The Florida Parishes holds the state’s only population of Bachman’s fox squirrels, those blazed-faced beauties coveted by hunters. But there’s also no shortage of feisty cat squirrels to round out your bags.
Artie suddenly put down his basting brush, clapped his hands, and bellowed.
“So who wants squirrel sauce piquante next week for the LSU-Florida tailgate PAAAW-TY?” he howled.
All heads turned — but remember Otis Day in Animal House? Remember his reaction when Boon yelled, “Otis! My Man!”
And remember Boon’s face in reaction to Otis’ face?
Well, imagine 15 or 20 such faces, male and female.
Artie was over by the grill on Doc’s porch, half hidden in billowing smoke while preparing to serve his famous BBQ’d teal breasts with cream cheese, bacon and jalapeño when he shouted his question.
The gang’s reaction wasn’t exactly Otis Day’s: It was more of a pleasant shock.
“Been years!” Priscilla said. “But, sure — and bring a BIG pot.”
“So who squirrel hunts nowadays?” a puzzled Trisha asked. “Sure, we all used to LOVE that squirrel sauce piquante, but then y’all all got into that bowhunting. Everybody complained that the squirrel hunters spooked all the deer early in the season.”
“Made them all nocturnal, with all that blasting,” Pelayo said with a shrug. “Maybe so, but that sure put a damper on the recruitment, as they say — at least among our group.”
“Yeah,” Artie added. “How we supposed to get the young’uns started on hunting if we don’t let ’em squirrel hunt on our leases? With deer-hunting? Yeah, right! Ain’t been working out too well, now has it?”
“Sure loved the flavor!” Trish said, expertly changing the subject from the highly controversial club policy back to the sauce piquante. “But all those little bones were a bit of a bother.”
“Ain’t gonna be a bother this time around, Trish,” Artie smirked. “This one’s gonna have squirrel pieces as big as little Buffalo wings!”
“So you’re gonna put chicken in it for the squeamish?” Priscilla laughed. “Great idea. I’m in!”
“No chicken,” Artie said. “I ain’t gonna cheat.”
“He means we’re gonna have some BIG squirrels in it,” Pelayo clarified. “If things go according to plan, that is.”
This plan was to actually target those big Bachman’s fox squirrels still fairly common in the piney woods of the Florida Parishes.
These big squirrels fairly beg to be slow-cooked in red or brown gravies. They’d been providing great entertainment the last few years — raiding the corn feeders during our deer vigils.
But they’d been mostly safe — until February.
Now we’d voted to have at the squirrels the first couple of weeks of the season. Then we’d cut the gun hunting until the deer opener.
This would still give a few weeks of relative tranquility and allow the deer to calm down before we started on them with guns.
Sounded like a plan.
We were all anxious to relive those hunts of our (not always misspent) youth and young adulthood.
“Shoot man,” Artie reminded us all, “remember back in our Tigerland years the opener of the squirrel season was the main event — until the duck opener. Man, we used to get PUMPED! Almost like the Bama game!”
Of course, we didn’t plan to limit ourselves to Bachman’s fox squirrels. Most of our bag, we surmised, would still be gray squirrels, which are much more common nowadays.
But we planned to hunt terrain favored by those big, slow-moving , white-faced fox squirrels that made such exciting trophies for us as youngsters.
This type of terrain consists of not so much the extensive hardwood bottoms we usually target for squirrel hunting, but the more-open pine park lands with mature pine trees.
In fact, some people next door in Mississippi call the Bachman’s the “hill country fox squirrel” because it inhabits the eastern hilly piney woods region rather than the hardwood Delta in the west.
Not much of this type of mature pine park land is left in the Florida Parishes nowadays. But what remains usually holds a few Bachman’s foxes, which — interestingly enough — are unknown west of the Mississippi River.
The huge fox squirrel encountered in the piney woods of western Louisiana is technically a big-headed or chuckle-headed fox squirrel, which is even bigger than the Bachman’s with similar-colored fur but without the white face and tail tip.
