"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Recent Rambles
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

October abounds with hunting/fishing opportunities for Hoosiers and outdoors folks in many other Midwestern states, but the things I like best about this month are offered at no charge when Mother Nature tilts her cornucopia to scatter her summer produce for those who will take it.
Oh, sure! It is hard to beat the splendor of a day in the gray squirrel woods when the drone of the West Nile contingent has been stilled by chilly fall nights. And combining a wood duck jump shoot with squirrel hunting on a Southern Indiana creek is hard to beat.
But when hickory, black walnut, and butternuts fall, persimmons and paw-paws reach their mellow best, and countless plants that offered beautiful blossoms turn to interesting seeds, there is an air of completeness everywhere I go, and in everything I do.
Be assured that I am enjoying every millisecond as I scoot flat-belly style like an infantryman to get to the point where I can hear the lonely squeal of wood ducks under the high, brush-filled banks of the creek.
But as I become aware of a round object punching me in the gut, and I investigate to find a green black walnut of baseball dimensions, I am telling myself that when the shootin's over, and my birds are in my game bag, I must look into this most-uncomfortable, but quite-happy set of circumstances.
Yes, I will hunt woodies, doves, squirrels, and quite possibly deer with bow, during this blissful month. And I will fish for crappies, bluegill, bass, and perhaps some other finny citizens of Hoosierland.  But while I am at these pursuits,  I will be harvesting many of Mother Nature's goodies, some of which will never grace my palate. But they will bring smiles to my face as winter bouquets or merely the curiosa of nature.
To illustrate the importance of coincidental bounty, consider this experience from a few years back.
I am jump-shooting wood ducks while looking for fat fox squirrels on a Southern Indiana creek. My hunting friend and I approach a bend in the creek from different directions to successfully stalk a flock of 20 or 30 wood ducks.

We flush the ducks and we both score with our shotguns. The shooting is over and we have collected our birds.
While preparing to put my birds in the game bag of my hunting vest, I pull out a plastic grocery-store bag.
"Good idea," my hunting companion says, "I forgot to bring any bags for the game."
"The bag is not for the ducks," I tell my hunting buddy. "It is for the cluster of hickory jack mushrooms I passed on a driftwood log just before we put up the ducks."
All of this may sound as though the harvest of natural foods and nature's knick-knacks is somewhere down the line on my fall agenda. Nothing could be further from the truth. But every hunting/fishing moment is spent in observing the things around me to locate the non-game products--the residuals of hunting/fishing. 
Once while hunting grouse in the northwestern Jackson County hardwood hills, I carried a squirmy four-inch walking stick around in my free hand for three hours, while trying to manage a little 20-gauge scattergun. But I missed only a few shots and I did manage to get this unusually large insect back to my car for pictures.
Note: If you like bugs, carry a clean wide-mouth mayo jar in the back of your shooting vest, no matter what your goals may be for the day. Tin or plastic boxes with tight tops will do the job.
So there you have it--my October agenda. I have never been able to do all of the things I wanted to do in this colorful month, but I do as much as time, energy and luck allows. Often the latter (luck) produces the other two elements.

If you are not into enjoying October the way I do, start with a few goals--like, maybe a gallon or two, or a peck, of black walnuts and/or hickory nuts.
Although summer rains plagued agricultural efforts in many parts of the country (including the Midwest), it has been a good year for the development of mast, the seeds of trees and shrubs.
The hickory nut crop is better than that of last year, and the kernels (meats) are much better developed. The same can be said of black walnuts, and it appears for butternuts (if you are lucky enough to know the location of this scarce tree).
Hickory nuts are not yet falling of their own volition, but early-maturing trees of all nut-bearing species are close to maturity. The rains and wind of October will send them down.
Probably the most-harvested items in Mother Nature's horn-of-plenty are black walnuts and hickory nuts.

The best time for gathering these nuts is when they are falling of their own volition.  But they may be shaken down at this time of year because they are only clinging to the limbs until wind or rain intervenes.
It is more difficult to find hickory trees that are bearing good nuts because there simply are not as many of them. But black walnuts are everywhere in most Midwestern states. A drive down any road will locate numerous trees, often at roadsides and often accessible. If trees are on private property, the bounty hunter should get permission to gather their nuts.
Collecting nature's knick-knacks is subject to the same trespass laws that apply to game birds and animals. Land posted against trespassing should be avoided unless permission is granted. In many cases private lands are posted to ward off unwanted hunters or anglers, but these landowners often welcome those who harvest nuts and other produce of nature with open arms. 
But even if there are no "NO TRESPASSING" signs on private land, the natural forager should gain permission to use the land.

