We’re back!(?)

Edwardsville, Ill. – If it seems like squirrel hunting has gone
the way of cane pole fishing and bullfrog gigging, then you indeed
are an astute observer of Illinois outdoors trends.

Fewer people go nuts about Aug. 1, the annual season opener.

But that could be changing, as more adults trying to get their
kids involved in the outdoors are turning to the relatively
inexpensive hobby of chasing bushy tails. Armed with .410 shotguns
and .22 rifles, young squirrel hunters are suddenly taking to the
woods.

“It’s pretty much as simple a sport as their is to get a kid
started with hunting,” Andy Johnson, a 47-year-old hunter from
rural Madison County pointed out. Johnson was wondering the
sporting goods aisles on July 12, intent on renewing his hunting
license – part of his ritual to prepare for squirrel season – and
to pick up some .410 shells for his son Jack, 12. “My son is
graduating from a BB gun to a .410 this year, and the squirrels are
nervous.”

Because there are no records for youth hunting participation in
the state, it’s tough to determine if the anecdotal evidence is
fact. But one thing is for certain: Fewer adults are squirrel
hunting these days.

“Everything gets blamed on the younger crowd, but the truth is
my generation has lost interest to an extent, too,” Johnson said.
“Of 5 or 6 buddies my age who I used to squirrel hunt with, I can’t
think of one who has gone with me in the past few years. Nobody
really gives an excuse.”

It’s not a money thing keeping the state’s squirrel hunters at
home come August. The cost of hunting bushy-tails is minimal,
depending on the price of shells and bullets. Some people blame the
emerging focus hunters have placed on deer hunting. And other
endeavors outside of hunting.

Illinois hunter surveys conducted in 2009 showed that only 22
percent of hunters in the state reported hunting squirrels during
the 2007-2008 season. More telling, 42 percent of those who did
hunt squirrels were unaware that the end of the squirrel season in
Illinois had been extended from January to mid-February.

Among all survey respondents – whether or not they hunted
squirrels – 61 percent were unaware the squirrel season in Illinois
was extended.

What that showed wildlife officials is that either hunters had
so little interest in squirrels that they weren’t paying attention
to regulation changes or that DNR needed to do a better job of
“connecting” to squirrel hunters.

Surveys have also shown that, in fact, far fewer people in the
state are participating. In 2007, a total of 50,276 hunters hunted
fox squirrels and 43,992 hunted gray squirrels. Ten years earlier,
85,166 hunters went after fox squirrels and 60,779 hunted
grays.

If you go back almost 20 years you will find that 121,182 hunted
for fox squirrels in 1988, while 75,407 went after gray
squirrels.

In 1991, an estimated 127,558 hunters chased fox squirrels and
84,622 went after gray squirrels.

Meanwhile, the time squirrel hunters spend in the woods has not
dropped drastically, which means those who still hunt squirrels
remain passionate about the sport.

Harvests have declined, as expected.

Despite a lengthened squirrel hunting season, estimated harvest
for gray squirrels in 2007 was 395,401, a 40 percent decrease from
2006. In addition, fox squirrel harvest was estimated at 348,791,
representing a 25 percent decrease from 2006.

The total estimated harvest of the two species of squirrels is
also striking. In 1991, just over 1 million fox squirrels and
638,697 gray squirrels were harvested.

And it’s not that there isn’t squirrels to hunt.

Observations by wildlife biologists and others consistently
point to a healthy squirrel population. The location and abundance
of those squirrels come Aug. 1 depends primarily in the crop of
hickory nuts in Illinois.

All the squirrels in the world don’t matter if there’s no one to
hunt them. That’s why Andy Johnson is eagerly awaiting Aug. 1.

“I certainly hope my son is part of a trend in Illinois,”
Johnson said.

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