Living Off the Forest
By Warren H. Miller, Editor of Field and Stream
An excerpt from Chapter 8 of the 1916 book The Boys’ Book of Hunting and Fishing
Boys are much more apt to need a meal from forest foods than even men hunters and trappers. For instance, you start for a hike in the forest; you intended to get back about noon, but before you know it is noon and there is lots more that you want to explore — if you could only get a bite to keep you over midday, and so make a day's hike of it. You wished that you had brought along some lunch, but that is too late now; can't we find something edible? Well, there are literally tons of food all around you, and it is part of woodsmanship to know how and what to eat. In midsummer the natural lunch will be berries, frogs and fish; in the fall, nuts, rock tripe and game, and to get the latter we use the same tools that the Indian did before the white man was ever heard of.
One preferably hikes in the woods from September on, for the insects then have subsided somewhat. September is practically summer, except that berries are ripe and the fish are still in evidence. I once caught a brook pickerel with no other implement than a beech broom. He was motionless at the head of a shallow pool in a brook and I needed fish for breakfast. Cornering him in the shallow water, a few quick swipes of the brush swept him out on the rocky brook bed, and before he could hop back, he was pounced on and was soon baking on a stick before a fire.
But a better way to catch all small fish is to build an Indian fish weir. Cut a lot of small shoots of red maple or arrowwood or even elder. Bind them into a flat net by twisting green briar or wild grape vines with two or three of these twists crossing all the sticks, and one stick between each twist. Such a net will be two feet high, say three feet long, and all the big ends of the sticks will be downward with a twist of vine along the bottom, and a second about a foot higher. With this you make a fish trap. Find a small pool, down below a larger one that is full of fish — trout, sunnies, chub, dace, even minnows and catties — and set this net across the downstream end of the smaller pool. See that it is carefully chinked with mud and stones, so that there is no way for the water to get through except through the stick. Now fix up the upper end of the pool so that it has a narrow clear channel to the upper pool and set aside a big rock that will securely close it. Next, go up in the upper pool armed with brushes and wade in, scaring all the fish down into the little pool. Many of them will hide under rocks, etc., so be thorough in clearing the upper pool. Close the lower with your stone, cut a new channel for the overflow water, and you will have a whole aquarium of fish in the trap, most of which can be caught by hand or it can be drained dry by mudding the rock so no more water can come in.
For game, the bow and arrow is always good, and every boy should know how to shoot one. So long as you have a shoestring on you and there is a branch of oak, a hornbeam sapling or a young cedar you have your bow. The arrow is the important thing. Most young shoots of maple, chestnut and viburnum or arrowwood are plenty straight enough, but no arrow will fly anywhere near straight unless it is feathered. Make these of birch bark or even a tassel of shredded bark –anything that will take the air currents and make the arrow fly headfirst. For a head the simplest point is just whittled and fire burnt. In using the bow, the Indian's way of getting right on top of the game by his woodcraft before expending the shot is the only thing. Your easiest game is the confiding little chipmunk, and after him come such birds as robin and flicker, both of which are fond of wild cherries and dogwood berries. Sitting concealed under such a bush they will come not two arrow lengths away and can hardly be missed when the fatal shaft is loosed.
A primitive cook kit. Maple club biscuit baker, log soup bowl, hot stones for boiling soup, and sassafras broiling fork with wire broiler.
In the North one can get almost as near to partridges, and the two squirrels are almost as unwary. Of course, in the case of a starving lad, the game laws have to be temporarily suspended but otherwise some of these birds must be let severely alone. To have a bow that is all of your own woodsmanship, the thong also must be woods-made, and the best thong I know of is the bast rope, made of a young mockernut hickory sapling. Cut this down and peel off the bark, which will come off like a glove any time but in winter when the sap is down, next slit the bark into three long strips an eighth-inch wide. Now knot these at the upper end, and plat a three-braid rope of it, adding more strips to each length as required. Three strong men cannot break such a rope, and it is flexible and knots readily. Makes a good lasting bowstring. The Indians fletch their arrows by splitting a feather and tearing off a little of the feathering at each end of the quill so as to get some three inches of vane. Three of these vanes are then lashed on with fine deer sinew. The point is made of a long piece of some heavy hard wood, such as locust, pin oak or persimmon, pointed, polished and fire-hardened, and these make good arrows for small game. Only do not waste them on game that is more than ten feet away!
To cook all these things the easiest is to split and broil before a bed of coals on a sassafras fork. Someone may have brought along some tea or a couple of potatoes or in some forest cache there may be some flour and a packet of baking powder. To cook these requires boiling for fifteen minutes for the potatoes or steeping four minutes for the tea. The best way I have tried is with a maple log bowl, cut from a six-inch billet two feet long. In this I dug out a long shallow hole, like gouging out a boat, using only the axe and hunting knife. It held a quart of water and to boil it I set a dozen stones as big as eggs over the fire and let them get white hot, that is so hot that they were fire-clean with no soot on them. Five of these stones brought the quart of water to a boil, and each stone thereafter kept the quart boiling for a minute. They were all put in at one end of the bowl, so as not to get the water dirty, and I made a fine erbswurst soup out of a teaspoonful of the powder. Another way is to cut a square of birch bark about a foot on a side, flex it over the fire, and bend to a rectangular boat skewing with sticks. This can go right over a bed of glowing embers and will come to a boil if you keep blowing on it. All the bark above the waterline will take fire and soon dip and spill the soup unless you reinforce it inside with a twig rim in contact with the liquid.
