A Past Squirrel Hunt in Three Parts: Part One, the Set Up

I think I got out hunting twice in 2007, both to Marseilles State Fish and Wildlife Area. Twice is a far cry from the 25 or more trips per year just a few years ago. But things change for better and worse and you hope every day the worse parts are over with. Every morning you wake up breathing and the chance to get rid of the worse parts are there in front of you again. This time it's taken almost 2 years, but the good parts have kept me going.

The two hunting trips in 2007 were a couple of the good parts. Well, kind of.

You can have a good hunting trip and not have any success on the hunt. The opposite also holds true. These two trips were a little of both. Since I knew my time in the woods chasing squirrels was going to be limited, its easy to make the best of what you have.

Even though squirrel season opens on August 1st in Illinois, I don't bother going till some time in October. Maybe November. Everything depends on the first frost and the dropping of all the leaves.

I can't imagine wandering the woods in temperatures above 40 degrees. It's not like you can be out bush whacking in shorts, sandals and a t-shirt. Poison ivy comes to mind. Ticks, chiggers, fleas and spiders love the warmer weather. Not to mention the loss of blood due to ripped flesh on thorny brush. Now throw in walking for miles with a 6 pound piece of metal and wood. It's 80 degrees, you're out of water and you could have sworn that way was your car.

After the first hard frost or two much of this discomfort goes away. Now when you shoot a squirrel and carry it around for a few hours, when you get back to your car and take it out of your game bag, fleas won't be jumping off it like rats off a sinking ship. The cold kills off or puts down quite a bit. And hiking with 6 pounds of metal and wood becomes much more tolerable. You still swear your car was that way, but now you don't mind looking as much.

The extra added benefit of squirrel hunting late in the season is that you actually have a chance of seeing a squirrel, maybe. They're hard enough to spot and keep in sight in the middle of January when there's snow on the ground and not a leaf on a tree. I've tried it in September in the past and not only was spotting them next to impossible, shooting through leaves can really screw up your shot.

The first time I got out in 2007 was the first week in November. I thought for sure that the conditions would be perfect and up to a point, they were. The temperatures were going to be just under 40, partly cloudy skies, not much wind. About as good as it gets. Only this was an odd fall. The trees were taking forever to shed their leaves and I'll bet there was a good 35 percent coverage left on the trees in the woods. Not a good thing for spotting squirrels.

Shooting time is a half hour before sunrise and before that time I was heading east on the dirt and gravel road near the check station. About a mile down the road was an area I hunted in the past that had the highest concentration of squirrels. I took my time on this morning hike in, stopping frequently to see if anything was moving nearby. The weather was just cold enough to not break out in a sweat. Stopping and sitting or standing resulted in nothing being seen. Seeing through the trees for more than a couple of hundred feet was impossible, a squirrel would have to walk right up and introduce itself. In the areas where the deer had cleared the forest floor of all things edible, you could see much further. But there wasn't enough areas like that.

My age, the cold, too much coffee and the hike all require me to stop for too many piss breaks. You get used to it, but it's still annoying. I stopped and leaned my gun against a tree next to the road. A few feet further the woods stopped and opened to a small field filled with waist high grasses. As I gathered up my gun and stepped back into the middle of the road, movement coming into the clearing from the left caught the corner of my eye. I knew it was a deer and I stopped dead still in the middle of the road.

I've come across hundreds of deer over the years while out fishing and hunting. From fawns barely a couple of days old, to lame deer wandering off to die. From deer wandering around by themselves to a herd of over 20 I walked up on while wading Salt Creek through a forest preserve in Cook County. I've found antlers of all sizes, from button bucks to some pretty nice sized racks.

This was easily the biggest buck I have ever seen. And it still hadn't seen me.

It was about 75 feet away and slowly making its way into the field. It wasn't acting skittish, like it was cautious of its surroundings and what might be around, but simply looking down for something to eat and glancing left and right for more of the same. Though it was deer hunting season, once again I had failed to get permits for them. I also don't have a bow and it was bow season. I now regretted it. I was being handed the perfect shot. Perfectly broad side with nothing in the way to block a shot. But all I had in my hands was a 20 gauge pump loaded with three rounds of small game shot.

It still didn't even know I was there.

Suddenly it stopped and looked right in my direction. I had been standing perfectly still and we stared at each other for awhile. Then it went back to its slow walk across the field. After walking about 50 feet it stopped and looked at me again. The size of this deer was impressive. A wide antler spread, big solid body and its head looked to be the same height as mine. It knew I was there, snorted and stomped its leg. I've had deer do this to me before. It was trying to make me move, trying to feel out whether or not I was a threat.

And it wanted me to leave.

We stood looking at each other and I suddenly started thinking of the videos I've seen. Of big bucks charging and tossing someone over their shoulders after they had grabbed onto them with their antlers. Of big bucks getting someone on the ground and stomping on them. I was painfully aware that all I had in my hands was a 20 gauge pump loaded with three rounds of small game shot. If it decided to come at me, getting a clean head shot was my only option. I was trying to picture how to do that while fighting the urge to run like hell. My body doesn't let me run anymore, so a clean shot was it.

I felt very screwed.

Luckily it turned and started walking again. A few steps and it did an about face and gracefully ran off. Nothing fast, not like it was scared, just a nice easy run on a beautiful morning. I couldn't be more grateful.

I continued on down the road looking forward to hunkering down into the woods and waiting for squirrels. But some new signs were up. No hunting or trespassing beyond this point, military personnel only. There on the other side of the sign was where I wanted to be. In what leaf bare trees I could see were numerous squirrel nests. When did this happen.

Not wanting to push my luck, I turned and headed back. I did know one other area where I've done well. I no longer had any other options.

In the next area, the deer had cleared out the brush and walking through the woods was a breeze. I was already a couple of hours out and had not seen or heard a single squirrel. I resigned myself to exploring and enjoying a leisurely walk in the woods. While leaning against a tree enjoying a smoke of a cheap cigar, a squirrel appeared on the forest floor about 150 feet away. I started tracking it and I knew it was aware of me, but in no hurry to get away. Always staying just out of range.

Twice I lined up behind a tree so it couldn't see me and quickened my pace. Twice I got within shooting range, but I was enjoying the game of cat and mouse too much to bring it to an end. Eventually it got tired of running, scooted up a tree and blended right in with the fall colored leaves.

I wandered around for a couple more hours sizing up areas for my next trip back. I tried to memorize where I saw the nests high up in the trees. I sat at times waiting for any kind of movement. Other than birds, never saw another creature. It had been almost two years since the last time I had been out hunting. It suddenly seemed appropriate to pass on my one chance of shooting something. You can't always go out and take, sometimes you have to go out and do nothing. Don't shoot. By that, you give back.

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