Squirrel hunting was and is a passion, necessity (that may be more of a was), and a sport in the hills of Virginia and Kentucky. You see it reflected in the place names: Dickenson County, VA has Squirrel Camp, Squirrel Camp Tunnel, and Squirrel Camp Branch; there’s a Squirrel Hollow in Russell County, VA; over in Kentucky Harlan County also has a Squirrel Hollow; Breathitt County, KY has Squirrel Fork; and there’s a Squirrel Run Hollow in Elliott County.
The story goes that Squirrel Camp in Dickenson County was named by Dick Colley and Joshua Counts, who once came to that area to camp and hunt. They had no luck killing any large game, such as bear or deer, so they had to hunt squirrels for food. They didn’t like hunting such small game, so they named the local river branch Squirrel Camp as a joke.
Right across the VA/KY border from Dickenson County lies Pike County, KY.
“My grandfather, ‘Pop’ Ross Anderson,” writes John Lee Anderson, “was an expert squirrel hunter and a great storyteller. When I was in high school, we were eagerly awaiting the beginning of hunting season. The evening before the season opening, I was visiting Pop to get any advice and hopefully some of his hunting secrets.
“Just a few years prior, Pop went squirrel hunting in the mountains behind Elkhorn City. He decided to go over into Eel Flats to an area that he was familiar with and knew that was sure to be loaded with squirrels. He had no more picked out a good spot among some large hickory trees that it began raining. The rain was so hard Pop knew he had to find shelter.
“There was a huge old oak tree that had a hollow crack in it. The tree was large enough that Pop could squeeze into the hollow of the tree. When the rain stopped, Pop decided to squeeze out of the crack in the tree to resume hunting. However, due to the rain, sweating and high humidity, he, with the wet clothing, had swollen and was unable to squeeze out of the tree.
“He tried to remain calm, but knowing the probability that no one would be able to find him or assist him, he became more anguished. He said his whole life flashed before his eyes. He remembered all of the wonderful times he had had with his great family. He remembered how thankful he was to have such a wonderful wife. He remembered all of the friends he had. He remembered all of his accomplishments and the rewards of his early days as a teacher.
“Then, he said, he remembered that he had voted Republican one time and he felt so small he slid right out of that tree.”
Today hunters can pursue gray and red squirrels throughout Virginia, but if they want the much rarer fox squirrels, state law only permits that species to be hunted in the counties west of the Blue Ridge. Kentucky squirrel hunters traditionally get started the third Saturday in August, but Virginia sportsmen have to wait till Sept 6.