"Bayou Bill" Scifres
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Copyright © 2007 by Bill Scifres
August 2007

In August there are  a lot of things to do in Indiana--and the Midwest--to keep outdoors folks occupied. One of the most interesting is good old country squirrel hunting when they cut (eat) hickory nuts. There are many ways to hunt squirrels, but one of the methods is not “watching a game trail and waiting for your quarry” as one “expert” outdoor writer once suggested in his column.

Game trails--and hunting by watching them--are fine for deer and some other species of game. But the writer who suggested such a totally preposterous method of hunting squirrels must have had a head full of air. He, at best, was not a squirrel hunter.

However, as noted above, there are about as many methods for squirrel hunting as there are Heinz soups, and a good way (considering the varying likes people) is the tried and true method that employs stealth in stalking, and knowing the habitual behavior of the species.

We think of gray and fox squirrels as “tree” animals, but it may very well be that these critters spend as much time (maybe more) on the ground. Still, the best place to hunt them is in trees

With this thought in mind, it is well to become familiar with the tree species to learn where you are most apt to find game. Pay particular attention to these trees. Recognizing the bark, leaves and general configuration of the trees is helpful.

As the old saw goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day . . . “ so if you find this venture in hunting frustrating just remember that it takes time to became good at anything.

At this time of year it is well to remember that hickory nuts are a much preferred food of squirrels so learn to identify this tree at a distance. Of course, not all hickory trees bear nuts every year. Learn the ones that do bear and keep them etched in your head.

For example, more than 50 years later, I still remember the location (and some helpful details) about trees I hunted often as a boy. There are at least six or eight species of hickory in Indiana alone.

Thirty or 40 years ago, when I wrote an outdoor column for the state’s largest newspaper, I would write extensively about hunting squirrels when they were cutting (eating) hickoryn nuts, and about the nuts themselves. 

A forester from Carmel saw my work from time to time, and told me about some very large nuts he had found. At first, I did not doubt that he had found some of the nuts from trees in Franklin Bottoms,” an area north of Little York that was known to produce some very tall hickory trees that bore very large nuts that had very good kernels (meats).

To authenticate the size of nuts the forester found, I asked him to send me a few of the large nuts, but when they arrived at my desk I found them to be no more than two-thirds the size of the Franklin Bottoms nuts my father used to bring in. In addition, I decided to write a column item about the nuts the forester had found to gather nuts from elsewhere for comparison. I called it the “Big hickory Nut Contest.” That, however, was not the father of originality because the newspaper I toiled for also conducted a very successful, statewide “Big Fish Contest” that blessed its pages for 29 years. As a matter of fact, I was the ramrod for that contest, too.

But I digress.

To shorten an otherwise long story, when the various entries were sized and compared, one entry by a man named Scifres (probably a distant relative) was the runaway winner. The winning nuts probably were from the same trees--or at least the same strain--that my dad had hunted for both squirrels and hickory nuts many years before. 

Incidentally, my own “Rambles” as a boy had taken me to the Franklin Bottoms numerous times many years before when Dale Isenhower, a Crothersville boyhood friend, and I discovered that squirrels, especially grays, would fed on moon light nights.

Dale’s mother would drive us to Franklin Bottoms in the wee hours of the morninh and together we would always visit this tall, gangly hickory tree, and always to find fresh cuttings but no squirrels. We deduced, finally, that the grays were cutting on moonlight nights. It was my first encounter with such strange behavior. 

One tipoff on hickory trees (for distant identification) is that many trees of the hickory family features light and loose, shaggy bark. But some of the bitternut and pignut species tend to have relatively smooth, darker bark. One species of hickory is aptly named the “shagbark.”

Hickory trees tend, occasionally, to have years of bumper crops of nuts. In such years squirrel populations tend to flourish the following year. Likewise squirrel populations tend to plunge the year after lean nut producing years. It also is true that the mast supply provided in years of hickory failure pick up some of the slack--especially white oak. 

However, no other nut or acorn holds the importance of hickory nuts as a food source for squirrels. In the lean years for hickory nuts squirrels adapt by feeding on many other seeds, fruits, berries and acorns. When this happens a downward  leg of the squirrel population cycle is in order. These sources of food tend to take squirrel populations through the summer and early fall, but they are not as successful when winter hits. These food items do not store as well in the forest floor as do harder nuts.  Hence, the effects on squirrel populations the following spring and summer. A female squirrel does not reproduce well in the late-winter, early-spring reproduction season unless the body is strong and healthy, cutting populations.

