When it comes to squirrel hunting, fox squirrels are trophy-class.
For most sportsmen, just seeing a fox squirrel is an event, in part because the uncommon squirrels are large and often flashy. Fox squirrels come in a variety of color phases that include fox-orange, jet-black, and several variations that are primarily gray or are a mix of gray, black, and orange. The tell-tale white face gives the fox squirrel a distinctive demeanor. The squirrels run with a longer stride than a gray squirrel, and the long undulating tail makes them look like a cat or a fox running through the woods.
Fox squirrels are super-sized, weighing up to three pounds compared to gray squirrels that top out at about a pound and a half.
To squirrel hunters a fox squirrel is a prize, with a high percentage of the ones that are shot making the trip to the local taxidermist.
Earl Moorhead of Rutledge killed a big fox squirrel in Morgan County on February 11 on land where he hunts deer. He had seen the fox squirrel during deer season and went back during small-game season with his shotgun. He found the squirrel in the same area and was able to shoot it. The squirrel was delivered to taxidermist Ricky Smith in Newborn to be mounted.
“That will be the fourth fox squirrel I have had mounted,” said Earl. “I have one that is black, one that is black-and-white spotted, and a gray fox squirrel with a raccoon-looking tail.”
While Earl went hunting for a specific squirrel, most often fox squirrels are a trophy of opportunity by small-game hunters or gray-squirrel hunters who happen upon one.
Taxidermist Tim Knight of Dublin has spent some time in the woods hunting specifically for fox squirrels. He recommends sunny days in the dead of winter as the prime time to find fox squirrels on the move.
“The best time to hunt fox squirrels is in January or February in the middle of the day,” said Tim. “If there comes a hard frost, then the middle of the day is when they will be moving. Hunt in big mature pines. They like those big pine stands.”
Tim said that most of the fox squirrels he has killed were taken in Dodge County, and it wasn’t uncommon to kill three or four in a day.
“There were a lot of fox squirrels around in all different colors,” said Tim. “One of the first ones I killed was solid black with an orange belly, orange ear tips and a black-and-orange tail. It was a beautiful squirrel.”
Tim said hunters bring a dozen or so fox squirrels to his taxidermy shop each winter to mount. An orange-color-phase squirrel is the least common, and most fox squirrels are dark gray with a black head, white nose, and white ear tips.
“Fox squirrels are curious animals,” said Tim. “If you are walking through the woods, and they see you, sometimes they will jump up on a tree and start barking at you. If they do, you can run to them. A fox squirrel bark has a completely different cadence than a gray squirrel,” he said. “It is a raspier, deeper bark. Once you have heard it, you won’t forget it.”
Unlike gray squirrels, fox squirrels seldom disappear into a nest, he said. They are far more likely to climb high in a tree and try to hide motionless.
“They will run to the top of a big pine tree and get in a fork and try to hide,” said Tim. “They will also play ring-around-the-rosie with you — sliding around the tree trunk to stay hidden as you move around the bottom of the tree looking for them.”
Fox squirrels can cover some ground. In 1994, the state WRD relocated about 30 south Georgia fox squirrels to Dawson Forest WMA in an attempt to reestablish a fox squirrel population in its former range. All the squirrels received ear tags and some were radio collared to monitor their movement patterns. One of those transplants apparently didn’t find Dawson Forest suitable to its taste, and it hit the road, so to speak. The wayfaring squirrel turned up as a road-kill 25 miles away.
Some fox squirrels are taken behind treeing feists.
“A squirrel dog will tree a fox squirrel as fast as a gray squirrel,” said taxidermist Ricky Smith at Newborn Taxidermy in Newborn.
Ricky says he takes in about 10 fox squirrels each year. Many of those squirrels come from the same places: Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, B.F. Grant WMA, and Cedar Creek WMA.
Piedmont NWR has a reputation for having a good population of fox squirrels, and the reputation fits with the timber management and red-cockaded woodpecker management practices on the refuge that ensure large areas of thinned, mature pines. An aggressive prescribed-burning regimen also improves the understory for fox squirrels. The same can be said for both B.F. Grant and Cedar Creek.
The big military reservations, like Fort Gordon, Fort Stewart and Fort Benning also should have good fox-squirrel habitat because of their timber-management programs.
