I’ve been going out to Marseilles State Fish and Wildlife Area to hunt squirrels for around eight years. It’s just shy of four square miles and the hunter fact sheet does a pretty good job of describing what you will be up against if you choose to hunt here:
This site occupies 2,515 acres, approximately 2,239 acres are huntable. The site is predominately wooded and the terrain is fairly rugged. There is no interior vehicle access for the public. Hunters who use this area should be ready for strenuous walking if they hunt the interior.
The interior is where I go and the description of strenuous walking is an understatement. Brutally hard would be a good way to describe the interior. Leg burning climbs up and down heavily wooded steep ravines are to be expected and if you lose your breath walking up a set of stairs, don’t go here.
The north side borders the flood plain of the Illinois River. The bluff that runs along here has to be over 100 feet tall. There are a number of ravines joining a no name creek that runs through the whole thing. One hundred feet doesn’t sound that tall till you stand on the edge of one of the ravines and you’re looking straight out at the tops of trees.
There’s one stretch in particular that borders the creek that drops almost like a sheer bluff. I’ve yet to even attempt to go down in there, but it does look inviting in a suicidal kind of way. I can get to the creek in another area not far downstream. Next year I may have to walk up stream into this steep sided ravine. I have a feeling few have done this.
You never see that many people out here. Deer hunters do come out, but I noticed they stay in the upper regions, the flatter lands, while I go down into the ravines looking for squirrels. In all the times I’ve been out here, only once have I seen a deer in the flatter lands. All of the other deer seen have been down in the ravines. This is one of the reasons I’ll probably never hunt deer here. I’d never be able to get it out. My back would barely be able to tolerate dragging a deer for a mile on a sled over the flat lands. Forget about getting it up one of these steep slopes.
Marseilles closes for the season in a few days. I was expecting quite a few hunters out here taking advantage of the last weekend. None of the parking lots on the way in had cars in them. At the check in station, not another car. I was going to have the whole place to myself. The site manager was surprised at this too. About 20 hunters had come out on Saturday, he expected the same today.
I liked the idea of having nearly four square miles to myself.
The hike in takes you down a gravel road. The road runs through massive fields that I hear hold a few pheasant, but in all these years I’ve only heard of two being taken. I’ve never seen any sign of them at all. Normally by now the ground is all frozen and there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been here a few times when the snow cover was fresh. No pheasant tracks anywhere. The predominant tracks I’ve tracked are squirrels and lots of coyotes.
That would explain the lack of pheasant. And rabbits.
The initial hike in heads almost due east, directly into the rising sun.
There’s a bend in the road with wood a fence protecting you from plummeting down a near 50 foot sheer drop. On each post is a reflector which is basically useless if you’re like me and never carry a flash light.
But they apparently make good targets.
A left turn off the gravel road puts you on an overgrown road that I assume is used for, well, I have no clue really. It follows the top edge of a bluff that looks down on the nameless creek. A great spot to slow down and watch the sun rise.
As the sun comes up, it’s blocked by the bluff to the east. The gold rays start lighting up the trees at the very tops and the gold slowly descends down through the trees and onto the forest floor. With no snow on the ground, everything lit up in warm golds and browns.
I’m not sure at this point I was even paying much attention to the possibility of squirrels in the area. I had seen a couple jumping from tree to tree as I wandered along, but by the time I got to where I thought they were, they had disappeared. Or so they thought. I could still see them sitting still on branches high up in the canopy. The sharp light also lit up their red brown fur and I let them believe they were invisible for awhile as I leaned up against a tree to admire the changing light.
I’ve been playing around with the images I’ve been taking, but their small size here is not doing them justice. I’ll have to start linking to higher resolution versions to give a better feel for what I’m doing to the photos.
The last time I was here I made the mistake of bringing my 20 gauge shotgun. Then the squirrels were all just a few feet out of my comfort range. I don’t like taking shots that wound critters. This time I brought my old Stevens 12 gauge single shot. A friend had given it to me years ago.
I fondly call it my pipe on a stick. It’s somewhere between 60 and 70 years old and was made at a time when there was no thought given to recoil. When you pull the trigger, you get the full force of it back into your shoulder. My friend says that when he pulled the trigger on it for the first time when he was 12 years old, he cried. I’ve had my daughter use it. Every time she pulled the trigger and got to hear the thunderous report, immediately afterward you heard her say “owww.”
I love the thing. After a shot you break it open and hear a heavy metallic clank, followed by a deep thunk as it ejects the shell well over your shoulder. Nothing fancy here, just something that’s built to reach out and touch whatever is in range.
It was a nice day to play the waiting game out there. Because nothing is frozen or covered in white, I kept getting wafts of smells coming off the creek in the bottom of the ravine. More smells were coming from the soft ground and layers of leaves lying on the forest floor. I want to call it fresh air, but there’s also that little bit of a smell from all the decaying matter. I found it all very refreshing.
The hike through the woods along the creek had me a good eight feet above the water. I could have hiked down the middle of the creek, but there were enough small deep pools, deep being relative to the height of my boots, that dry land was the better option. The creek had seen worse days. Even this high up I was coming across piles of debris pushed up against trees. I have this fascination with wanting to be near water when it’s raging out of control. Within a safe distance of course.
I want to not only see it pushing massive trees down stream, but want to hear the rush of water, the sound of all these trees stacking up against other trees. At this point I was out in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed. Yet civilization creeps in as a reminder of it’s close proximity.
Some of this land was once inhabited. I went over the map with the site manager where he pointed out former homesteads. He says they’re now virtually impossible to find, it’s been so long and nature has reclaimed the sites.
A few years ago, along another ravine further up the creek, I stumbled down a steep incline. More like slid, ran, tripped and skidded to a halt at the bottom as gravity had it’s way with me. Off to my right was a bathtub. It was half buried into the slope and green with algae. I could see that it was one of those old cast iron enamel coated tubs. I looked up the slope, knowing that’s where it came from. Mature trees grew all along the slope. I also knew that at the top of this slope was nothing but woods. I was just up there and there was no sign of a road or anything resembling civilization.
By now I was a good mile and a half from my car. A lone squirrel was tucked into my vest resting against the small of my back. My boots were suddenly three times heavier than when I had put them on this morning. My calf muscles were burning.
I initially started out on the gravel road, but the high grass on the other side of a thin line of trees looked too promising. I was going that way anyway, may as well try to kick up a rabbit or pheasant that hadn’t become a meal for the coyotes. Back on the road at the end of the tree line, my legs below the knees had turned into burning cramps. The last few hundred yards were tough.
Back at the car I methodically stripped out of the heavier hunting clothes, my feet and legs were happy to be free of the boots. The gate of the SUV was up and there was enough space in the back to fit my butt between the piles of hunting and fishing junk that reside there throughout the year. I sucked down the better part of a quart of water as I stared out over the terrain in front of me. Long fields of tall grasses sloped gently down to thick woods. Off in the distance, specks that were squirrels were moving in the tree tops, jumping from one tree to the next.
I had never hunted for them down in that area.
If I had the time, I’d be there tomorrow, leg cramps or not.