Probably the greatest feature of Indiana’s squirrel season setup is
the fact that it offers something for everyone--every type of hunter.
When the statewide season opens at mid-August each year squirrels are
cutting (feeding on) hickory nuts. This has always made the opening of
the squirrel season the exciting event that it is.
At this time of year squirrels are mostly interested in filling their
tummies with hickory nut kernels and sundry other natural foods, then lazing
around through the hot part of the day before having din-din late in the
afternoon. It is a wonderful laid-back life for both the hunted and the
But as the cool nights (not to mention some likewise days) of September
roll around, Mr. Bushytail wisely starts thinking of din-din through the
cold winter months and he acts accordingly--storing food for the winter
in the best possible place--the good earth, more precisely the floor of
the woodland where he lives.
When this natural phenomenon occurs, the habits of squirrels take a
decided turn toward all-day (or at least most of the day) activity. To
compensate, the successful hunter must change his hunting tactics accordingly.
Then comes winter . . . even late winter . . . and squirrels (although
they remain active) change their life styles again.
For many years our statewide squirrel season opened at mid-August and
closed October 31. Several years back the Division of Fish and Wildlife
(DFW) started experimenting with an extension of the squirrel season later
into the winter on selected state fish and wildlife areas. That has led
to an even greater extension (to January 31) on state areas and to all
lands south of U.S. 40. The general season extends to December 31 north
of U.S. 40.
Squirrels start spending more time on the ground than in trees when
they start storing food for winter. This continues through the winter months
as they dip into their larders of nuts, acorns and other products of the
growing season that are stored individually in the forest floor.
Incidentally, fox and gray squirrels, the most numerous of our tree-squirrel
species, and the black squirrel (though not widely distributed in Indiana),
bury their food for the winter in the forest floor, one nut or acorn at
a time. The red squirrel (also known as the piney) tends to cache its food
supplies in hollow trees, limbs or even such non-natural places as the
gutters and down spouts of houses.
Thus the fox, gray and black squirrels earn their title of original
foresters because they bury more nuts and acorns than they dig up. Their
“leftover” nuts and acorns later sprout and turn into new trees in the
How do squirrels find their buried morsels? In view of the fact that
not even an Einsteinian mind could remember the location of all of the
nuts squirrels bury (about half an inch deep in the forest floor), it would
seem logical that squirrels--like many other animals--possess a keen sense
of smell. They use it to find buried food.
Proof of this keen sense of smell will be found in the forest floor.
Just note that squirrels do not dig speculative holes in their search for
buried morsels. They go straight down to the food.
But they probably are not picayunish about whose nuts they dig up--a
philosophy of “any old nut will do.”
Still, these habits of the so-called “tree squirrels” dictate that they
spend a good part of their busy days on the ground. The better a hunter
understands this facet of hunting, the more successful he/she will be.
My point, the thesis of this story, is simply that the successful squirrel
hunter must: (a) interpret the changing behavior of squirrels, and (b)
be able to adapt his hunting modus operandi to meet the changes.
This, in essence, is nothing more complicated the bank’s slogan on serving
its customers: “Whatever It Takes.”
Thus, in the early part of the squirrel season (when squirrels are interested
chiefly in their immediate dietary needs) the successful hunter slips quietly
through the woods while checking trees that he knows, or suspects, are
offering good food early in the morning and late in the afternoon. This
is true squirrel hunting, Hoosier style.
The hunter most often pins his hopes on finding squirrels cutting on
hickory trees, and he tries to detect the presence of a squirrel--or squirrels--long
before he is close enough to shoot. This requires a step-at-a-time stalk
with eyes and ears alert to every sight and sound.
There are many sights and sounds that indicate the presence of feeding
squirrels. The most common of these may be cuttings from the outer husks
of nuts as they fall through swaths of sunlight . . . the sounds cuttings
make (like the gentle patter of rain) as they fall through the leaves,
or the sound of a squirrel chiseling with those big front teeth through
the hard inner nut to get to the kernels.
Even noting the sway or bend of a limb under the weight of a squirrel
will mark the presence of game. And certainly the bounce of limbs as squirrels
jump from one tree to another will tell a story.
If the hunter fails to detect the presence of a squirrel as he approaches
a tree, but finds cuttings on the forest floor that are so fresh they ooze
moisture when squeezed, another story comes to light. The squirrel has
outwitted the hunter and may be flattened out on a big limb somewhere near,
watching the proceedings. In this case, the hunter takes a seat or stands
quietly behind a tree in shooting range to allow more squirrels to come
to the tree that offers food.
During the early weeks of the squirrel season, the hunter goes to the
squirrels--or at least to the trees where they feed. But when squirrels
start storing food for the winter, the hunter will do well to find a tree
that is offering good, mature nuts, take a seat within shooting range and
let the squirrels come to him. This hunting method can be applied to many
of the oak species, too, or even black walnuts. Any nut or acorn that stores
well in the soil is a candidate for the winter larder.
An important factor in determining the order in which the mast (seeds)
of various tree species will be used for food and storage by squirrels
will be dictated by their order of maturing. While hickory nuts and black
walnuts are mature enough to provide food for squirrels at mid-August,
many other forms of mast are not well enough developed until later. This
is especially true of beechnuts and many of the oaks.
However, in years when hickory and black walnut trees are not bearing
good crops of nuts, squirrels will use many other forms of mast--even field
corn. Squirrels eat what Mother Nature produces--at times even bark. This,
incidentally, is not a good year for hickory and black walnuts, and a less
than fair year for the oaks
As fall turns to winter, squirrels probably spend more time on the ground
than at any other time of the year. But it makes sense. The forest floor
is the pantry.
[Note: This contribution
was written for publication in the Raghorn