Squirrel & Swine

Pearl River WMA offers two wonderful options for hunters who want to put meat in the pot this October.

“No bird this time!” I thought to myself. These branches were REALLY swaying. Then I made out the tail. Then I saw him scampering along a thick branch of the water oak heading for the trunk. He got to it — and poof! He vanished. No more movement.

Damn! I thought to myself. He probably went in a hole. I blew it. How’d he see me? I didn’t even move?

Ah! There he is again. Now a branch on the opposite side of the tree was swaying, the squirrel balancing himself on the very end grabbing acorns.

Good, I thought. He’s distracted. He hasn’t seen me.

I felt a surge of pride. Hot damn! I was thinking. I can still stalk these little suckers, like in my youth, like back in high school and college when the squirrel opener was right up there with the duck opener for giddy anticipation, and the hunt itself packed as many thrills.

“Well?” Pelayo and I asked ourselves last night. “Why shouldn’t it STILL?” Especially since we’d be hunting squirrels in the identical place we hunted them in the ’70’s. And it still looks identical. And it still swarms with grey squirrels. And it’s still a short ride from the city. And it’s still a cinch to access by boat, or simply by driving down the “Oil Well Road” (old Highway 11) on the northern border just off the Pearl River exit, then walking in?.

Not too many places anymore where you can make such a claim. But Pearl River WMA (“Honey Island,” we still call it sometimes) still fits this description to a tee. The place is a classic for Southeast Louisiana hunters, old reliable. Whether for deer, hogs or squirrels, we’ve all had a go at the place. But we usually started with squirrels.

Simply put, for a rollicking squirrel hunt, there’s no stretch of hardwood bottomland in Southeast Louisiana that matches it — that even comes CLOSE. Mainly that’s because in Southeast Louisiana there’s almost no big stretch of bottomland LEFT.

And for me, stalking along those scrawny little creek bottoms amidst a huge clearcut or pine plantation just doesn’t cut it. That’s deer terrain. To me, the pristine hardwood swamp we still call Honey Island is the classic squirrel terrain — and a gorgeous place to amble through on a cool fall morning.

Note that I said “cool.” In fact, I’d love to take a greenie-weenie out here when the wind shifts to the south-southeast and introduce him to all that “biodiversity” they’re always gushing and cooing about. Here he could witness it UP CLOSE and personal. Here he could smell it, swat it and scratch at it in all its ecological glory.

The famous Earth in the Balance author and environmental expert, Al Gore, would be ideal.

Come on, Al. Let’s hit the swamp. First slip out of those $60 Birkenstocks and into some imported Korean hip boots ($14.95), like mine. Wash off that Jovan and smear on some deet — you’ll need it. Take off that $200 Benetton blazer and slip into a $2.99 camo T-shirt. Let’s see that biodiversity up close, good buddy.

Yes those are spiderwebs clinging to your face, Al. In fact that’s a big banana spider on your forehead now….

“AHHHHH! – AHHHH! Get it OFF! – AHHHHH!”

And that other thing on your neck’s a caterpillar. Go ahead and swat at it all … calm down now. Calm down … geezum, Al. You’re getting all worked up. That face. Those jerky swatting arms. And here I always thought John Belushi did the best Joe Cocker imitation. They’re just bugs, Al.

Now calm down, it’s just a caterpillar sting. A spider takes out a bigger chunk. And yeah, RUN! Let’s go! Those are ground hornets! OOUUCH! Yeah, they sting, Al. And watch out for that cottonmouth.

WHOOOOAAA!! YIKES! – YIKES!

In fact, Al, here move over a little – BLAAMM!! There. See how easy? Oh I know, I know, poisonous snakes “are part of the delicate balance of nature” and all that. But don’t you feel a little better now that it has no head?

Yeah Al, those are gnats — biting midges technically — in your eyes, ears and nostrils. Those are chiggers in your undies too. And that’s a leech on your leg.

WHAAAAH-WHHAA! – Ughhh!-Ugggh!

Yeah Al, just like Bogey in African Queen. Had enough biodiversity, Al?

Actually, after a few days of gusty southeast winds, it’s a great time to hit the marshy area of the WMA below or just north of Highway 90. If you’re game for a rip-roarin’ swine hunt, that is. The tides come up down here and the swine concentrate on the higher ridges and islands. Things can get interesting, mainly because there’s no trees.

“Aim well!” is Jamie Bonck’s advice. He and his beagles ran into a herd of hogs here late last season.