“When squirrels cut hickory,” alluded to above, is much more to a dyed-in-the-wool bushytail hunter than suggested by the  five words. It is a time of year, even a mode, that turns the entire forest into a mysterious era that is so consuming that no one will ever fully understood it. Yet, there are a few hunters who seem to have at least partially mastered it.

My father, the late Jacob Wesley Scifres, is a good example. At Crothersville (Jackson County) a standard opinion was that Jake Scifres (as he was known) “could kill his limit of squirrels in a woods where there weren’t any.” My dad also was known as “Hickory,” but I did not know whether the name came from the fact that he was tall like a hickory tree, or that he seemed to know the location of every hickory tree in the area. When cold weather came in the fall my dad would have several bushels of hickory nuts. On cold winter nights my dad would crack several pie pans of nuts, and we would snack on them.

On opening morning one year in the late 30s, he went to Franklin Bottoms with two friends who were pretty good hunters. When they returned slightly before 10 a.m., they each had a limit of five squirrels. My dad had bagged 14 of them, six from one hickory tree.

He explained to me that he wanted his friends to have a good platter of fried squirrel. 

On another hickory tree in the Gilliad Hills of Scott County, before game laws were tightened in 1937, he bagged 12 grays off one hickory tree with his 16-gauge, Winchester Model 97. Describing that episode, he said as he approached the large hickory he could see that there was only one hickory limb leading to a large beech tree that he knew was a den tree. As he stealthily moved to a commanding spot of the one escape route, he fished extra shells out of his pocket to feed into the magazine as he shot.

Incidentally, the Winchester Model 97 was a tremendous shotgun (purchased y my mother for my father). She knew her bread was buttered by wild game. But the small hammer also was very dangerous because it was so small and would slip from the pressure of one’s thumb and fire accidentally. 

He said the hickory was crawling with gray squirrels (very wild and wary in the hardwood hills), and that he started the shooting with a squirrel that was cutting a nut on the lowest limbof the tree. He said his first shot set the squirrels into a wild tizzy and they headed across the hickory limb route to the beech. He fired each time a squirrel neared the end of the limb and kept stuffing more shells into the Model 97’s magazine. 

My dad said his first victim fell very close to the trunk of the hickory an all of the others could be reached without moving his feet after he walked to the spot where they fell.

When squirrels cut hickory, a stealthy stalker can encounter some hard-to-believe episodes. What brings this about, I cannot say. But often, it seems, every squirrel in a woods will be aware of the food a given tree offers, and they often visit the tree to feed early in the morning, late in the afternoon, and at times during the day, or on rainy, overcast days. Grays feed more in congregation than fox squirrels, but  fox squirrels will gather on such a tree. Frankly, I have always thought grays offered better taste than fox squirrels, but the latter probably offers six to eight ounces more meat. 

     A good feature of hunting squirrels when they are cutting hickory heavy early in the season (when nuts are maturing) revolves around good shots. A squirrel cutting hickory will often go to the ends of a limb to select a nut then return to a solid spot to eat it. Usually the eating spot is the same; the procurement spots vary.  They first cut away all or part of the thick, outer husk, then chisel through the hard, thin inner nut to get the kernels. The pieces of the green, outer husks, of course are dropped to the earth, and tell a story of their own as they fall through the leaves.

The cuttings of the outer shell often tell yet tell another story if one has spooked a squirrel that is in the act of eating a nut. This story is told by the freshness of cuttings under a tree. I figure that if  I can squeeze liquid out of a cutting, the squirrel probably is still hiding on the hickory or a tree nearby. Older , brown, somewhat-dry cuttings tell me the action has occurred in the recent past, and those that are bone-dry are less promising.

The squirrel, of course, is a master at using its front paws to hold a nut, and a past-master at chiseling through a hard, but relatively thin nutshell with those two upper front teeth. Those teeth, incidentally, will bite you, too. And they will extract a piece of nutmeat from the smallest, most inaccessible crevice in a nut. I sometime think squirrels can  “out-Newton” Sir Izaac in the theory of gravity.

