Squirrels Are Nuts For Hickories

Smart bushytail hunters would do well to know the location of all the hickory trees in the neighborhood. (September 2007)

Photo by Bill Lea.

If one constant applies in squirrel hunting, it's this: From September well into October, the little gamesters will be cutting hickory nuts throughout much of the eastern half of the country. Depending on the variety of hickory and the elevation, this is likely to be the case in early September, when the leaves are mostly green with just a touch of yellow here and there, and certain to be taking place in late October, when the leaves are golden and about to drop from the trees.

Indeed, if you can spot a patch of gold among the forest canopy and wend you way toward it, you can get into some fantastic sport with gray and fox squirrels.

My family lives on a rural tract, and I frequently go out the back door and head for the woods. On one particular occasion, my destination was preordained -- a lone mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) that grows not far behind our house.

When I arrived at the tree, the sounds coming from its crown quickly drew my eyes upward. At first, all I heard was the telltale raspy racket of a bushytail's teeth grinding away at the hull of a hickory nut. Then came the noise of slivers of shaved hulls cascading through the canopy. Next, a bough slightly trembled, and its leaves shook as the creature jumped to another limb.

The animal soon found another ripe nut and began to repeat the above process. One of the most pleasurable aspects of hunting the hickories is waiting for just the right moment to shoot, as this particular squirrel was hidden behind a large limb.

Inevitably, though, he finished off his prize, and his head popped up as he determined where to move next. It was then that I touched off my scattergun, and the squirrel tumbled to the ground. My favorite part was yet to come, as the meat from this bushytail would simmer along with potatoes, carrots, turnips, and onions in a crockpot for six hours.

The squirrel-hickory connection is strong throughout the region, and if sportsmen learn to identify the various trees and where they grow, they can experience some satisfying action.

For example, the mockernut thrives in moist uplands, often in stands with oaks. Its compound leaves feature seven or nine leaflets and have a pleasing odor when crushed. Shiny dark green in high summer, the leaves show an occasional splash of yellow early in September and, like those of most other members of the genus Carya, turn to gold by sometime in October.

In the summer, the nut's round outer hull is thick and dark green. Its turning to brown seems to signify ripeness to gray squirrels, who diligently labor to remove the husk in order to arrive at the light brown nut itself. Once more, some gnawing is required for the critters to reach the nutmeat inside.

We humans have no idea what a mockernut hickory nut tastes like to squirrels, but I can attest that the flavor is slightly sweet and quite appealing. I regularly gather mockernut hickory nuts both to snack on and for my wife Elaine to use as the prime ingredient in nut bread.

Another important member of the family is the shagbark hickory (Carya ovata). The most visible characteristic of this tree is the rough, shaggy bark that often hangs in light gray curved strips. This species sports five green leaflets that, come autumn, have more of a golden-brown hue than the mockernut's do.

Shagbark nuts are noticeably larger than those of the mockernut; the former feature hulls that can be as much as 2 1/2 inches long but are more commonly less than 2 inches. This tree thrives in both the moist soil of valleys and in upland slopes, where it sometimes dwells near mockernut trees. But from my experience, the shagbarks never seem to be as numerous as the mockernuts, and the squirrels always seem to visit the latter first in September.

That can be because the mockernut apparently ripens earlier, for as tasty as the nuts of the mockernut are to me, the shagbark boasts even more flavorful nutmeat -- and there's more of it as well. I tend to hunt the mockernut groves in early-to-mid September, gravitating later in the month toward the lone shagbarks scattered about in random groves.

A sole shagbark can entice legions of squirrels, and a hunter who takes a stand within shotgun or .22 range of one of these trees can often limit out in a few hours. An important caveat for hunting both mockernut and shagbark hickories: Multiple squirrels will often visit these trees for days on end until the nuts have all been consumed.

To prevent myself from wasting time at a tree or grove whose fruits may have been eaten, one of the first things I do on arrival is to scan the ground for freshly-cut hulls. If the hull shavings still have a touch of green to them, chances are good that the hunting remains quite worthwhile. But if the husks show a washed-out, dull brown, it's very likely that the squirrels have moved on to another hickory grove or to white or red oaks.

One of those hickory groves in which the squirrels may congregating later in early fall is composed predominantly of pignut hickory (Carya glabra) trees. In ability to draw in squirrels, I rate the pignut a distinct third behind mockernut and shagbark trees, which may be the reason that these trees seem to attract squirrels later in autumn. I also believe the nutmeat is not nearly as tasty as that of the other two varieties -- but, again, who knows what the silvertails think? Often the pignut may even have a bitter taste; I never gather them for food.

Pignuts usually feature five light green leaflets that turn golden come fall. The light gray bark is smooth when the tree is young but becomes slightly furrowed as the tree matures. Typically just an inch or so long, the nuts are noticeably smaller than those of mockernuts and shagbarks. The husk is also thinner than that of either of the other two species, and tends to open later in the fall.

Pignut trees tend to grow better in uplands, either moist or dry, and, as is the nature of the family, often flourish in mixed hardwood groves.

Although these three species are the major ones in much of our region, other species of hickories are very much worth noting, as they can be real magnets for gray squirrels. For example, many sportsmen don't realize that pecans (Carya illinoensis) are members of the hickory family. The oblong fruits, 2 inches long, feature a thin husk guarding a thin-shelled nut that, as everyone knows, contains exceptionally scrumptious nutmeat inside. The leaflets number from between 11 and 17 -- a large number for this family.

This species thrives in the lowlands, especially in floodplains and moist valleys.

As with many tree families, a host of other, very regional hickory species exists, among them the water, scrub, shellbark, nutmeg, sand, and black varieties. Interestingly, a very close relative of the hickory clan is the walnut; indeed, they're both part of the same family, so it's no wonder that squirrels gravitate toward both hickory and walnut trees. A good source of information is The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region.

Nineteenth-century gold miners are supposed to have coined the phrase "There's gold in them thar hills." Modern-day squirrel hunters may be forgiven if they want to add the words "and the mountains and valleys, too."

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