There was a time when one could not wait for the seasons, and the leaves, to change. Fall meant more than football at my house…it meant squirrel season, and time and lessons learned in the woods with my Dad.
There’s a reason why September 15 is special to me.
No, it’s not because of football season, or Labor Day, or even going back to school. You see, there was a time when we watched the calendar at my my house because September 15, back then, meant the opening of squirrel season. And in the hills of southern Ohio, outside Ironton, opening day of squirrel season was akin to being a national holiday.
This was the early 60s, of course, and back then just about every school boy and his dad hunted squirrels. Not for sport, mind you, but for wild meat, because squirrels raised amongst the hardwoods – hickories, oaks, and walnuts – were as tasty a meal as you could imagine. What’s more, the bottom lands along Symmes Creek were planted in corn and squirrels came to the creek for water, and while they were there…feasted on the fat ears that hung close to the ground before they were harvested by the corn picker.
My dad was particularly fond of squirrel hunting, because he grew up doing it with his dad and eight brothers in the post-Depression years. And, he made sure that he passed along the tradition to me. In addition, he used that time in the woods to share with me the facts about gun safety, and good hunting ethics. Never hunt out of season, he’d say, and only kill what you intended to use. Always practice conservation, because what you save this year would provide next year’s squirrel crop.
He had a habit of getting up in the morning long before daylight. I well remember Mom frying those bacon and eggs, making a pot of coffee, and making sure we ate something before we headed for the woods. Which was tough for me because I hadn’t slept the night before – too anxious for the following morning and the hunting amongst the hickories.
These were the hills of my grandfather’s 185 acre farm, in Lawrence County, where the ridges extended for miles and were covered with prime hardwoods that provided squirrels with food and den trees. Dad knew just where to go, as he’d hunted these hills since he was old enough to tote a shotgun.
And that’s what he hunted with – an old Ithaca double-barreled shotgun that his father had bought for him during the great depression. Dad was an excellent rifle shot, by the way, but he still preferred the feel and nostalgia of hunting with the scatter gun that had served him so well for so many years.
By 6 am we’d finally leave the house and make our way up the hill, picking our way through the giant boulders and swiping away the spider webs dripping with morning dew. It was about a thirty minute walk to where Dad liked to hunt and he took every step like it was to be his last.
“Be patient, and quiet. Move slowly,” he caution me, which was tough because I wanted to get there and have the action begin. Patience was not a virtue for a ten-year-old.
“Listen for movement in the tree tops,” Dad would whisper, his eyes scanning the tops of the giant oaks and beech trees. “They’ll see and hear you long before you see them, so you have to be slow and quiet. Don’t step on any dry sticks, and avoid rustling the leaves.”
He was the best, because before I knew it, or knew what he was shooting at, he would ease that old Ithaca to his shoulder and slowly wait for his opportunity. Boooomm…and the woods would reverberate with the sound of the blast. From high up in the tops of one of those trees a fat fox squirrel would come tumbling down, striking limbs and leaves on its way to the ground. I would start to go retrieve our prize, but Dad always held me back – made me wait.
“There might be another one up there,” he caution. “Just wait a few minutes and see what happens.”
More often than not he would be right. And after the forest calm settled in after the gun blast, he would ease that old 12 gauge back up to his cheek. Boooomm…and another fat ‘tree rat’ would come crashing through the branches.
One morning, on a different year, I sat beside him and watched him shoot four out of the same tree within a ten minute period. And there were so many he could have shot more.
“No,” he objected, when I asked him why. “The limit is four and that’s enough for a good meal.” Mom was still cleaning up the breakfast dishes by the time we walked back into the house.
We did this for years – through high school, and even college. I remember Dad calling me at Ohio State and asking me if my Saturday was open (I was playing in the marching band during those years). “If you don’t have other plans why don’t you come home Friday night and we’ll squirrel hunt in the morning.”
Some mornings we’d get up extra early and drive to a favorite spot in Preble County. Other mornings we’d hunt north of Piqua at a friend’s property on Demming Road. As the years passed I began to notice that we were the only ones in the woods. Dad would smile and say, “That’s fine. If it’s too early for others we’ll have the woods to ourselves.”
I also noticed that as he aged he shot less and observed more.
“I’ve done my share of shooting,” he’d say. “It’s not as much fun as it used to be, and whole lot more work to skin and clean ’em.”
The last time we went hunting was in 2000, and we took my son Matt. I think we got six that morning between us, and Dad was pleased to let Matt harvest the only limit…because we could have taken twice as many.
He’s gone now, but I’ll never forget those mornings with him in the woods. I’ll never forget his words and training about safety, and his dedication to the rules and ethics of hunting. Make clean, humane shots, and always shoot what you intend to use. “Nature was created for man to have dominion over the animals,” he say, quoting from Genesis. “It’s also your duty to preserve it.”
I don’t hunt myself much anymore. It’s just not as much fun to go without him. Rather, it’s easier and more satisfying to remember those times together – to write about them. And like him, I enjoy not having to “skin and clean ’em.”
And the irony of it all – I’ll soon be the same age as Dad was…when he stopped hunting squirrels.