Second of Three Parts:
Monday, August 20: Here I am back in the opening day woods. There will be no rain this morning. The turkeys have found another roosting place for last night, so I am without two aggravations I had to deal with on Saturday. But there is no squirrel activity in Saturday’s hot spot—the meeting place of the little drain and the bench.
I angle upward through the thicket to the Big Twins. There are no squirrels in them today. This reprise circuit is only a preliminary digression. I have another area that has been good to me over seasons stretching back fifty years to 1968—the Third Season. It is not far and is a part of this same large hillside thicket, but I will not go to it through the woods. This is not a pretty place and it is unpleasant to snake through it and eke my way around and under a myriad of branches, some of them thorny. This is what happens to open land after man steps away. It will be much easier to leave the woods and take the ridge trail that skirts them. I can spot the big shagbark hickory that is my destination as it towers above the plebian bushes and then re-enter the thicket a short stalking distance from it.
In the early phase of the season in August my strategy is hickory-hopping. I bounce between cutting trees where experience and history tell me the squirrels should be. I go travel mode, not trying to sneak with every step and do not shift into hunting attitude until I am within critical distance of the target trees.
There is at least one gray working the tree and I get within range without scoping it. But there is no firing solution because it is high in the tree and hidden in the foliage. Dark leaves and shadows screen all its snake-like slithering’s as it rains cuttings down. It seems that squirrels are getting quieter and less visible as they work hickories, or maybe the changes are in my ears and eyes rather than in the squirrels!
After a few long minutes of this frustration, a limb rattles in a cedar below the hickory as a new gray works in for breakfast. This one pauses and gives me an easy shot. It hangs for a moment before falling and I see that it is a large old male. The crack of the .22 does not disturb the squirrel high in the hickory.
But getting a successful shot often breaks these impasses. A gray moves on the far right end of a high branch and when it poses momentarily the crosshairs settle under its jaw. It tumbles at the shot.
“How did that squirrel get to that side of the tree without my seeing it move?” I ask myself. But then the one I have been trying to track stirs in the tree’s interior overhead. Kill number two was a newcomer. The initial squirrel is still operating but has shifted to the left side where I have a better view of its area of operation, and soon I see I, but with some small obstructions shielding its head. Impatience overcomes me again and I take the shot. Unlike on Saturday, I get away with my impatience and the shot works.
I gather my three kills and head downhill to where three more shagbarks stand at was once was an edge where semi-open land above joined a thicket of more density, but where time has eliminated the edge and turned everything into a thick wilderness. There is a gray posed in classic cutting stance about halfway up one of the trees but I am without a shooting rest tree and the shot is too far to try offhand. I shift a step to my right where I can take the shot from a cedar but must assume a strained stance in order to give the scope a clear view of the target. This causes the shot to miss. The squirrel scurries off and so does another, but a third is still working the hickory. Another begins to bark off in the woods. The squirrel that is still in the tree leaves it through the cedars over my head, clutching a nut in its mouth. It stops behind me to cut the nut and I see it through cedar branches. Cedars are notorious for deflecting bullets, but I have a go at it in another show of impatience. Again I get lucky.
I have one other hickory island to investigate, also a part of this same woods, but I also go to it by the ridge trail. This is a cluster of smallish shagbarks that seem not to have changed in fifty years, but they are reliable nut-bearers. The ridge trail now spits the stand, leaving most of the hickories on the north side. The north side trees have some cuttings under them but nothing is active in them this morning. I sit on the edge of the trail and scan the three on the south side of the ridge. I see one gray move but do not spot it again.
It is getting late and hot. I have had enough. Four for five, all head shot. I’m working into my stride.
Wednesday, August 22nd: This is the hunt to the Big Woods facing the creek. This is another region of the same territory I have been hunting so the hickory-nut production I have encountered gives me much optimism.
But the first area is a bust without cuttings. I cross the head of a holler and take the ridge trail to a fine early hickory, the tree where I first blooded my reserve rifle, the “Fat T” back in ’06—the 41st Season. This tree is a reliable cropper but squirrels always cut it early, and that is what has happened again. I follow the trail on north out the ridge of the Big Woods. I spot a gray that runs up a tall ash and disappears. While I am watching for it I hear a nut drop farther out the ridge. I find a single gray working a shagbark and get a high shot that fells it.
I retrace my steps out the ridge but cut left down a point to investigate the rocky bluff I call the Hickory Woods because there are so many shagbarks and pignuts on it. I find old cuttings under the first tree I come to but plenty of nuts and no cuttings under the largest tree on the bluff. My next and last stop is the ridge grove where I saw the last squirrel on Monday. There is a lone gray in one of the south side trees but I do not get a shot at it.
I have seen enough to draw some conclusions about this season. It will be tough. Game seems scarce. There are plenty of hickory-nuts but not enough squirrels here to work them in the manner that makes for good hunting.