Friday, August 24—I am finally in the woods after a long and hard uphill hike on the old dug road and across a wide ridge of hay regrown to knee height after its first cutting of the season. Getting here has brought many painful steps to the soles of my feet under the thin rubber of cheap gum boots as I stepped on the rocks of the road, and the ridge crossing of the dew-wet hay has been like wading in thick water, but at last I am where I can begin to hunt the head of this wooded holler that contains several hickory-nut cutting trees widely enough spaced to stalk in turn.
I often encounter wild turkeys here. I am glad not to hear them this morning because they always cause much din and disturbance. It is quiet in the woods this morning—no turkey chatter and no overt squirrel sounds: no gritting noise squirrels make when they cut into hickory-nut hulls, no nuts dropping from trees, no swishing of limbs as I approach the first hot spot, a big double-trunk shagbark and a smaller companion.
But as I come under the trees I hear subtle rustlings and find that there are single grays working the high canopies in each tree. I take a seated position where I have some view of both trees. I see two other grays in the vicinity; they seem as if they are coming to join the others already breakfasting, but each timbers away without coming in to cut.
Dissatisfied with my position, I rise and maneuver in an effort to obtain a shot. The gray in the smaller hickory moves about and takes a classic cutting stance well in the open but the only shooting rest tree is a dead sapling that is too limber to be a solid support for a shot that is high in the tree. It is difficult to hold both the rifle and its rest steady but I press the trigger just as everything settles from weaving with the reticle fast on the critter’s head. There is a nice “plunk” of the kugelschlagen and my target drops into the shadowy understory.
The big double trunk hickory is behind and slightly downhill and I need turn only a bit right to cover it. The gray there is on the move and soon settles on a high perch but with head somewhat obstructed. But I accept the shot and again have the reward of a good strike sound and a plummeting body.
I gather my kills and stalk along the deer trail that skirts the top of the holler bank. Cuttings litter the next hickory’s drip area but there is nothing working it. But I hear squirrel sounds coming from farther down along the trail at the next hickory. As I come up to it a gray bolts and goes away through the trees of an old fencerow, but there is another still working high in the hickory. A limb on an adjoining tree gives a violent rattle and a large fox squirrel almost the color of its surroundings materializes on the hickory trunk and I shoot it. The gray high in the tree keeps cutting until it finishes its nut and moves to get another. Its new position gives me a window through the foliage to slip a round into its head.
I am four-for-four with one other place to check: three shagbarks in a narrow open ridge meadow near enough to the woods I am in that squirrels will go to them. I work uphill through dense, trashy thicket to get within range of the hickories from the edge. Two of the trees are laden with nuts but there is no cutting. Next I discover that another shagbark in an overgrown fencerow along the edge of this same open meadow is also cropping well but there are no squirrels and no sign of cutting there either. This is a great disappointment.
The walk out retraces my early steps and is a painful hike over the rocks of the old road.
Saturday, August 25: It has been months since I have been on the River Ridge and its beloved old dirt road that runs both level and takes rises with the deep scallops of the narrow ridge. At the top of the first rise where a trail cuts left down a point, I see that the old growth ash is entirely dead. On both sides of the point trail near the ash there are scattered shagbarks of small size but considerable age and nut bearing ability. There are nuts on some of the trees and cuttings under the largest one on the right side of the trail, but no squirrels in the trees.
I sit to watch and listen. A gray barks back the direction I have come from the ridge trail. I slip toward it and find that it is in the woods over the river bluff. Through the trees behind the barking all that is visible is a gray fog from the river. Were it not for the thick foliage and the fog, I would be able to see the river and across to Ohio. I don’t locate the squirrel until it moves, still chattering as it exits right around the bluff too quickly to fire at with the rifle, but I could have taken it easily with a 20 gauge.
Next I visit the large shagbark in the low dip where a south-running holler with a relatively new dug road heads. This great tree commands a spot where past logging has opened the river bluff woods to give a panoramic view of the river and the Ohio side. The tree is full of nuts but there are no cuttings on the ground under it.
The ridge and trail rise just past this big hickory and enter an open meadow, but just below the top I exit onto a side trail that runs onto the spur point that divides the river bluff from the east slope of Shanty Holler. This is all venerable ground to Springdale hunters but Shanty is the inner sanctum. It is the first drainage east of the mouth of Cabin Creek and of what was Springdale. It has been 50 years—1968, the 3rd Season—since I first entered Shanty from the railroad in the manner other Springdale hunters such as Walter B. Soister and the Poole brothers had traditionally approached it to reach the shagbarks along the spine of this point and the holler’s east slope. Myriads of squirrels have fed and died on the hickories and even greater myriads of lead shot have rattled on their steel-like bark. Now on this morning I, the last of Springdale’s hunters, have returned. I sense humility and sadness from the likelihood that no matter what happens today, I and my rifle will likely be the last to spill squirrel blood here.
Not far down the point I have a bad moment when I stumble and lose control of my feet for several steps that take me toward the east edge of the trail and the steep bluff. But I save myself from a bad fall onto rocky ground by putting my right hand on a convenient tree to arrest my stagger.
There are old cuttings under the first good hickory, an odd specimen with shagbark-type nuts but mostly tight pignut bark without scales. A gray barks to my left across one of the little finger drains that run toward the ridge, but it quiets without my ever seeing it. I go down the spine to the cluster of hickories not far above the railroad. Several of the trees have good crops of nuts but no cutting activity. I recall that this was the situation in 2005, one of the worst seasons I have ever experienced.
My final hunt site is the Book Cover Woods, as I have come to call the extensive stand of shagbarks along the edge of the ridge that is the second one back from the ridge that overlooks the river. I find some nuts on the trees, dried cuttings under others, but only one gray that is just meandering through the canopy and not cutting. It would be vulnerable to a shotgun but is safe from my scoped .22.
This concludes a rough diary of my opening week of squirrel hunting. It was hot and uncomfortable, not an activity many—even dedicated outdoorsmen—any longer choose to do. I have told it as it happened with all the flubs and finesses of an old man struggling to hold onto his life despite adverse changes in the world and in himself. The results were disappointing, not so much for the low kill as for the sense that something is out of synch when the nuts are on the trees but the squirrels are not coming to cut them. Squirrels in the hickory trees in August mean that nature is working as it ought to operate. The one good thing I take from the week is that at 71 in this 3rd postscript season beyond the fifty, I can still do business with my rifle.