The woodland ground was dark in the dimness of early morning, but I could see the bright specks of fresh hickory-nut cuttings in the old woods road under the big sweet pignut.
Yet as far as I could tell, there was no squirrel activity in the tree or in others scattered throughout the little patch of woods at the head of a short drain.
I didn’t sit long at this first hunting site of this new squirrel season. There were other trees to visit, and five decades of hunting history had taught me that this spot often attracts bushytails feeding on a slightly later schedule than the iconic first blush of dawn.
Even familiar woods evolve and change during so much seasonal passage. Old trees become less fertile. Some trees die or storms destroy them. The quirky nature of how hickories pollinate could cause a productive tree to stop bearing because a pollinator tree dies.
On the good side of change, young trees mature and become bearing members of the forest community. My next stop was to be such a tree, a medium-size shagbark somewhere out ahead in the labyrinth of trash and cedars. The problem was that there was no road map for finding this tree other than to take the path of least obstruction, a dim deer trail, and hope to come near enough to see the hickory—or to hear squirrels working in it by the sound of falling nut hulls or the gritting of incisors on hard shells. Though my history in the place is long, with this tree it began in ’08 when I first discovered that it had become a cutting tree and shot five grays from it one morning.
Squirrels can be very quiet while cutting. I learned this when I was much younger and my hearing much better, but it seems that the older I get, the squirrels cut with increasing subtlety, so I suspect the hard truth is that my auditory senses have diminished to the point that it is affecting my hunting skill. I didn’t see or hear the shagbark I was looking for until nut hulls fell from it right above my head. At least my quiet stalking ability had held up so that I was able to move in under a feeding bushytail without spooking it.
Thus began a frustrating period of riposte during which I had two grays cutting high in the tree overhead but I could not find a position from which I could see them for a shot. But a limb convulsed on a cedar below the hickory and a squirrel paused on the way in to cut, offering me a clear but small target shot because it was almost facing me. The bullet thumped with a solid hit and I saw a flash of russet, which designated it as a fox squirrel, as the body dropped down through the cedar’s limbs.
I had made good on the front end of the Nash Buckingham Doctrine: “Never begin or end a shooting season with a miss.” And so began Season 2013.
Soon, another gray worked in to the hickory through the neighboring cedars. It left the shagbark quickly, but not before grabbing a take-out nut. But this one made the mistake of posing in an adjoining cedar to devour the meal. The shot toppled it into the understory. The season was opening well indeed.
I made several moves in trying to obtain firing solutions on the squirrels still working the hickory before they spooked or just decided to leave. When this happens, the rifleman is at a disadvantage, so I didn’t get a shot.
I left that site and worked on out the hillside to an old fencerow that Daddy had showed me in the fall of 1963. There had been a fine huge old shagbark there, the first hickory I ever targeted as a cutting tree. I shot squirrels from it with every shotgun I ever used, with iron-sighted rifles, and drew first blood on it with a new all-weather Ruger 77-22. My favored Remington .22 dropped its third squirrel from that tree in the season of ’84 and many more thereafter.
Over the decades I watched logging and natural evolution and devolution change the fence row and turn it from a pretty wood into a tangled thicket, the centerpiece shagbark coming to tower over a mess of wild rose bushes, which made retrieving kills difficult and painful. I watched the decline of the great tree, which I named the “Fencerow Hickory.” It died a few years back and now the briars and brush have devoured even its huge rotting bole.
But there are younger hickory successors in the vicinity and it’s still an excellent place for squirrels. On opening day of last year, I had begun my season with three grays from a tall shagbark in the cleanest section of that wood, a tree that had traditionally been the squirrels’ second choice to the Fencerow Hickory. On this opening day, however, I found neither squirrels nor cuttings, so I began the lengthy but not strenuous trek to my next destination: the giant shagbark that I call “My Favorite Hickory.”
I discovered My Favorite Hickory in the fall of ’68. Daddy was gone by then and I was on my own, a solitary hunter as I have been for the bulk of my career. It was past the cutting time when I found it, but that next season I went to it early and gray squirrels were riding its limbs and raining down a steady stream of cuttings. Over the next decades, I shot squirrels there first with Papaw Sam’s 37 Winchester 12 Red Letter single-shot, and in turn with my Remington 1100 12, and 870 20 and 16 gauge pumps. I picked off a few with the Frank Garrett Rifle, a .22 Remington 121 pump and even one fox squirrel with my Smith & Wesson K22 Masterpiece revolver.
Most significantly, it was at this tree that I first spilled squirrel blood with the rifle love of my life—the same Remington bolt action I was using on this recent opening day—on a brace of fox squirrels one mild late August afternoon 29 seasons gone. We squirrel hunters form spiritual bonds with such great hickory trees and going to them becomes revered tradition. I have made literary use of two hunts at this tree, one of which, “Beginning Again: Opening Day” became the title story of my first book.
In May of ’03 an F5 tornado raged across our little valley on a long swath of destruction, which included taking one of My Favorite Hickory’s major upright branch trunks. It survived, but this violent pruning made it a different tree, causing it to re-grow a dense, compact canopy into which it is difficult to see, and all the while the thicket around it has also grown larger and thicker. My Favorite Hickory was never an easy tree in which to spot and shoot squirrels, but it has become a very difficult tree at which to have a quick successful hunt.
One gray was working the middle section but I couldn’t see it. Several positional changes did not create a firing solution and finally the quarry busted me and left the tree, going into the trash to my right. But it stopped in an ash for a better look at me. I was standing next to a good support tree for a left-handed shot, so it became kill number three. I can’t over-emphasize the value of ambidextrous shooting.
If, like Star Wars Ewoks, we had soul trees, My Favorite Hickory would be mine. We have so much history and commonalty, both being survivors of serious efforts on the part of the universe, which is both an impersonal quickener and killer, to finish us. My storm was heart failure, but like the tree, I took damage and bulled through it, so we are both around after so much time to share another hunt.
I returned to the first woods to check on the later shift. There were two grays, one in the big double trunk with way too much neighboring understory screening it. I got two shots, one fast and high, the other supported only by a maple switch rest, but I couldn’t connect.
Age is telling on me. I made that hunt with back pain and I know that my sight and hearing have dulled my hunter’s edge, but my season’s first hunt, one of triumphs and failures, did not dishearten me. I’ve had worse opening days.