even piebald or white. In the hills, we found grey squirrels or as we called them, cat squirrels, much smaller and tenderer.
Here in Tennessee again I found both species and due to the lack of deer when I moved here, for the first few years of my residence, I hunted tree rats and rabbits. I had three good beagles and got plenty of exercise following them after rabbits. I still-hunted the squirrels and since the season opens here the last Saturday in August, I sweated off a few pounds at that, too.
Squirrels are the best teaching tool I know of for a young hunter. It forces one to slow down, speed being the biggest mistake in hunting the woods. It teaches when to move and how to move. It teaches good marksmanship and safe gun handling and sportsmanship. They are all key components in squirrel hunting.
We slid to a stop and tied the horses to limbs. Foster, saw him first and rested his .22 rifle across the seat of a handy saddle and added one more to our bag. Hunting the tree rats on horses, following a good dog is one of the better ways to enjoy a day in the woods. It is quite common in some areas and I have done it many times. As one ages, it is good to have the horses do all the work.
However it is not necessary to have horses when hunting with a dog. Last year, on a fine cold day, Jim Goodall and Matt Wahl fell in behind the good dog, 6-gun BJ and killed a tailgate full of grey squirrels.
Even dogs are not necessary to get a good mess of eating squirrels. One day on Cheatham, some years ago, Mickey Pope and I shot a double limit in two hours one morning.
Squirrel hunting is dying out here. As with all game, habitat - big tracts of timber - is vanishing. With it go the prime spots to hunt tree rats.
It is still big sport in some places. Louisiana and surprisingly, Illinois and Missouri come to mind. The Midwest tree rats are most often the big fox squirrels and I mean big.
They are so tough you have to par boil them for 11 hours and 28 minutes and you still can’t stick a fork in the gravy. Usually they become the meat component for some aunt’s stew. Deer hunting has replaced much of the small game hunting in many areas.
You learn from tree rats. I have killed several deer because I was watching the squirrels. You learn the woods and weather. Tree rats don’t move when it is thundering. Could be they are smarter than humans. No question, they are smart. But you can fool them, too.
Scree like a hawk and then slam the ground with a big tree limb and it will make them bark and chatter all over the woods. Tie a line to a small bush, get on the opposite side of the big tree and shake the bush real hard and they will come right around the tree into your sights.
For equipment, today, due to my eyesight, I prefer a 20-guage shotgun with a full choke. There was a time I liked the .22 rifle or some days, even a handgun. It doesn’t matter what you use.
Take a kid out in the woods and watch his eyes light up the first time he draws a bead on a squirrel. We called them tree rats.