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Squirrel season gives eager hunters chance to get lay of land

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BEAVERVILLE, Ill. — Thick, patchy fog slowed my drive on the opening day of squirrel season. The slower pace seemed apt for a throwback form of hunting.

The predawn was cool enough to build a soaking dew and cool enough to keep mosquitoes down.

It was far different from the heat of 2012. Squirrel hunting opens Aug. 1 in Illinois and runs into February.

I found my favorite stand of oaks as the sun rose over the dividing ditch at Iroquois County State Wildlife Area, the closest public site for most in northeastern Illinois to hunt squirrels in August.

A couple of relatively close sites — Matthiessen State Park and Sandy Ford Land and Water Reserve — are open for squirrel hunting in August. But most nearby sites — Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area, Kankakee River SP, Momence Wetlands, Marseilles SFWA — don’t open for squirrel hunters until September.

Unless I am starving, I hope never to eat another squirrel because I have no desire to dress out another squirrel. But I love being in the woods and field edges with a reason that early in the hunting year. Squirrel hunting offers me that.

Birches glowed white in the rising sun. Split deer tracks poked the sandy soil. Water droplets splattered off leaves and landed loudly on a calm morning.

For those who wonder why I don’t just sit in the woods instead of hunting, it’s because hunting is different from hiking or navel-gazing. There is a tunnel vision to focusing on the sight of branches moving unnaturally, the flash of a tail, the sound of nuts dropping or branches shaking unusually.

Iroquois County SWA is a rare Illinois spot with hunting for fox and gray squirrels, plus the chance to see the protected red squirrel Squirrel hunting is also a chance for deer hunters to assess the woods, deer and mast.

I love the terminology. Take this assessment of conditions in southwestern Illinois from Tom Micetich, the leader of the deer project for Illinois: ‘‘Acorns are still pretty small and difficult to see, but they’re starting to develop. Soft mast, especially mulberry and persimmon, appear to be loaded. Some walnuts are holding bunches of three, which could be an indicator of a bumper year. Squirrels are cutting hickory already, but they, too, are still developing.’’

He said reports indicate a heavy walnut crop and good hickory in northern Illinois. For west-central areas, he emailed: ‘‘White and red oaks are looking good or better. Hickories are looking good. Mulberry is loaded.’’

That kind of talk makes me think of fall and hunting.

A doe crossed the path. I heard — but did not see — two squirrels. One dropped nuts near me, but I still couldn’t find it and finally gave up.

It was time.

Two deer bounded across the road as I neared the sign-out box. Be aware: Some sites are moving to an online windshield card for hunters.

Stray cast

Chris Sale is like freshwater drum on the Chicago lakefront this summer.



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