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Squirrel hunting starts Aug. 1, but fewer are doing it

One best places go squirrel hunting Illinois is Shawnee National Forest which offers side benefit scenes such as JacksFalls.

One of the best places to go squirrel hunting in Illinois is in the Shawnee National Forest, which offers the side benefit of scenes such as Jackson Falls. | Dale Bowman~For the Sun-Times

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Updated: July 28, 2011 10:28PM

Squirrels lead down strange paths.

Take Wednesday evening. Dog-day cicadas trilled so loudly in the canopy overhead that they nearly masked the sound of the mower our second boy was pushing on a friend’s lawn to earn a few dollars.

I was sitting there — in case the mower blade whacked his foot into a bloody stump — and planning on finishing the Sun-Times. Instead, the cicadas drew me in. I sat, listened and watched.

Soon, I separated sounds of a distant car, the insistent droning of air conditioners, birds settling in high branches for the evening and, finally, a songbird I couldn’t see or identify in the bush next to the picnic table I was sitting on. I didn’t see or hear one squirrel. Maybe they’re smart enough to stay inside in such weather.

Squirrel hunting opens Aug. 1 in Illinois. For the last 10 years or so, I’ve gone squirrel hunting in the opening days and haven’t fired a shot. It’s an excuse to wander the woods in August, a month where my natural contacts tend to drop.

Sitting in the woods just to listen and watch has become an arcane art. Squirrel hunting in Illinois fast is becoming an archaic one.

‘‘Back in the late ’80s, more than 120,000 considered themselves fox/squirrel hunters,’’ forest wildlife program manager Paul Shelton said. ‘‘It was less than 47,000 in 2009.’’

That’s part of a decades-long decline of hunters for both fox and gray squirrels, most noticeable in the mid- to the late 1990s. Shelton said one quirk is that the number of gray-squirrel hunters has stabilized. He suspects that is related to the Shawnee counties and the easy opportunity for squirrel hunters there.

That ease helped make squirrels the entry point for hunters.

‘‘Squirrels are kind of the bluegill of introduction to hunting,’’ Shelton said.

I wish I had said that.

‘‘It was always the greatest thing [that] you could go at the drop of a hat,’’ Shelton said. ‘‘If you had an easily accessible place nearby, you could go at any time.’’

But hunting has seen significant shifts. Deer and turkey hunting are growth sports, while other forms of hunting have declined, sometimes nearly to the point of collapse. A general loss of blocks of free time affects squirrel hunting, just as it does other forms of recreation.

Another explanation is unique to Illinois, where our public lands rank among the bottom three states. In recent years, leasing of land by deer hunters has shut out other forms of hunting more and more. That’s one tough offshoot of Illinois’ world-class deer hunting.

‘‘Lord knows it is not from a shortage of squirrels,’’ Shelton said.

Dedicated squirrel hunters know that, and it shows in the numbers.

‘‘If you look at days afield, during the past 10 years or so, the average days afield have tended to be higher than the previous 10 years,’’ Shelton said. ‘‘Those who stuck with it have a tendency to hunt more. Maybe only the hard-core ones are left.’’

Oh, there are fluctuations in squirrel populations, usually related to the mast crop. Nuts are why squirrel hunting in Illinois opens Aug. 1, a question I should have asked years ago.

‘‘The early part of the season is more of a southern Illinois tradition,’’ Shelton said. ‘‘That is when [the squirrels] are cutting on green hickory huts and raining them from the trees.’’

The flickering of fireflies thickened as the darkness settled Wednesday. The heat eased only slightly with the dying of the light.

I’ll go for a morning of squirrel hunting next month, an excuse to wander the woods. I am at an age where I embrace the arcane and archaic.

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