Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Squirrel chase opens Illinois' hunting season

Springfield — If it’s late July, then it’s likely hunters like Rich Radake have been checking their squirrel guns and checking them twice.

Their request: A nice cold front hitting Illinois woodlands come Aug. 1 would be nice.

That’s opening day of the statewide squirrel hunting season, a day when most of the state’s estimated 40,000 squirrel hunters will hit the woods – even if triple-digit temperatures continue to wreak havoc on every other aspect of life this summer.

“The early morning hunt won’t be too bad, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of hunters to hang around more than an hour or two if it remains hot,” Radake, a veteran squirrel hunter from Perry County, said.

Squirrel season traditionally arrives just as fox and gray squirrels begin cutting nuts in the state’s woods and forests. But this summer’s drought has cast doubt as to whether there will be a typical harvest of bushytails this summer (see Page 14).

State foresters are reporting that squirrels have been cutting in July due to the maturity of the nut crop and the effects of the drought on other food sources.

Region 1 Forester Randy Timmons said the dry conditions and consistent heat have worked against the timing of squirrel season.

“I think if this weather pattern holds, by early August we will see some severe effects showing in many of the nut tree species [premature nut drop, leaf curling, browning and leaf drop, etc],” he said. “This will probably be most severe in the areas where soil moisture is naturally less available, like south and west facing ridges or slopes and sandy soil areas.”

Timmons said that early-bearing, favorite trees that a squirrel hunter might hunt on opening day may already be far along dropping seed.

“However, I would say in most years, the majority of nut drop, given all species, occurs over about a 11⁄2- to 2-month time frame, so August and early September should still have plenty of good feeding activity,” Timmons said.

Nut conditions aside, veteran woodsmen and hunters say there are plenty of squirrels to be found.

“We’re seeing a pretty solid population,” Paul Reese, a squirrel hunter from Marion, said. “If the hunters can take the heat, they will find squirrels.”

While it remains popular with the dedicated, squirrel hunting has seen a drop in participation over the past decade.

In 2001 a study by the Illinois Natural History Survey showed that just over 68,000 fox squirrel hunters took to the woods to harvest 600,000 fox squirrels. The same year, 54,000 gray squirrel hunters took 496,000 gray squirrels.

By 2010, the number of hunters and their harvests had dropped, as 40,000 fox squirrel hunters took only 238,000 fox squirrels and 38,000 gray squirrel hunters took 336,000 gray squirrels.

Those numbers are relative, of course, because many hunters in the state go after both fox and gray squirrels.

But the drops in harvests are significant.

“It’s along the lines of rabbit hunters, quail hunters – there just seems to be less interest and people aren’t handing down the sport to their kids like they used to,” John Roseberry, retired researcher at the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said. “Squirrel hunting, in Illinois, has always been the first sign of hunting season. There’s a lot of tradition involved in it.”

The tradition is not completely lost, especially in southern Illinois, where hunters spend the last few days of July readying their guns and “stocking up on bug spray,” Reese said.

Also proof that squirrel hunting is still alive in Illinois: a group of squirrel hunting fans has scheduled another “Shawnee Squirrel Hunt” in Pine Hills Campground near Anna. This year’s event will take place Sept. 22-26.

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