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Thrills, spills of the hunt

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Dale Bowman

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BUCKHORN, Ill. -- We didn't know where we were going. Well, we had a vague idea that Siloam Springs State Park Buckhorn Unit was six miles south of Timewell, so there we picked a country road and turned south off Route 24. It was that kind of day.

That was part of the hunting adventure, which began at 3 a.m. last Sunday for a four-hour drive to Brown County.

Fifteen hours, frying deer parts, a jaunt down a dirt oil-well access road by a string of waterfalls on an unknown creek, 10 miles of brush busting and a dog diving into crude oil later, we were back home with a pair of rabbits.

For the first time in years, I drew a free permit to hunt an upland game site.

The coolest hunting program in Illinois lets hunters apply to hunt upland game on small habitat sites -- couple hundred acres to a few square miles -- scattered across Illinois. The lucky hunters have the site for the day to hunt.

Chances of drawing a permit this year were 2 in 5, said Michael Wefer, ag and grassland wildlife program manager. To improve odds, I join friends in applying. I was the only one who drew a permit, I think because I mistakenly applied on the third day of firearm deer season.

Other invited hunters couldn't make it, so Steve Palmisano brought along his nephew Joe Palmisano, home on break from Illinois. Steve and I began hunting together several years ago. The original invite was a professional courtesy; I get reports from their family bait shop. Since then, it's because he is a good hunting companion: willing to take his turn wading into a thicket or to tote a sack of decoys, and understanding that the best hunts are usually about the tangential.

Take the drive down. He was driving, his 200,000-mile plus Caravan packed with his shorthair Rusty, sandwiches, snacks, coffee, water bottles and cased shotguns on Interstate 55 when he couldn't avoid a just killed deer. It clunked underneath. Soon frying venison permeated the cab and the belt made a noise. Joe figured out the belt, and we found scraps of deer caught on the bottom.

It took a couple turns, but after we turned south at Timewell, we found Buckhorn. Our strategy was to hunt around all five parking lots for an hour or so each to learn the site.

Buckhorn -- 2,263 acres with 2,200 of them huntable -- is former farmland and timber (1,243 acres) purchased in 2001. It is returning to a more natural setting, though some acres are farmed.

As hunters, we looked at the mix of fields, timber and brush, then drolled.

It started great when we bagged a rabbit on the edge of timber and brush in our first stop. Embarrassingly, it took about eight shots, then we missed another.

I hoped with Rusty we would bust at least one covey of quail. But that never happened. Rusty was good on rabbits and worked hard through the brush. One reason I like hunting with Steve is he allows Rusty to hunt rabbits.

Our next three stops produced nothing, though we found some promising terrain, including a hidden patch of open bottom land.

Trying to reach the final area, we drove down a road that dissolved into a dirt oil-well access lane. Steve kept going. It was that kind of day. When we saw some wonderful waterfalls, he instinctively stopped so we could soak it in.

Of course, we had to backtrack miles to go around, but we had luck on the final stop. First a rabbit scooted so fast we couldn't shoot, then Rusty gave it a good run, but it got away. Walking along a field edge, Rusty acted gamy, so we kicked some brush and were rewarded with a final rabbit.

It was time.

Oh, not that easy. Near the parking lot, Rusty dove into a puddle of crude oil by some tanks, coating himself in crude. We rubbed him down with clumps of grass, then Steve toweled him off with car blankets. Even so, the odor of crude hung thick in the car as we drove back -- another piece of a memorable hunting trip.

The application period for free upland game permits begins again Aug. 1.