The tall shagbark hickory was loaded with nuts but the smooth open earth beneath it was clear of cutting litter. But a few paces farther into the beautiful park-like campground woods, a limb swished on another hickory and a gray squirrel scurried off in alarm. Green chunks of nut hulls lay all over the ground under this tree and beyond deeper in the woods I could see discarded nuts lying all around under a larger hickory. I spied a gray on the ground near the foot of a tree, frozen in place watching me.
It was August 11, second Saturday of the month and a week short of opening day of squirrel season, but by all signs in this sanctuary where squirrels are always safe from the gun, the hickory-nut cutting season was well advanced.
In the ancient world purple was a prized and costly color, the hue of royalty. From the Bible we know of one of Paul’s converts, Lydia, a seller of purple dye or perhaps of purple cloth. We have our own purple here now in our meadows and pastures: the majestic ironweed, which is garnishing our land with its brilliant sprays of purple. There is a saying among those who observe the land and what goes on off the pavement that when ironweed blooms squirrels begin cutting the green hickory-nut crop.
Most folks associate hickory-nuts with autumn and crisp weather, not the heat of August summer. The iconic image is of fallen nuts and hulls that have split to surrender the hard whitish nut. The nuts of August have tight hulls that cling to the nut; it takes sharp specialized teeth to whittle away the hull to expose the hard shell that houses the kernel. Nutmeats do not fall out; those specialize incisors must mine every speck, often leaving the shell as a hollow round. Hickory-nuts are not mature in August. It would be fruitless to plant them and expect to get trees. But the fruits of the shagbark ovata species and the sweet pignut glabra have reached a stage of delectability to the palates of the Sciurdae — “shade tail” clan, and both of our native Kentucky representatives — gray and fox — ride the timber to favored trees with an incautious frenzy that makes them vulnerable to a diminishing cadre of squirrel-slaying experts who know trees and techniques.
Why do squirrels so utilize immature fruit? We see the same feeding preferences in humans. We love to fry green tomatoes. We prefer vegetables such as cucumbers, okra, and zucchini when far from ripe, and many people want their green snap beans to be little more than pods.
As among all cultivars of fruits and vegetables there is a variance of cutting schedules among hickory trees. I know of trees that are always cut out before the hunting season opens even when the calendar cycles it backward to the earliest opening day. The meeting of squirrels and hunters at their beloved traditional trees is a rite and a reunion. When the calendar robs us of this reunion it is like missing a dear event.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous remark, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers, and divines” might have added to its list “little game managers” unless because members of Fish and Game Commissions who set seasons and regulations are minions of the political system and can be called “statesmen” of sorts already.
The “foolish consistency” in view here is the hidebound “Third Saturday” opening, a weaving target that wanders back and forth through a week of calendar, an arbitrary contrivance that can make of ruin a hunting season for persons who must wait a year for a do-over, and in the case of older hunters, another twelvemonth is an increasingly nebulous hope.
This opening day concept has no basis in biology (If we managed squirrels on sound biology the season would not open until mid-October to give that second litter of young more time to wean, and would certainly not run until the end of February.) It serves only to deprive honest hunters of the chance to enjoy deep hunting experiences with many great trees and turns a percentage of the early hunting over to those who hunt according to nature’s dictates, not to those of the law. In fairness, squirrel poachers are probably almost as rare nowadays as are legitimate hunters.
I used to find spent 12 gauge hulls among the nut cutting debris under a particular tree on Owl Holler most opening mornings. I always killed squirrels from this tree and its companions, but the rules had allowed the outlaw to rob me of opportunity without fair competition.
Just how early should squirrel season open to give hunters a fair chance to hunt most of the good cutting trees? I recall a fellow telling me once that he had really piled them up under a great early shagbark on the ridge between Owl Hollow and Camp Spring while the Germantown Fair was in session. That’s pretty early in August and it makes a case of an August 1 opening.
The second Saturday would be a reasonable time. No matter when in August, it is always a hot, uncomfortable environment in the woods. It’s not for everybody, but there is no good reason for not giving those who want to endure it the option. Start it a week earlier, or even go all out and begin August 1. Let the ironweed bloom, not a fickle calendar, decide. We might make some hot fruitless trips to the woods before we find any action, but give us the choice. Subtract that week or two from the tail end of the season in February, or better do the right thing and split the season. Close that first phase after Labor Day and start the next well into October and close at the end of January.