“People say hogs can’t see well,” he laughs. “They say hogs run around blindly when shot at or chased by dogs and so people think they’re charging. Well, maybe some of the time.

“But I tell ya, Humberto. This sucker I ran into last year, he was coming STRAIGHT at me! You know that Tasmanian Devil on the Bugs Bunny cartoon? He looked like that.

“He came out of a thicket, stopped, looked over and saw me. He SAW me, Humberto. I don’t care what anyone who wasn’t there says.

“Whoo-boy! I thought. Then he came straight at me. No mistaken identity here. No blind rush. He knew damn well I was the cause of his problems. BLAM!-BLAM! I opened up on the sucker. He turned and dropped not 20 feet in fronta me.”

That “diversity” of mast-producing trees is the very thing that gives Pearl River the edge. In most areas, squirrel populations are cyclical. Big broods result from abundant mast the year before.

Here some trees produce mast every year. No “monoculture” of mast at the Pearl. If the white oaks hold out one year, then the pin oaks take up the slack. If not the pin oaks then the laurel oaks might be thick with mast, or the cypress trees might be laden with balls, or the hackberry trees loaded with their little berries, or the tupelo gums laden with mast. Usually it’s a combination of the above. Point is, from one source or another, EVERY year, is a good mast year at Pearl.

And like I was saying, 20 and even 30 years ago most of our squirrel hunting took place in the Pearl River WMA. Now Pelayo and I were back. But not just for squirrels. Wild swine became legal game the same day as squirrels, and few places pack them in like The Pearl River WMA.

There seems no way to put even a dent in this swamp’s swine population. They breed year round like rabbits, and are every bit as sharp as deer. Some people claim pigs are, in fact, much sharper than deer. They go nocturnal even faster, and stay that way in even lightly hunted areas.

But now, early in the season we fully expected to run across some hogs — always happens at Pearl River — ALWAYS! — especially in the more remote area we were accessing by boat from the launch into the East Pearl on the Mississippi side just south of the Stennis Space Center.

From the West Pearl we’d turn into English Bayou and head into the remotest regions of this swamp. Several sections in this area (but unmarked on any maps) have been select cut, opening up the canopy and allowing some understory to sprout. The hogs and deer have responded as you might expect. Here’s food and cover for both.

Pelayo was ready with his scoped .22. I lugged my 12 gauge auto with a full choke and loaded with high-power No. 4s. I like these even for squirrels. These little suckers can take a licking and keep on ticking. With these No. 4s, I cut down on that kind of stuff.

Also, with a head shot at 30 yards or closer, I can roll a smallish swine with this armament. And a smallish swine — a tender tasty one — is what I wanted.

Squirrels first, however. I’d start focusing on the ground later in the morning, when the squirrels go beddy-bye

And this squirrel was still a good 70 yards out. I carried a shotgun mainly for old times’ sake. I still like taking running shots on squirrels. Point is, I’d have to get closer, so I took another step, looked up…. Wait a minute! It’s TWO squirrels. The first one was running higher up the trunk now … and WHAT! Yes! Another one on top of him, swaying on a branch near the tippy top of the oak, grabbing acorns. I hadn’t seen him before because of the heavy leaf cover.

The shakes were starting, like 20 years ago. It was all coming back as I crouched and started closing the distance, trying to keep a big leafy dogwood between us. I was shuddering like a Brittany on point. Unreal, these little suckers STILL do it. And why not, here I was stalking — which is to say HUNTING in the most genuine sense.

I read that the American Heart Association says that sighting a buck can increase a hunter’s heartbeat from the normal 78 beats per minute to 168 bpm. This can be dangerous for the physically unfit, they claim. So deer hunters (especially the elderly) should condition themselves before the season.

Well, I must be in excellent shape. My heart feels like it’s going double the 168 bpms, and I seem to be still alive. And I haven’t seen a deer in nine months. I’m looking at this trio of tree rats and slowly, stealthily, closing the distance. All three are scampering near the top of the tree now. Seems crazy, but my knees are starting to wobble.

I can already see this squirrel alongside four or five others simmering in the thick broth of onions and sherry, with a touch of thyme and pepper. I can smell them. I can taste the white flavorful meat as we slurp it off the bones — Ah!

But first things first. They were still about 50 yards away. I wanted no more than a 30-yard shot. They were pretty high in the tree but still duped. One had just grabbed an acorn and nestled in the crook of a branch, contently chomping away, his tail curled behind him. The others were still swaying the branches like gusts of wind.