Jamie Dowd of Rutledge has been hunting squirrels behind squirrel dogs for five years. For fox squirrels he recommends one place: Piedmont Refuge.
“There are places on Piedmont where you can almost always find a fox squirrel,” said Jamie.
Even at Piedmont, fox squirrels aren’t always common.
“It depends, sometimes you might see one fox squirrel for every 30 or 35 gray squirrels you see,” he said. “Then you might have a day where you see several, and then you go back and you might go six or eight trips without seeing one.
“I find them most in big pines,” he said. “If you find one on the ground, it will almost always run for a big pine.”
Jamie says he usually does not shoot fox squirrels.
“If I have someone along who wants to mount one, or a kid who has never shot one, we might shoot one. But you don’t see many, and I like to see them, so I don’t shoot them. I would like to have more around, but there seems to be fewer of them because of habitat loss. There aren’t many big pine stands any more.”
If you are looking for fox squirrels, Jamie recommends staying in the woods past the morning.
“I know for a fact that I have had better luck at Piedmont during the middle of the day. For some reason, they are more active in the middle of the day.”
While fox squirrels seem to prefer mature pine stands, you can find them in other forest habitat.
“I have seen fox squirrels in mixed pine/hardwoods with a good understory, but they prefer open woods, and they don’t mind if its oak or pine,” said Vic Van Sant, WRD Game Management region supervisor in Thomson. “They do well in open pines compared to gray squirrels. But the density of fox squirrels will be fewer even in good habitat.”
Vic said his office gets an occasional call from someone looking for a place to squirrel hunt where they have an opportunity to see a fox squirrel.
“Usually they are looking for a fox squirrel that they can have mounted,” said Vic. “We usually recommend Clarks Hill WMA. There is a fair amount of big pines on the area, and we are thinning some of the big timber, which will make it even better habitat for fox squirrels.”
Vic said that there are some fox squirrels on Yuchi, and also a few on Di-Lane.
“The pines have been thinned aggressively at Di-Lane, and that is going to improve it for fox squirrels, too,” he said.
Vic said that he has cooked up fox squirrel, and said he could tell no difference between fox squirrel and gray squirrel. Both can be tough, he says, especially if the squirrel is older.
“If you parboil it, or crockpot it, or cook it in a stew or with dumplings — any way that cooks it slowly and keeps it moist will make it more tender,” he said.
Part of the allure of fox squirrels is that they are uncommon.
Biologist David Osborn is a squirrel-dog enthusiast, and he has written a book on hunting squirrels with treeing feists. Even while hunting behind good squirrel dogs, an encounter with a fox squirrel is a special event.
“I may tree five or six fox squirrels in a season that I see,” said David. “A lot of times they will go to the top of a tall pine tree and you never see them. There are private tracts where fox squirrels are probably more common, but I hunt mostly on WMAs and other public land.”
David said that while gray squirrels like a thick midstory so they can travel from tree to tree without hitting the ground, fox squirrels prefer an open understory where they can get on the ground and travel. Any mature forest with a relatively clear understory is likely fox squirrel habitat, he said.
Like Jamie, David doesn’t usually shoot fox squirrels.
“The reason I don’t is that the southern fox squirrel isn’t doing well, mostly due to habitat loss,” he said.
“They are a trophy,” he said. “Why shoot one to eat when you can shoot plenty of gray squirrels?”
In south Georgia, WRD Biologist I.B. Parnell said the brand-new WMA, River Creek Plantation is likely a good bet for fox squirrels.
“We have only owned the property a short time, and I have not seen a fox squirrel on it,” he said. “But the property is in the right area in Thomas County, and it has the right habitat.”
Other WMAs in the region, including Mayhaw and the lower end of Chickasawhatchee, are in the fox squirrel’s range, and should have a few fox squirrels, said I.B.
Flint River WMA may also be worth a look, he said, both in the riverbottom and in the big 40- to 50-year-old pine stand near the entrance.
“My approach would be to go squirrel hunting in a good area for gray squirrels and hope to see a fox squirrel,” said I.B.
If you are heading out in search of a fox squirrel, concentrate on property that has big tracts of mature pines or mature oaks with a relatively clear understory and stay in the woods during the middle of the day. Don’t expect to be overrun with fox squirrels even in the best habitat. The big, white-nosed, flashy squirrels are a rare sight, and that’s part of what makes seeing one special.