a lot of squirrel

EDITOR’S NOTE (Photo Cut) – For Telegraph/CURT HICKEN. For most hunters in our area, the first of Illinois’ hunting seasons begins on August 1, when squirrels become easy prey.

outdoor telegraph writer

In a part of the state that has many hunters but little public land, finding quality hunting opportunities for many popular game species can be challenging. However, when it comes to squirrels, central Illinois offers plenty of hunting opportunities. And best of all, social distancing is not a problem.

The area’s farmland forests with their pole-producing oak and hickory trees are often teeming with fox squirrels. The largest acres of lowland timber produce excellent game for grays. In many areas, both species are available to hunters.

Interestingly, few Illinois athletes take advantage of this overlooked resource. Although bushytails were once the only early season game in town, local sportsmen can now choose from a variety of fall hunting activities. For many avid hunters, squirrels have taken a backseat to white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

According to wildlife biologists, squirrels are without a doubt among our most underutilized game species. Interestingly, good chipmunk hunting can be found in most of Illinois, particularly in the central part of the state.

Despite the lack of hunting pressure, Illinois squirrel hunters always manage to bag their share of the game. IDNR harvest data shows that up to 1.4 million bushytails are harvested annually by Illinois sportsmen. Fox squirrels traditionally make up more than 60 percent of the annual harvest, with grays filling the rest of the game bag.

There are occasional ups and downs in populations, but most hunters rarely notice the change. Best of all, chipmunk populations are doing well in this state and there are plenty of opportunities for those who hunt them.

The biologists’ data suggests that fluctuations in squirrel populations are directly related to the quality of the previous year’s mast harvest. When nut-producing trees are full of fruit, squirrel numbers typically skyrocket the following year. Similarly, squirrel populations generally decline after a year of low nut production.

Most state-managed public hunting areas contain excellent populations of bushytails. More interestingly, most of these sites see relatively light hunting pressure.

With the season opening on August 1st just a couple of weeks away, area sportsmen may be curious as to where they can go to take advantage of these hunting opportunities.

Sportsmen looking for quality game consider the Jim Edgar State Fish and Wildlife Area (formerly Site M) near Chandlerville. As one of the largest public hunting areas in central Illinois, this 15,000-acre Cass County area offers squirrel hunters plenty of room to roam.

About a third of the area consists of wooded ridges and forests. The site supports good populations of foxes and gray squirrels.

Squirrel hunters at this site need only apply for a free permit and trap card before hunting in the area. Successful hunters record their daily harvest on the card and return it to the site at the end of the hunting season. Permits, harvest cards, and area maps are available by calling the site office at (217) 452-7741.

Although small compared to the area mentioned above, the nearby Panther Creek Conservation Area offers squirrel hunting that is just as good. Also in Cass County, this 758-acre area contains an abundance of quality squirrel habitat.

Nearly three-fourths of the available hunting land on Panther Creek consists of timber. Although fox squirrels are more abundant in the area, hunters will also find good numbers of grays.

Sportsmen must register with the site before hunting and register their harvest before leaving the area. For additional information about the area, call (309)546-2628.

For sportsmen willing to climb some hills, the Ray Norbet State Fish and Wildlife Area near Griggsville offers excellent squirrel hunting. Located on bluffs near the Illinois River, this site contains inland farmland surrounded by large expanses of hardwood.

The area has good populations of foxes and gray squirrels. Hunters must sign in and out at the site office. For more information, call (217)833-2811.

Often overlooked are the many hunting opportunities found on the federal and state lands surrounding Lake Shelbyville.

Here nearly 12,000 acres of public land on Lake Shelbyville are available for hunting. The Corps manages approximately 8,500 acres, with the IDNR managing an additional 4,000 acres.

According to Corps wildlife managers, most of the larger tracts of timber will be found south of Bruce-Findlay Road. This is also where much of the best squirrel hunting can be found.

Many of these areas contain good stands of white oak and hickory trees. Hunters will find good populations of foxes and gray squirrels at most sites.

For additional information on squirrel hunting opportunities in the Shelbyville Lake area, contact the Shelbyville Lake Management Office at (217) 774-3951 or the IDNR Shelbyville Wildlife Management Area at (217) 665-3112.

The sites listed above are just a few of the public lands in central Illinois where excellent squirrel hunting can be found. Good squirrel hunting can also be found at Pere Marquette State Park near Grafton and, when flooding is not occurring, at various IDNR-managed sites along the Mississippi River.

It is important to note that many public hunting areas have special site-specific regulations that include control stations, area permits, hunting hours, and open days. Hunters should always contact the site office before planning trips to any of these locations.

Details about these and other public hunting areas are available from the various site managers.