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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 â€“
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
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
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!”
Click on thumbnail
image for enlarged view.
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.
type of hickory nut bloom in spring develops into one nut, or a cluster
of two or more.
the hickory nut offers delicious snacks, and adds to cooking and baking.