"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2007 by Bill Scifres
September 2007

It may be that squirrel hunting is the third or fourth most popular pastime of Hoosiers nimrods--and their ilk in other Midwestern states. Yet, when that time of year rolls around, Mr. Bushytail holds sway. Fried squirrel’s not bad, nor is/are squirrel and dumplings.

Sure, the opening of the season at mid-August when Mr. Bushytail is most interested in cutting hickory nuts for food is a great time to hunt. But when squirrels go likewise to other food sources--especially beech--hunting becomes a whole, new ball game . . . and a very interesting one.

There are many complimentary things to say about hunting squirrels in the fall, the first of which is that only the very hardy mosquitoes are still around at this time of year. Cooler nights have spelled doom for most of them. The ones that are still here go on the wing only during the warm hours of the late-morning an late afternoon.

 “Well,” you may counter, “the woods is very dry and it is tough to stalk hunt.” Right on, pal. That’s the whole point of September hunting. Since the stalk hunt is difficult, you minimize it. Instead of stalking, you sit . . . and let the squirrels come to you. Naps are not a no-no.

An interesting feature of the September hunt revolves around the fact that so-called “tree” squirrels (the grays and fox species) spend even more time during the day on the ground storing food for the winter. They bury it very shallow in the humus, as opposed to making a cachet. One unit of food at each spot and they smell them later, not remembering the spot where each is in the earth.

I have developed a theory over the years that small food items (say beech nuts) are simply placed under dry leaves, not buried.

However all of that goes, you should not forget to shuck out some of the triangular kernels for a snack. They are delicious raw, even better tasting when roasted. They are best when the outer, spiny nuts are picked from low limbs. Nature packages the nuts--two of the inner nuts that house the kernels in each spiny outer shell. Getting the kernels out is not easy, but it is treat for the taste buds.

I should, of course, add that although roasting the nuts add zest to the kernels, it also makes them more difficult to extract. 

When you find a beech that is being cut by squirrels (empty shells on the forest floor speak volumes), just back off a good rifle shot and sit. The squirrels will come, but if they don’t, you will have a good rest. Between sitting spots you can try stalking 

 I think finding a beech tree (American beech, Fagas grandifolia) that is loaded with nuts is one of the most interesting parts of squirrel hunting--all the more-so if several grays are cutting the nuts and you are standing there in a dry woods with a single-shot rifle.

You know the “crack” of the rifle will send the whole kit and caboodle off to their dens, and you want to nail one with first shot and maybe a second with another shot (however unlikely that may be).

As you bide your time for that first sure shot (the squirrels are out on the ends of the limbs where the nuts grow). The empty nutshells falling through the leaves remind you of a rainstorm on a calm day, and the small limbs thrash the air wildly.

The more you hear the limbs swishing, and watch the show, the more nervous you get. Finally you select a shot only to realize that your old fried, Buck Ager, has presented you with a case of “the shakes” that will assure a clean miss.

This is squirrel hunting in September on beech . . . one of the most interesting hunts you will ever make--with or without meat for the skillet.

When squirrels feed on (cut) the various species of hickory--even pignut or bitter nut--they usually go to the ends of limbs to select a nut to eat or carry it off to bury for winter. But in the case of hickory nuts, black walnuts and some of the oaks, they carry the nut or acorn to a more stationary limb, even next to the tree trunk. These sources of food require more time for extracting the meats. In the case of beech, the nuts are smaller, the shells thinner, and much faster to extract the kernel. As a results, the squirrel cuts beech nuts on the ends of the limbs where the nuts grow. As still more results, a squirrels cutting beech is almost always a moving target and difficult to hit with a rifle.

Still, even with these handicaps, hunting squirrels adds a certain degree of difficulty that gives the game excitement.

In the northwest corner of Lou Nehrt’s bottom woods west of Crothersville, where I cut my teeth on hunting, there was a cluster of beech trees and one or two of them tended to produce a good crop of nuts each year. To make the cluster even more fetching, the base of one tree had a pair of six-inch exterior roots protruding parallel to each other. If I laid down on my back between the roots, my head would pillow on the base of the tree.

With my rifle firmly crosswise on my tummy, I could pass the hot part of the day in slumber and often awake to the sweet sound of cuttings falling through the leaves on me. It was about all a boy could want.