So you want to hunt squirrels on hickory via the stalking route, do you? Well, after you have mastered a few of the habits of the species, you must learn something about quietude in moving through the woods.

My dad gave me my first lesson in stalking in Lou Nehrt’s woods west of Crothersville when I was four years old. He didn’t need them, but he told me the best shoes to wear in that game was a pair of thin-soled tennis shoes. His old black, thin-soled shoes worked just fine.

My dad cradled the old model 97 Winchester in his right arm as he pointed out to me that one can move fairly quiet through the forest floor if on every movement of the feet the heel goes into the leaves and humus first, then the rest of the foot follows if the thin tennis sole does not reveal dry sticks.

He also pointed out that one does not move brush, saplings, and other items encountered unless there is no other way because movement is like waving a red flag at a mad bull. It is a sure sign to both squirrels and man that there may be an interloper about. Of course, young-of-the-year are much more tolerant of the faults of a stalk.

“The goal,” my dad said, “is to get within shooting distance of the game before it knows you are about.” 

Stalking is that simple, or that painful--pick your poison. I have often moved a scant 10 feet in half an hour. Then one can find some places (like creek beds) where silent movement is easy and fast.  One must equate the time it will take to stalk with the time the squirrel will stay put. 

Pre-season checking is always recommended, but if your schedule has not provided time for this, the scouting can, and should, be done as you hunt. If there are a lot of signs--say leaf nests, digging of small holes straight down for an inch, and other telltales--you may want to return. Knowing whether or not a woodland is hosting good numbers of squirrels will guide your efforts.

However, squirrel populations can change as the summer wears on.

I remember one year in particular when I was a kid. During the early part of the squirrel season I found only a few squirrels in my old favorite woods. Other hunters in the town found the same in Lou Nehrt’s bottom woods. So my early efforts, and those of others, were in other woodlands. But later in the summer (mid-September) I was walking through the woods to get home late one afternoon and was surprised to find game everywhere my path took me. Needless to say, I kept Nehrt’s woods a deep secret, but spent a lot of time there. 

The natural phenomenon that set up those circumstances revolved around current mast crops. There were few hickory nuts to provide early food for squirrels, but a heavy crop of white oak and pin oak acorns matured later in the summer and fall to create a real smorgasbord. Incidentally, an old Southern Indiana saw indicates that squirrels “could starve to death eating red oak acorns. Still, they eat them.

Selection of a gun for hunting squirrels is a fairly easy decision. Basically it is shotguns and rifles – most often .22 caliber, However, I have done some hunting with a long-barreled pistol with some success, and now and again my slingshot comes into play. Muzzleloaders of many calibers also are a possibility.

If a shotgun is your choice, it should have a long fully choked barrel and be loaded with hard- shooting shells from No. 4 shot up to 6s. Steel shot is required by some states (not Indiana) unless you also are hunting waterfowl. Steel shot must be used for waterfowl in Indiana.

Gun selection has not been much of a problem for me. My dad bought me a single-shot, bolt-action, Springfield when I was seven years old. He kept the iron sights in tune by shooting through the neck of a Coke bottle and breaking the bottom. Naturally, I got pretty good at pasting squirrels in the head.

The late William Branard “Jack” Cane, my best hunting pal, bought a Remington Targetmaster a week later and the two riles spent a lot of time in the woods together for many years. I still have both.

Jack and I moved a lot when we were hunting because we often strayed into posted woods. Although we were often some distance apart, we still knew how many squirrels the other had by counting rifle shots. We seldom missed. Don’t ask me to shoot that way now.

One time Jack and I stepped into the edge of a thicket, and before we parted to hunt I spied a squirrel some 80 yards away on a pignut tree. Jack told me to sneak to the tree and bag the squirrel.  He joined me to pick up the downed squirrel, and when I picked it up I exclaimed: “I’m gonna have to have my dad set these sights . . . I missed the eye a quarter of an inch!”

I had.

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

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This photo shows the makeup of a hickory nut. Squirrels cut away the thick, green outer shell to get to the hard, inner shell that houses the kernels (nut meats). Cuttings of the outer shell fall to the earth to silently tell of the whereabouts of squirrels. This type of hickory nut bloom in spring develops into one nut, or a cluster of two or more.  Cracked the hickory nut offers delicious snacks, and adds to cooking and baking.
 


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All columns 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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