The leaves rustle high on the walnut tree. The cracking stops and pieces of hickory shells begin to fall to the forest floor, “ticking” as they hit last year’s dry leaf litter.
Throughout the year this goes unnoticed, but not today and not for Max Roberts. He takes a small step, he pauses, then shoulders the rifle. The single shot from his .22 Remington is followed by more cracks and then a thud. Roberts just got his first chipmunk dinner of the season.
Last Monday marked the start of this year’s squirrel hunting season, which is one of the longest and runs until January 31. Although it may not garner the fanfare or excitement like some of the more popular hunting seasons, the little bushy tails do have a following. all yours. It’s something Roberts, a 69-year-old Army veteran, has been doing since he was a kid.
“When I was young, I used an old 20-gauge shotgun because I didn’t want to miss out,” explained Roberts, who long ago switched to his .22 rifle. “I don’t have to worry about choosing the pellets, either,” he added, rubbing the worn wooden stock.
Roberts usually collects more than 30 squirrels per season.
“I could get a lot more if my wife didn’t have so many chores for me,” he reflected.
“I don’t really care if he goes hunting,” added Karla, his partner of 48 years. “But I would go every day if I let him.”
Roberts often hunts alone or with his grandchildren on his friends’ properties in northern Howard County and southern Cass County. “Sometimes I go to Mississinewa or Salamonie for a change of scenery,” he added.
My late friend Larry Blake was another who enjoyed the Indiana squirrel hunting season. Before his passing at the age of 68, he hunted squirrels for more than half a century.
“Sure, I’ve hunted other animals too, but those squirrels are by far my favorite,” he once said. “I look forward to it all year long.”
During his later years, Blake found himself trading his rifle for a .22 revolver. “It’s easier to get along with and a little more challenging,” he explained.
In Indiana there are basically only four types of tree squirrels. The most predominant is the fox squirrel, which is also the largest of the four species. The others are the gray squirrel, the red squirrel (often called the pine), and the southern flying squirrel.
Unlike the gray squirrel, the fox squirrel is more muscular, less nervous and adapts well to all kinds of environments. Basically, only these two are wanted by hunters.
As the morning turns into lunchtime, the occasional shots fade as the squirrels have eaten their morning nuts and are climbing trees to rest. Several hours before nightfall, they come out to feed again, a routine that expert hunters use to their advantage.
“It’s always good to know the game grind you’re after,” said Roberts, who usually has his limit of five squirrels within the first few hours of daylight.
Like many veteran hunters, Roberts has a deep respect for the land and the animals he hunts. He shoots solely for food and not for the sheer joy of killing.
“They were put on this land to eat,” he explained. “But anyone who hunts has to respect not just the squirrels, but all animals.”
After each trip to the woods, Roberts takes the squirrels back to his house, where he dresses and skins them. They then go into a saltwater bath where they will stay overnight. From there, they are put in the freezer or cooked in sauce or fried.
“You’ve never tasted anything as good as Karla’s squirrel sauce on homemade cookies,” she said, licking her lips. “She also makes chipmunk chops which are pretty good too.”
People like Roberts and Blake preferred squirrel hunting to any other kind of game.
“Rabbit hunting requires too much bush,” Roberts continued. “And for the deer, well, it’s too much work to get out of the woods by myself. But the squirrels I can hunt at my own pace, in my own time, and they are easy to do.”
As for what other people think, “I really don’t care,” Roberts said. “It’s part of who I am, part of my heritage and I’ll do it proudly while I can.”