Fortunately for us hunters, some of the remaining mature pine parkland habitat favored by Bachman’s Fox Squirrels is contained within the few WMAs and wildlife refuges in the Florida Parishes.
Sandy Hollow WMA in Tangipahoa Parish, along with the Tangipahoa School Board WMA, the diminutive Hutchinson Creek WMA in St. Helena Parish and Lake Ramsay WMA in St. Tammany all have small sections of this habitat.
The upper portions of Big Branch NWR in St. Tammany Parish (especially the area around Bayou Paquet Road) also feature such habitat — mature pines with a smattering of hardwoods and sparse underbrush below.
In brief, the very type of terrain that screams “lousy deer habitat” generally makes for the best Bachman’s fox squirrel habitat.
Now, when we’re after gray squirrels, there’s no better area in Southeast Louisiana than the Pearl River Basin, which offers 70,000 acres of public hunting in the combined Bogue Chitto NWR and Pearl River WMA.
Almost all of this vast hardwood bottomland is prime grey squirrel hardwood habitat. Alas, Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Isaac gave the area a triple whammy.
All the blow-downs created magnificent deer habitat over the years, but trying to walk through these thickets and brambles while stalking squirrels — even at this late stage — can be a serious hassle.
We found a semi-solution: targeting the portion of the Pearl River WMA where cypress/tupelo swamp starts giving way to bottomland hardwoods.
That’s basically the area starting just south of I-12.
Cypress trees, with their immense root networks, are tough, and literally stand up to hurricanes much better than the limber swamp maples and willows — and even the water oaks.
This means the areas around them, especially around a grove of them, remained relatively clear and still provide for relatively easy squirrel stalking.
I chose to start my walking and stalking on our Florida Parishes club land along edge habitat. One thing these fox squirrels do have in common with whitetails is their preference for edge habitat.
So I started the late-morning stalk where a thin creek branch bottom of water oaks, gum and sweet-bay bordered an open area of mature pines.
I’d seen several Bachman’s in this area during the previous deer season — but not while on stand. Instead, I usually spotted them while trudging back to the truck in late morning.
That’s another thing about Bachman’s: They tend to move later in the morning than do grey squirrels.
More interesting still is the fact that they seem to like moving on the ground rather than jumping from tree to tree using limbs, vines, etc.
In fact, I usually saw them kind of loping down the very trail I was on, displaying none of that nervous, jerky friskiness of their grey squirrel cousins.
In brief, they’re not as limber (i.e., quick on their feet) as their smaller cousins.
“Check out the raccoon,” I thought to myself when I spotted one slowly humping up a slender pine on the edge of the water oaks. “But it’s a skinny one. Come deer season he’ll fatten up stealing all our corn!”
I laughed to myself.
Wait a minute!
The sun hit him as he sat on a branch, and I noticed a flash of white on his face. His tail seemed pretty long for a raccoon’s. And no rings on it!
I froze, got a little patch of pine saplings between us and started creeping closer — closer.
HAH! That ain’t no skinny raccoon: It’s a very well-nourished Bachman’s fox squirrel!
And it didn’t look like he’d spotted me. But I needed another 10 yards or so for a good kill shot, even with a full choke and high-brass No. 4’s.
My heart started pounding as I carefully stepped forward — slowly, like the proverbial molasses in wintertime, silently over the pine needles, avoiding twigs.
The big squirrel suddenly turned and faced me.
There he goes! Scampering for the top of the pine.
The bead passed his head — BLAM!
He slowed a little and lost his grip.
I hit him again, and he tumbled down — THUD! — stone dead into the carpet of pine needles.
I was shaking like a leaf as I lifted my trophy. In the next two hours I popped another Bachman’s and two grays.
Back at the truck Pelayo and Artie showed off one Bachman’s each, along with three grays.
The Sauce Piquante WAS ON!