February 18, 2022
By Chris Ellis
My earliest hunting memory is of a squirrel hunt. I was too young to carry a gun but just old enough to tag along with my dad and his friend. I don’t remember much about the adult conversations or how many squirrels we brought home, but I can still vividly recall two things that I fell instantly in love with that day: a dog and a truck. The dog and the truck were tools designed and kept for the sole purpose of hunting.
The old dog, named Gyp, was a small, brown-coat, pointy-eared feist. Gyp’s job on the hunt was to make wide runs through the hardwoods in search of a squirrel. By using her nose, ears, and eyes she would tree the squirrel and then bark loudly to alert us as to which tree the squirrel was in. We would circle the tree looking up in its canopy for a piece of fur, an ear, a bushy tail—something to point at and say, “I see him!” I couldn’t keep my eyes off Gyp. I had never seen a real working dog in action, and she looked so happy running and treeing in the woods. She was the second coolest thing I had ever seen.
On the ride out of the woods, I couldn’t help but smile. “A dog that hunts and a truck that goes in the woods,” I whispered through that smile. That day started the love affair that changed my life.
My first truck came when I was around 17. The first thing I did to that old, early-’80s Toyota pickup was buy Buckshot Wide Mudder tires. Big ones. The truck either didn’t have power steering or it didn’t work—I can’t remember—but you couldn’t turn the steering wheel unless you were moving. The rig was designed for mud, and it hated concrete. The tires hummed so loud on the hardtop you couldn’t have a conversation, and it road-walked so bad you couldn’t concentrate on anything but keeping it between the lines. None of that mattered to me. I never went far and spent most of the time in the backcountry, proving I couldn’t get stuck.
The second thing I did was weld a brush guard on the front of it. My friend and I carried the rusty, well-worn pipe out of the woods, which we snagged from an abandoned gas well site. His dad was a welder by trade and offered his help if we got the rust off the pipe. We spent hours grinding and sanding on that pipe until his dad was confident a weld would hold.
With the brush guard and heavy mud tires, there wasn’t a trail I wouldn’t attempt. I could either climb it or run over it. And I always had a trusty partner: my squirrel dog named Bocephus. That is, until girls came into the picture. The dirty trucks and smelly squirrel dogs played a secondary role for some time. But the love affair never completely died. It was simply a pause in life for some much-needed formal and informal education. As I round the bases towards my 50th birthday, there have been many four-wheel drives and squirrel dogs in my life. Sandy, Thunder, Patches, Dotsie—some good, some great, and some crazy.
Keeping squirrel dogs and hunting rigs isn’t as common as it used to be in rural West Virginia—though you can find just about anything tucked in these hills if you look hard enough. After all, there are places where time stands still in the ancient Appalachian Mountains. In those isolated pockets, traditions and cultures run strong and clear—just like the liquor made up in hollers where most of the outside world never dares to venture.
Living in the age of connectivity, it’s not impossible to find others in the squirrel dog world. Most are still found in the shadows of the Appalachians, and some will even answer an email from time to time. But the best connections are made the old-fashioned way. Just like with moonshine.
An old friend, a squirrel dog enthusiast, introduced me to a gentleman from Kentucky, Kevin Murphy, who has run squirrel dogs his entire life. He is an old soul and a collector of relics and artifacts that remind him of his people’s history and culture. He adores and cherishes old things: cars, dogs, boats, traps, guns, knives, and decoys. He is a self-taught historian of his people and the part of Kentucky he roams. He’s an unabashed holdover from the past and carries that past forward with him in his everyday life.
After several phone calls, I was excited to shake that man’s hand and to bring something home to introduce to my family: our new pet—The Boogie Man. Murphy had a litter of pups and saw something special in Boogie. I took a chance on the pup, and that chance paid out. Boogie is a mountain feist and is the smartest dog I have ever owned. He is also the best hunting dog I have ever owned and, in my eyes, the best squirrel hunter I have ever known. I thought I knew a great deal about the art of pursuing squirrels, but the last seven seasons with Boogie have taught me so much more about squirrels and their behavior. And every hunt is a new learning experience.
I have had the honor of sharing the squirrel woods many times with Murphy. Most recently, Boogie and I traveled to his neck of the woods to catch the last bit of season in hopes the water maples would be budding in the warming air of late winter/early spring. Fresh food, after a long winter, can be a very welcome sight to squirrels, especially if tree nuts were in a lean cycle in the fall.
We loaded up two feists, Boogie and his relative, Bobby Jango, into the back of an original 1980 International Scout and headed to Murphy’s late-season honey hole: the public lands along the Clarks River. The dogs spent the day roaming the woods in search of squirrels, and we did our best to shoot every one they treed.
After a long day in the river-bottom hardwoods, we loaded the dogs back into the Scout and piled our vests and rifles in the backseat of the antique hunting rig and pointed it towards Murphy’s home. The smell of the old engine burning fuel and the scents of tired, wet hunting dogs and muddy boots filled the old Scout. I couldn’t help but smile. “A dog that hunts and a truck that goes in the woods,” I whispered through my smile. I felt like a kid again.
I’ve read and heard all kinds of stories on what is and isn’t a feist. I’m convinced that nobody knows for certain. I am certain, however, they are small dogs that hunt their asses off. They are treeing dogs that use their noses, eyes, and ears to locate game—and are mostly used for squirrel hunting. The most common story told by many is the feist is a combination of various terriers brought over from Great Britain and mixed with Native American dogs. They are a true American, home-grown mixed breed. They were bred to hunt and are a part of the hunting culture in southern Appalachia. Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington, and Faulkner all had stories about keeping feists, fyce, fice, or foists.
They are highly intelligent, fun, easy-going pets with a high energy appetite to hunt. They are happy to be trained and are natural hunters that need only some help learning your preferences. Above all, they
are easy to love.
Squirrel hunters put the same importance on shot placement as big-game hunters. Looking up in a hardwood’s canopy—say, a white oak tree—in hopes of spotting an ear, part of a bushy tail, or often the top of a squirrel’s back as it hunkers down, hiding on a branch takes skill and good optics. Getting a lethal shot on a squirrel that is 100 feet or more up a tree takes accuracy, and most squirrel hunters I know only take headshots. So with such a small target, you need to make sure you have an accurate setup. Hillbilly fact: If you want to hit the same place twice, your trigger has to break the same way twice. Squirrel hunting with a .22 rifle requires a great trigger and solid optics. My go-to is a Ruger 10/22 with a Timney upgrade trigger and a Leupold scope with extended focus ring to adjust parallax as close as 10 meters. With a clear view, a trigger with a crisp break, the squirrel gravy and cat-head biscuits are soon to follow.
To complement others in your hunting party carrying .22 rifles, a straight-shooting shotgun is a lot of fun. My go-to shotgun for squirrel hunting is a Remington 870 Special Field, and because I want to be as accurate as possible, I upgraded to a Timney 870 Trigger Fix. A shotgun is a much appreciated tool when the squirrels are runners and timbering back to their den trees.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.