WILLIAMSON COUNTY - Squirrel hunters prowling the woods of Southern Illinois' public land find ample action. There are, after all, some half-million acres of public land in the southern nine counties of the state.
Camping is available but during the heat of late summer, many hunters prefer to stay at one of the many motel accommodations in the area. A shower and dinner in one of the many restaurants is often just the ticket after a day of sweating in the woods.
The perception of overhunted public land leads hunters to ignore some areas. Many hunters mistakenly refuse to accept that there is good hunting on public land.
Good squirrel habitat is all over these southern counties. Much of squirrel territory is in the control of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Other lands belong to the U.S Forest Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. There are site-specific regulations and the hunter must check them before taking to the field.
Copies of the regulations are available from the site superintendents at the areas involved or from the IDNR in Springfield. The address of the latter is Office of Public Information, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702‑1271. Just request a copy of the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations and any information on the specific area you wish to hunt.
Most Southern Illinois areas are open to squirrel hunting. Sometimes the hunter is required to sign in on a clipboard and out as he leaves. Hunters record the bag numbers as they leave. The information helps to study the squirrel numbers of the area. The data supplements other studies to help the IDNR biologists maintain healthy populations in balance with the habitat.
Because public lands are areas available to hunting, sometimes you may not be alone. The wily hunter uses hunter pressure to his advantage.
It may be wise to find an area with squirrels and take a stand. Then as hunters move through the area, the game is distracted. As the squirrels move through the treetop canopy to evade hunters, they can move into the range of the stationary hunter. Moving hunters also force squirrels into the thicker areas of land. Wise hunters begin their day there instead of sticking to well-worn trails.
An area with many trails into hunting areas is the Shawnee National Forest. The forest spreads over parts of Jackson, Union, Alexander, Johnson, Williamson, Massac, Pope, Hardin, Gallatin and Saline counties. It is composed of acres of hardwoods, food plots, and brush spread over all the counties.
Hardwood ridges provide good mast crops of oak and hickory nuts. Squirrels migrate to such areas like metal to a magnet. The obviously good squirrel hunting locations do have some pressure. The secret is to check those areas that do not look good at first glance. A wise hunter scouts through the poor prospects to the good areas beyond them.
There are a number of hardwood ridges in Shawnee Forest accessible only by passing through heavy brush and briars. The squirrels in these islands of hardwoods have not been disturbed. They tend to multiply quite readily.
There are maps of the Shawnee National Forest available. It pays to use the map to find areas of ridges that are not readily accessible from roads and trails. Mark the map and scout the area. Look for cuttings and good mast crops. Keep notes from year to year as to where the squirrels live. Keep the maps, and they will save valuable hunting time next year.
For further information about Shawnee National Forest, contact the U.S. Forest Service, Shawnee National Forest, Route 45 South, Harrisburg, IL62946. They have information regarding camping, fishing and hunting opportunities.
Further north, squirrel hunters can hunt in the southern portion of Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Marion. The woods are much the same as in the Shawnee and the squirrel hunting patterns are the same.
Operated as a refuge for waterfowl, the refuge does have some site-specific regulations. One of those is the requirement that anyone using the land for any purpose must pay a modest vehicle user fee. Hunters check-in at the Visitor's Center on Route 148 just south of Old Route 13 before going into the hunting area.
The refuge itself is about 43,000 acres of land with 23,000 acres open to hunting. Most of the hunting is for deer, turkey, and waterfowl. Some areas are open for any species open to hunting by state law.
The areas that are open to general hunting have public hunting signs. For more detailed information regarding squirrel hunting at the refuge contact: Refuge Manager, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, 8588 Route 148, Marion, Illinois 62959.
Regardless of where in southern Illinois someone wants to hunt, there is public land squirrel hunting available. All one needs to do is find it. As mentioned earlier, the IDNR lists public hunting areas in the Hunting Digest published each year.
Once on the property, locate a promising location far from the roads and, if any, the crowd. With a little advance work and some common sense, one can enjoy squirrel hunting on public land.
For more information on lodging accommodations as well as outdoor activities in Williamson County, or to receive a free color Water, Woods & Wildlife in Williamson County Guide, contact VisitSI at 1602 Sioux Drive, Marion, IL 62959. Call 800-GEESE-99 or email info@VisitSI.com. Current information is also available online at www.VisitSI.com.