One sleepy September day as a teener, the sun sank behind thickets on the New Cut Road to the west, and I awakened to a new source of reveille. It was a strong kick on the bottom of my shoe sole.

I snapped out of my peaceful slumbers to find the late Mike Garrett, a very big man and much my senior, looking down on me.

Mike warned me in a friendly way that the sun was already down, darkness was nigh, and that I should go with him (in his car) to town.

I thanked Mike, but declined, with the notion that I might find a squirrel on the little hickory at the back of the woods. It was on my route to town.

There were fresh cuttings under the hickory, and I assumed that if I would sit with my back against a little white oak nearby, I soon would get a shot at a squirrel. I soon found the sitting position cumbersome. And thought I could see the hickory as well if I was on my back in the leaves. ZZZZZ! I soon was in never-never land, and Mike’s more forceful boots once more awakened me with: “Come on now . . . it’s dark . . . I knew you’d go back to sleep . . . now come with me and let’s get back to town.”

Again I declined . . . but this time Mike watched as I climbed the east fence and high-tailed  it back to civilization as we knew it.

Many beech trees of size have holes in trunks or limbs and these often are used as squirrel dens. They don’t have to be large holes (entrances), nor spacious chambers. Squirrel like snug places and holes just large enough for entry. This also is true of wild honeybees although they prefer an even smaller entry, but a larger chamber for honey storage. They must subsist on stores of honey through the winter.

Another good feature of beech trees lies in the fact that they are just nice trees. The bark is a rather smooth gray, and they are, more or less, uniform in configuration of limbs. Still, beech trees are not so uniform that one will even think “if you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

When I was a kid at Crothersville, there was a very large beech tree on a gently sloping hill in a broom sedge field about half a mile west of the town’s western limit. It was just west of the Anse Kovener home, an old farmer of German decent. He did not own the field the tree occupied.

That tree was known by many boys as “the Big Beech,” but few of the boys of the town spent much time with it; nobody as much time as I spent there. It’s physical features truly lived up to it’s name. I didn’t measure it with grocery twine (as I have measured many other trees, but a canopy of massive limbs drooped from the trunk halfway up and went all the way to the earth on the south side. A boy could start climbing on those limbs while standing comfortably on the ground and scamper halfway up the tree (40 or 50 feet). There he could flip over on his back and daydream to billowy, white clouds in the high heavens on a limb some 14 inches in diameter and rather flat on top. It was next to impossible for a boy to roll off that limb because it was flanked by parallel limbs of six or eight inches slightly above on both sides. I thought of it as a cradle for all, but I never saw anyone else in it 

I do not know if there are any remains of the Big Beech, the location of which is etched indelibly in my mind. Some day, before I cash in my chips, I would like to “ramble” to the spot.

As fickle as it may sound, the big Beech was neither the starting place nor the stopping place for my sentiments on the breed (species might be a better word). Later in life (after the Germans and Japanese had absconded with four years of my life), the European version of the American Beech became a factor of some importance when I enrolled at Hanover College, by the Ohio River in Southern Indiana.

As you must know, by now, I was not, nor will I ever be, the sharpest tack in the box. I do my best with the brainpower God gave me, and hope it will be enough. With that in mind, it is not out of the question that I would have some academic problems in any establishment of higher learning. 

Thus, the problems came, I think they were called “turn-ins,” a sort of indication that the affected student’s work was a tad shy of par, or snuff, or whatever. Throw in some problems of life, and the scenario becomes a dilly.

With such problems snapping at my heels, it was only a matter of time before the European beech of the beautiful campus and their bronze foliage would catch my eye and capture my heart. The European beech, as a species, tend to be a rather short-trunked tree with limbs sprangling outward only a yard, or a few feet above the earth. Toward mid-summer their leaves (much the shape and size of the American version) are a rich bronze color, a very beautiful tree, still very prevalent on the Hanover College campus.

I was attracted to such a tree on the Hanover campus. It sat somewhere between Science Hall and the president’s home, the exact spot I cannot reveal because the tree is long since gone--probably cut by the college grounds force after it was heavily damaged by a tornado that ravaged the campus. I would visit the tree quite often through the week and more often on weekends when foot traffic about the campus was light. Now and then on weekends I would even remove my shoes and crawl up the tree’s massive limbs where I would do some thinking.