To make woods biscuit, cut out all the fat on your birds or squirrels and try it out in a shallow birch-bark bowl or a rock with a hollow in it. Mix this tallow with the flour and baking powder and form into a ribbon of biscuit dough about two inches wide and half an inch thick. Wind this around the end of a two-inch diameter maple stick which has been peeled and set over the fire until it is screeching hot and then lean it over your coals until the biscuit has been raised and browned. Peel off and eat as you go. This is the woods “Club Bread.”
All the deadly poisonous mushrooms grow
in the woods, so the best rule is to let them all alone.
What is left of your fat will do to fry puffball mushrooms with. The regular field mushroom does not grow in the woods, and all the deadly poisonous ones do, in the greatest abundance, so the best rule is to let them all alone, for you do not know you are poisoned until over twelve hours later when it is too late and no human aid can save you. However, no one can mistake the puffball. It has no gills, no umbrella, nothing that a poisonous mushroom has, and it looks like a big leathery pear. Do not pick little ones, they may be just the cap of some deadly species. But a big one is all solid white inside, and you slice it and fry or bake on a smooth flat stone. When fully ripe and full of puff powder it is one of the best punks for carrying fire in the woods, for a coal embedded in it will keep for hours so that you can move your fire in a puffball with ease.
The Indian Fire: A good model for a friendship fire. The poles are simply shoved in toward the center as their ends burn away.
Rock tripe is the only other fungus I would eat on a bet, and it also is unmistakable. Growing on most rocks in the woods you will note a quantity of black ears, round as pennies and curled up off the rock. Pick these and dry thoroughly over the fire, for they will physic you otherwise, and then boil in the log bowl for half an hour. Resulting dish tastes like tapioca and is edible and nourishing.
Of course, the most sustaining of all raw forest foods are nuts. No flour in the world can com- pare with them, as you can easily prove by taking along a pocketful of them and munching them during your hunting trip whenever you feel faint and in need of sustenance. Chestnut has the most meat for the least work, and after him comes shag- bark hickory, black walnut, butternut and hazel nut. The most sustaining fruit of all is the persimmon; its only rival is the date of the Orient, both of them having almost as much protein as meat.
I might digress here for a few observations on woodcraft in hunting. Do not stick to forest roads, nor yet just tramp along; neither way will net you much game compared to real intelligent hunting. Put yourself in the animal's place; what would he naturally be doing at this hour, and what is he feeding on? These are the two great questions. Grouse love dried huckleberries, though they will not touch them when they are plump and juicy; they love dried wild grapes that have fallen to the ground, weed seeds, beech nuts, and, oh dear — how they love cranberries! Therefore open the crop and stomach of the first grouse you kill that day and see what he has been eating. Thereafter search those spots and let the other fellow just tramp along. When you come to a spot where one is likely to be, rest assured that he is watching you and will jump the instant he catches you off guard. If you whistle a little low tune, he will linger a trifle longer than usual, but whatever you do, do not make a single move without being ready at all times to shoot. Before putting your foot forward, look for a likely spot for it, and then feel for that spot without ever taking your eyes off the thicket or bramble or grape vine just ahead of you that looks grousey. In the same way, be on the watch for woodcock in swamp bottoms, and for quail along the timber edge in the weeds and brambles bordering farm fields. Here they feed, and they are all crouched down and watching you as you move along. Kick every clump and briar patch for rabbits, and when you kick be sure to be in position to shoot. Haunt the oak ridges and dogwood thickets for squirrels. Their favorite food is acorns and nuts, with an occasional berry diet — it is wasting time to look for them in a maple or birch thicket. That is real hunting, not just blundering along.
Put yourself in the animal's place;
what would he naturally be doing at this hour,
and what is he feeding on?
And be always on the lookout for tracks and sign. Pass no sand patch or mud bank without examination. Muskrat leaves his little claw marks with no palm; mink, all five claws and a faint palm; '****, a tiny baby hand; squirrel, four tracks in a group with hind tracks in front of fore; rabbit, another larger group, usually with the front paw tracks set very close together making a three-track group of it; fox leaves the trail of a small dog, but it always registers, that is a single line of tracks like a two-legged animal, while the front and hind paws of a dog seldom register cleanly. Wildcat leaves a round four-toed-and-palm track larger than any cat and showing no claws. Quail tracks are three-toed like small chickens, and grouse the same but larger. Watch roads, trails and stream banks for these tracks, and, if entirely fresh, stick around a bit and see what you can see. That means maybe half an hour of still hunting, but it will get you more game in that spot than just pushing right on, strong as is the temptation to do so.
When camped in a good game country in the trapping season, a good deal of game and fur can be added to the bag by setting a few simple woodsman's traps. Two woods-made traps suffice, one a springle for birds and one a deadfall for animals. The former is just a springy withe, bent into a bow by a string tied at the small end and held in a cleft in the large end by a short twig with a knife edge cut on it. The rest of the string is a slip noose lying on both sides of the twig. The bait is put at the end of the twig, firmly tied, and when the bird alights on it his weight bends down the twig, releases the string from its cleft, and the withe snaps straight, drawing the noose tight about the bird's feet. To make a deadfall, cut off a four-inch sapling about a foot above the ground, level off its top, and, with your axe make three clefts in it, forming three sides of a square. Into these are driven flat shooks, making three sides to your box. The rest of the sapling is squared off with the axe and cut about eight feet long. The squared end rests in your box and the other on the ground. The end of the log comes in the box and is held up as shown in the drawing by two triggers, the short one upright holding the log up and resting on the long one to which the bait is attached. There is no way for a little animal to touch the bait except by climbing up on the stump, with his head in the box, and when he pulls the bait, down comes the log on his head, much more humane than any steel spring trap and any boy can make it in an hour or so with axe and knife.