It is important to understand that not all black walnut and hickory trees bear nuts. It is similarly important to realize that not all trees that bear nuts bear good nuts.  Nature is full of quirks. So before I harvest the nuts of any tree, I check to confirm that the nutmeats are good.
For checking hickory nuts, I carry a "Vise-Grip" type tool. The juicy stain of outer (green) hulls/husks of black walnuts is much messier, so to avoid stained hands I also carry light plastic gloves. Since the inner (hard) black walnut is more difficult to crack, I often carry a small hammer and part of a brick for checking the interior kernels.
Incidentally, it has been said that sampling wet black walnut kernels will lead to sore lips, but I have never found this to be true. Still, I sample wet black walnut kernels judiciously. A healthy-looking white kernel usually will foretell quality kernels for pies, cakes, cookies, or simple wintertime snacking.
Far be it from me the desire to tell natural food foragers how to go about gathering nuts. But I prefer to bring the whole nuts home in boxes, bags, buckets and other containers (the old gunny sack, a k a burlap bag, is my favorite).
Once I get them home, I separate the "wheat from the chaff" at my convenience.

Stain of black walnut husks make the processing of this nut more complicated. Thus, I do this outside by getting comfortable in a sitting position and having a solid object (a chopping block is ideal) well within my reach. I place four or five nuts on the block, smack each with a homemade wood paddle, and shuck out their hard, inner nuts with my gloved hands.
Husks are pushed one direction off the block and the hard, inner nuts are placed in a bucket or wheelbarrow. This can be an assembly-line operation, especially if there is more than one person involved.
Once the hard, inner nuts are separated from their husks, they may--or may not--be washed with a high-pressure garden hose to remove loosely clinging pieces of the husks. The washing process is optional, but it does make for nuts with less chaff.
No matter how this part of the process is handled, the nuts are then spread out on a hard surface exposed to sun and rain to dry for several days, even weeks. We used the roof of the woodshed for this when I was a kid, but there were few squirrels in town. If squirrels are present, they will pilfer your bounty. In this case, I place the nuts in large citrus bags and hang them inside my garage. To give the nuts equal exposure to the drying air, I often juggle them about in the bag.
Once several years back, I spread half a bushel or so of black walnuts on top of my house to dry. As the days and weeks passed I kept noticing that there were fewer nuts. And finally, when the remaining nuts were well dried, I found that I had less than a gallon of nuts remaining.
Later in the fall when I gave my rain gutters their pre-winter cleaning, I found a big cache of my nuts in the gutters, covered with leaves.

Knowing that nuts are not stored in this manner by fox or gray squirrels, I deduced that the thieves had been red (piney) squirrels. Incidentally, Watson, fox and gray squirrels do not cache winter food supplies in this manner. They bury each nut, acorn, or other seeds individually in the earth.

Frankly, I felt no remorse about reclaiming my chattel.
Hickory nuts are different . . . and I think more fun.
To separate these clean-looking, hard inner nuts from their outer shells, I simply take them into my room I call "my den" at night and shuck them out with my antiquated, possum-skinning "Old Timer" pocket knife. The outer shells of hickory nuts are noticeably divided into quarters.
I hold the nut in my left hand and the knife (with strongest blade opened) in my right (dominant) hand. I insert the blade of the knife into the crevice between quarters that is widest and pry the outer shells away. It is very easy with most nuts, but some can be clingers.
The hard, inner nuts are placed in a mesh onion or citrus bag or a large, paper grocery sack (the former preferred). These bags, in turn are stored in a metal wastebasket or some larger, hard-plastic container at room temperature.
This may sound a little goofy to some, but not to anybody who fishes through the ice in winter.
Some hickory nuts will be "infested" with a small, cream-colored with brown head, maggot-like worm, the larval stage of a weevil (species of which is not clear). The larvae use the meat of nuts for food through the summer and chew their way out of the hard inner nuts in the fall. They burrow into the earth and pupate before emerging the following spring as adult weevils. 
How the weevil deposits eggs in hickory nut is not clear, but it probably is done at the blossom stage. As the nut develops from the blossom, the eggs is inside the nut.
As room temperature motivates the little worms to chew a neat little, perfect-circle hole in the nutshell and escape to do their natural thing, they will be trapped in the sturdy container. If collected soon after their escape, they can be placed in small containers (35 mm. Film cans are my favorites), and kept at refrigerator temperature for ice-fishing bait.
Freezing will kill them, and some will develop hard, dark pupal shells in spite of your best efforts. But there will be plenty for fish bait.
Aside from the fact that hickory nuts, black walnuts, and many of the other seeds of nature can be great and useful ingredients in many dishes (everything from salads to baked desserts), there are some scientific types who will tell you that they have therapeutic values beyond their taste. I don't know about that--my doctors have always smiled when I have broached the subject.
Whether nature's produce offers medicinal or therapeutic values is a bit too deep for me, but when I remember the cold, winter nights when I was a kid, and both our recreation and snacks evolved when my dad cracked several pie pans of nuts, I have to believe that nuts offer much more than a great taste.
That probably accounts for the fact that on days spent at this old computer, there always is a bag or two of nuts--some kind of nuts--very close.
When I become bogged down on how I should say (write) something, I simply ignore the problem. I reach for the resident "Vise-Grip," crack and snack a few nuts, and I can see the solution.  If the problem requires greater nut-cracking indulgence, I happily comply.

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All columns, stories, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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