Kevin Murphy was disappearing into the woods in front of me. I could keep up but it wasn’t easy. I could hear the frantic barking of the dogs far ahead of us; they had a squirrel pinned down, and they were pleading with us in squirrel-dog language, “Get up here quick!” This wasn’t the first time I had been squirrel hunting by a long shot, and not the first time I had been chasing around after Murphy in his home woods of western Kentucky. But I felt the old familiar pull, the excitement in the dog’s voices—the pull a hunter feels when the dogs have game treed, a pull that is as old as the woods we were running through.
I’m a small-game hunter. Have been for most of my life since I was about eight years old. As clear as day, I can remember my Dad pointing as a grey squirrel went out on a limb. “Shoot at his head,” I heard him say. I did as I was told, the little shotgun in my hands spat one time and it was done. My life would never be the same after that warm October evening. I had just entered a brotherhood that, at the time, I didn’t even know existed. I was a hunter.
When I was a kid we didn’t have many deer in my part of the state. My Dad didn’t venture forth much to the eastern part of West Virginia and National Forest areas that held deer. We small game hunted, squirrels, rabbits, and grouse were our mainstays.
Many of today’s hunters may be familiar with squirrel hunting, but not so many may know about squirrel hunting with dogs. “Hunting squirrels with dogs? Really?” I have received this reaction from hunters who are not familiar with squirrel dogs more than once. The next question is usually why would you hunt squirrels with a dog? Well in short, it is just plain ol’ fun.
The premise of hunting squirrels with a dog is simple. You follow your canine buddy through the woods as he attempts to locate squirrels, chase them up a tree, or discover the tree a squirrel is hiding in. Once the dog decides which tree the bushytail is in he will bark “treed.” A good squirrel dog will stay on the tree and bark until you A. arrive at the tree and shoot the squirrel, B. the squirrel “timbers,” which means he leaps from tree to tree to escape, C. you pull him off of the tree, or D. we see the second coming. In other words a good dog is supposed to stay on the tree as long as it takes. In squirrel dog lingo, a dog that is well treed and has the squirrel pinned is “toenailed,” meaning his front feet on the bark of the tree and “has the meat,” that is the squirrel is in the tree.
Several years ago I came back to the squirrel dog world after a long absence. I heard about a guy who was quite a hunter and raises and trains squirrel dogs— Kentucky’s Kevin Murphy, a dyed-in-the-wool outdoorsman. Kevin has hunted much of this area since he was a kid, including the “Land Between the Lakes,” over 177,000 acres that make up the National Recreation Area controlled and administered by the National Forest Service.
Kevin carries a hunting horn with him on every hunt, the kind hunters used to blow on to call their hounds. At the start of each hunt, before you step into the woods, he blows a long note on the horn and he says the same thing every time. “The hunt has begun! They have been given fair warning! If they get kilt, it’s their own fault!” After this the dogs take off, Kevin takes off, and all you can do is follow and try to keep up. Woe be to those who don’t.
On this last hunt with Mr. Murphy, we had some guests that are friends of ours in the outdoor industry: Eric Suarez, with Remington and Marlin, Devin Feese, a test lab engineer with Remington, and Jay Pinsky, editor for the Hunting Wire website. We all met at Paducah, Kentucky and were at the mercy of Kevin Murphy as he ran us around the hills, swamps and hollows of the Land Between the Lakes.
Eric and Devin brought along two of Marlin’s latest offerings, a 150th Anniversary edition Model 60 .22 rifle, since 2020 marks 150 years for Marlin Firearms, and a totally new Marlin 1895 lever action .410 shotgun. The Marlin Rifles sported GPO (German Precision Optics) scopes to get a bead on the squirrels in the treetops. We put these guns through the mill following Kevin’s two squirrel dogs, Butchie Bad-Toe and Brownie, as well as my little Mountain Cur squirrel chaser, Dotzie. When the rain would give us a break we released the dogs on to the vast acreage and followed them and Kevin as best we could.
The weather was definitely not conducive to stacking up a lot of squirrels, but we made the best of it. During a long monsoon one afternoon we found shelter under cover at the public shooting range, and put the Marlin Model 60 .22 rifle and the Marlin 1895 Lever Action shotgun through its paces by firing many rounds. There were no complaints from anyone how they performed, and when the rain subsided for a while, we were back in the woods as our canine posse tried their best to show us some bushytails. When the dogs ranged ahead and treed a squirrel, the frantic barking was our cue to get it in gear. I knew to get to the tree as fast as possible, lest we endure the rebuke of our heartless taskmaster, Mr. Murphy.
“Boys you got to git to that tree quick!” he told us. “This time of year especially, squirrels are gonna be headed for a den tree, they ain’t gonna sit up there all day!” Once at the tree, Murphy was adamant about us spreading out on different sides of the tree so someone could get a glimpse, and hopefully a shot at the little grey speedsters.
The combination of the Marlin .22 rifle and the .410 shotgun worked out well here. If the squirrel sat still long enough, one of the riflemen would try his hand; if the squirrel took off in the treetops, the Marlin .410 came into play.
We hunted between showers, we hiked the seemingly endless woods of the Land Between the Lakes, we saw turkey sign, buck rubs and raccoon tracks in the mud of the many creeks. We laughed and hacked on each other, as guys do, and enjoyed the company of friends old and new. And then, almost it seemed before we got started good, it was over. There was a lot of hurried packing, and swapping numbers and emails and promising to see each other at the NRA Convention in Nashville. (Editor’s Note: Please see this important announcement regarding the 2020 NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits.)
But you know what? I think we will all be back. I know I will. Small game hunting is like that, the fun and the excitement, the chance to run into something around every turn, and those dogs yammering for you to get up here. “Hurry!” “Get up here!” “What is taking so long?” “Bring the gun!”
The pull is too much. I have to go. I’m a small-game hunter.