I took three more steps, almost afraid to look up. The leafy dogwood still shielded me. My mouth was bone dry. I could feel my heart in my temples now. All the excitement of a deer approaching my stand, of ducks banking into the dekes, but with ME taking the initiative — with ME going to them. Can’t beat it.

“Hunting is the master behavior pattern of the human species,” says Chicago University anthropologist W.S. Laughlin. “Man evolved as a hunter, he spent over 99 percent of his species’ history as a hunter, and he spread over the entire habitable globe as a hunter.”

FREAKIN—AAY, Professor! I can feel the primal pulse as I close on my prey — however diminutive he may be.

Another…. v-e-r-y…..s-l-o-w…step, keeping my eyes on the swaying branches the whole time. Finally it’s time to start raising the gun…. Whoops! One saw it! Now he’s running along a branch like a streak…. I shoulder the gun, aim and lead him like a teal — BLAM!

One down! I look over and the other’s in midleap, heading for a nearby gum that’s covered in trumpet creeper, ivy and muscadine vines. He gets in there, and he’s lost. But he lands on a very thin branch after his leap. It takes him a second or two to regain his balance, and just as he starts scampering again — BLAM! A shower of leaves and I lose sight of him…. Where did?…. THUMP!

Man that’s a sweet sound to a squirrel hunter. And no rustling of leaves afterwards. He was dead.

I was shaking giddily as I picked them up and stuffed them in my game bag. Man this is a kick, I was thinking. Might give bowhunting a bit of a rest this year. Here’s ACTION! The thrill was rekindling with a vengeance.

While picking up the squirrels I noticed that the ground under some white oaks was churned and plowed. Hogs had ripped the place up. Then I got to a slough and found three big wallows. Nearby saplings were all smeared with mud from waist to knee level. Some of the mud was still wet. Swine tracks were EVERYWHERE.

I started walking more slowly and scanning the ground ahead of me. Another hundred yards or so and I noticed I was on the edge of one of those select-cut areas. Two hog trails that looked like mini cattle ruts led into the thickets. Of course, I thought. They’re bedding up in there now, after munching out on the mast all night and early morning.

A flash of orange caught my eye to my left. It was Pelayo walking slowly through the select cut. He’s after hogs, I thought. Then some swaying branches turned my head away. Yes indeed, another squirrel. And I started another stalk. I was closing the distance when — PEOW! — Pelayo’s .22 rang out.

I jumped and looked over. Forget the squirrel, I thought. But I couldn’t see Pelayo’s hat anymore.

PEOW! He shot again, and I jumped again. Geezum! I thought. He musta got into a herd. Because when it comes to squirrels, Pelayo’s like DeNiro in The Deer Hunter, “One shot. ONE shot! This is THIS!”

PEOW! Now A third shot! Now I was REALLY getting excited, and started walking in his direction.

“Coming your WAY!” Pelayo suddenly yelled. “PIGS! a HERD! Coming right at YA!”

“Holy cow!” I thought as I lifted the gun — but I couldn’t see anything? Then…Then, is that?…..YES! MOVEMENT! White and black movement!… and another…and ANOTHER! They’re heading right for me! They’re in the open now — and still coming! Closer. Thirty yards … twenty five.

I put the bead on a little hog’s head — BLAM! — and he flipped like a head-shot rabbit, squealing like a banshee. BLAM! I blasted him again as he thrashed around crazily. Then I started running toward him. He was kicking wildly thrashing around, kicking up leaves, kicking up mud, going berserk. He looked like the Tasmanian Devil, and still squealing worse than Ned Beatty in Deliverance. BLAM! I blasted him from 10 yards, and he finally calmed down.

But I sure as hell wasn’t calm. My knees were knocking crazily as I walked to him, just as Pelayo walked up, grinning like the Cheshire cat.

“Got TWO!” he roared as we high-fived. “Just like that one.” He pointed with his chin at mine. “It was a whole herd of the little suckers. I put them up in the thickets.”

We erupted in guffaws, laughing like idiots out there in the middle of the swamp. Yeah it was all coming back, our college hunts all over again. And perfect-sized hogs too, I thought as we whipped out the knives. They’ll be easy to drag out, and the perfect size for the Halloween cochon de lait.

For more hair-raising hog-hunting stories, order Humberto Fontova’s The Hellpig Hunt at a discounted price on www.louisianasportsman.com.

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