Fox squirrels have made quite a comeback from 80 years ago when they were so rare they were not legal game. Now legal to hunt in 27 of North Carolina's 100 counties, fox squirrel season may soon be opening in others based on increased sightings in a special deer hunter-observation survey currently underway.
A fox squirrel hunt is a genuine, small-game safari, because it takes place in old-growth forests. These unique habitats include bottomland hardwood floodplains along the coast, oak-hickory forests of the northern mountains and longleaf savannahs throughout the coastal plain. Longleaf restoration areas such as Sandhills, Holly Shelter, Bladen Lakes and Juniper Creek game lands are places where I have hunted them. However, one spot has held me, spellbound, for three seasons.
While I took a silver-furred fox squirrel more than 40 years and gave it to a fellow hunter to mount, I had never seen a white one. Then, three years ago, a wildlife technician mentioned seeing a white-phase fox squirrel and I have searched for it, ever since. Two years ago, Bruce Trujillo joined me in the quest with his Carolina Cur, Poncho.
I passed up a kaleidoscope of color phases, black, gray and brown with various patterns of white, holding out for a white-phase squirrel. With a bag limit of one per day, there is no second chance during a one-day outing. Since fox squirrel season closes December 31, I asked Bruce to join me for a final attempt this week.
Our hunt began at 10 a.m. Fox squirrels, the laziest of the state's three game species of tree squirrels, rise late and move throughout the day. Poncho treed a gray squirrel, which Bruce downed with his .22 rifle.
We saw two hunters returning to their vehicle. Shelton Beck had traveled several hours from Lexington with his friend, Sam Todd, who carried no firearm but was along for the hike.
Recognizing me, Shelton said an article I had written on fox squirrel hunting had brought him to the area. We invited them to join us. In the event Poncho treed any other color phase than white, Bruce and I agreed Shelton would take the shot. We walked and visited for several hours when a fox squirrel appeared a hundred yards away in the trail.
"It's the white one!" Bruce shouted.
Poncho was sniffing in the woods, so I ran, trying to tree it. Poncho quickly joined me and trailed it to a pine in the tangled jungle of a Carolina bay, where he began barking his heart out. Bruce arrived and spotted the squirrel's tail, but it ran to another tree as he tried to point it out. I eventually saw it in a red bay, calmed my pounding heart, centered the crosshairs and downed it with my .22 rifle.
While I had seen sunlight shimmering through its tail as though through a whisper of a cloud, I wasn't certain it was completely white until Bruce took the squirrel from Poncho's mouth. We marveled that a fox squirrel, which can be completely black, could also white as a polar bear.
We showed our newfound friends, who had never taken a fox squirrel, another spot where they should have good luck.
"How rare is a white fox squirrel?" Shelton asked.
"About as rare as a Boone and Crockett buck," Bruce said. "You should take the first color phase you see."
Fox squirrels have more colorations than any other game mammal, so taking various color phases is a lifetime pursuit. As our new friends are discovering, the reason for hunting them is not their beauty or the challenge, but seeing them in their natural habitats, which are among the most beautiful forests in the world.