The sound of leaves shaking high in the trees and drops of water raining off them took me back to about 1965.
I was a skinny kid in ill-fitting clothes, sitting in the murky half-light of dawn and watching for a squirrel out to get his breakfast. It was early season, mid-October, and the hickory trees (we said "hikry") in front of me still had lots of leaves. This made the squirrels hard to see (that would get easier later in the season when the leaves fell), but I knew to be patient and wait for a clear shot.
Now, again sitting in the predawn half-darkness of the early season, all of the sights and smells and sounds of the squirrel woods came flooding back to me, along with a lot of memories.
Younger hunters today may find it hard to believe that, once upon a time, the opening of the squirrel season was a big deal in these parts. I mean like Christmas and summer vacation big deal. Friends and families went to camps for squirrel season like many do for deer hunting now, and wide-eyed kids — and maybe some adults — found it impossible to sleep the night before opening day.
Wearing new boots and an old hunting coat, we jumped in Dad's or Granddad's old truck, and away we went. We were excited, the world was bright and shiny new: It was the first day of squirrel season.
Hunters of all ages actually went out before the season and scouted for good places to squirrel hunt. (Some would open the season early, but that is another story.) They wanted to know where the food was for squirrels, in the form of what the trees were producing. The acorns and other food for the wildlife are known as "mast" to the hunters. There would be endless discussions as to what the mast conditions would be.
"Is there a lot of white oak?"
"Did the mast hit up high, or is it everywhere?"
"Have they cut all the hickory yet?"
When it comes to finding where squirrels were feeding, all forms of mast take a back seat to hickory.
At least two different forms of the hickory tree occur in our eastern woods. The smaller "pig nut" and the larger shell bark hickory produce the food that squirrels will dine on first. Hickory nuts ripen early, and squirrels will start on them before hunting season starts, hence they can be "cut out" of the hickory very quickly. Sitting in the still of an early morning and listening to a couple squirrels cutting on hickory with the accompanying rain of shell particles (known as "cuttings") is one of the chief delights of the early season squirrel hunter.
Again, some of today's hunters may marvel at the extreme popularity of squirrel hunting back in the day. Probably the biggest factor was the scarcity of deer back then. The whitetail deer populations had yet to explode in many parts of the country, and the avid hunters (we had a lot back then) were going to hunt something. Squirrels filled the bill.
Actually, it was all small game; rabbits were popular as well but were usually hunted later in the wintertime.
On this morning, I can't help but wonder as I sit and listen to the world wake up in the deep woods. Am I really here just to squirrel hunt, or am I trying to relive some of the wonder and fascination that skinny kid lived for in what seems like another life?
The woods are much the same, the squirrels are the same, the old Remington .22 rifle is the same, just like Dad left it. One thing that is abundantly clear is I am not the same. We can't do anything about that, that is life, but it doesn't mean I have to like it.
The kid who once sat here and stared at the treetops with every fiber of his being tuned in to find a squirrel would not have worried about such things.
I miss that kid, I miss squirrel hunting, and I miss how things were simple then.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.