I was very secretive about my “relationship” with the tree for several reason--the first, and most important being that I feared fellow students would think a guy that rode around the campus on the front fender of a fellow student’s Old Chevy at 2 a.m. and potted rabbits (later fried in a popcorn popper) would not be doing great things for his reputation if he let such idiosyncrasies be generally known 

At any rate, the tree and I--I called it “My Citadel”--got along well. We were still good friends when I transferred at the end of my sophomore year to Indiana University to get more journalism courses. I did not become attached to a tree there.

Still, if the story of the importance of beech trees to me is to be told, I must elaborate on the fate of the Hanover beech. It is the least I can do for an old friend.

Some 23 years after my departure from the Hanover Campus (a wife and three daughters later), our family was headed for a vacation in the South. Why not, I reasoned,  cross the Ohio River at Madison (after a short visit to my alma mater) instead of Louisville, KY, the upshot being a long overdue visit with my tree.

So we stopped at Hanover, visited my beautiful old friend, tree, and went on our merry way with the whole story pent up within me. My Citadel was my secret, as it always would be. But even that is not the end of the story. In the following spring (April 3, 1974) a massive tornado would damage the Hanover College campus and severely damage My Citadel. It required weeks--even months--for me to trace the welfare to my friend, but eventually I learned that the tree was badly damaged.

It was late summer before I posed two of my three daughters in front of my patched up friend and shot pictures to commemorate the day--sad as it were. 

After that I lost track her. Work schedules and many other lame reasons let her slip away.

And when I returned she was gone without a trace. Efforts to learn of her demise were of no avail.

Still, I have pictures. And a picture, they say, is worth 10,000 words. I would guess they are right. 

Can there be doubts that I have a soft spot in my heart for beech trees?

Of course, I have never considered beech the only tree in the woods. I have been on quasi “speaking terms” with many other tree species, and individual trees or groves of trees (groups) as both a hunter and just a friend, I am very fond of all trees. Not just beech.

Just down the hillside a quarter of a mile west of the Big Beech (hard on the shore at the edge of a swamp) sat a big grove of white ash trees, and this was one of my favorite places to spend some time as a boy.

One of the great features of this grove was that the saplings were all about the same four inches at the butt. They were also close together--some 50 or 60 saplings--that covered close to 100 yards long. The grove was rather egg-shaped overall and about 25 to 40 yards deep. We would climb one of the trees and when we were in the top make it sway back and forth until we were touching the tops of another tree,. In this position we could grasp the second sapling with one hand and move from one tree to another, somewhat monkey style. A game of tag was in order for groups of boys, and just climbing and swaying was fun if I were alone.

Yes, all trees have been my bag. I knew many trees that served me well for many things in my life, so my flick-of-an-eyelid decision came natural when the builder asked my permission to cut a stovepipe white oak when he was staking out a house he was building for me on the south side of Carmel--on 111th Street.

With the stakes firmly in place and my blueprints tucked under his arm, the builder exuded confidence in “taking me on verbally” to get permission to cut the little white oak.

 “You can see by the chalk line, the tree is only a foot or two from where the basement will be,” he reasoned. “The tree will be in the way of dozers digging the basement.”

“Well,” I opined in my best country boy drawl. “We can knock a foot off each room in the house and the tree will have five feet of leeway . . . The tree stays!”

And it did.

For many years the tree nursed a bulldozer scar that was three feet long and four inches wide. But the tree was there and it recovered. It is some 15 inches in diameter today, though the house is long-since gone.

For many years on summer mornings (with the window open) I would awaken to the sweet music of birds in that little white oak, or of a tail-flipping squirrel scolding me to remind a loggerhead that his ration had not yet arrived at the ground feeding station.

So hunt squirrels on beech trees, or any other tree. It is an easy-going time of the year. If you are lucky you will find a squirrel or two. But if you don’t, you may find a friend instead.

Click on thumbnail image for enlarged view.

tree.jpg (229382 bytes) beechnuts.jpg (22751 bytes) nuts.jpg (93081 bytes) twoheads.jpg (21475 bytes)
Joan and Patty, two of my daughters, pose in front of my tree friend at Hanover College. The tree is long since gone. This picture depicts beech nuts at close range (above). The spiny outer shell contains two inner nuts, each surrounded by thin but tough shell (below).  Beech nuts grow on small limbs of tree. Squirrels feed on ends of limbs and show great movement. Squirrels like small openings. There are two of these.

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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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