Tag Archives: squirrel

Last Squirrel Hunt of the Season

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.

Squirrel Hunting in my Front Yard

I spent over 5 hours this morning wandering through the woods.

I covered over two miles, half of which is made up of some of the toughest terrain I’ve ever hiked.

I got to see my limit of 5 squirrels, but only one within shooting range.

Lots of time spent propped up against trees trying to be invisible.

Got home, was cleaning the lone squirrel out on the side of the house when I heard a huge racket coming from out in front of the house.

Running around the tree in my front yard, a tree that sits 25 feet from my front door, are 10 squirrels.

It’s squirrel rut time. I’m assuming the females were the ones out on the very tip of flimsy branches refusing to turn their backs to all the bickering and fighting going on.

If I didn’t live within the town limits, I would have done a bit of culling.

You never really appreciate how squirrels can hang upside down from trees, until you’ve had the opportunity to examine the almost surgical precision of their claws close up.

After you remove them from being embedded in your hand.

A Past Squirrel Hunt in Three Parts: Part Three, the Descent Into Hell

. . . But when they stopped, usually on the side of a tree facing away from me, they may as well have vanished into thin air.

I headed in the direction of the nest and spooked the squirrel from it’s hiding spot on the other side of a tree. As it ran higher into the canopy I took my first shot. Missed it. This was to be expected since I hadn’t fired a gun in almost two years. It was jumping into another tree when I took my second shot. Missed it, but I turned it away from its nest and into the limbs of another tree. I took another shot and missed again. The squirrel was gone. I knew it was still in the last tree, but now it was going to be a waiting game. If you sit for 10 minutes, not making a sound or a move, there’s a good chance the squirrel will show itself.

I had lost track of the other two squirrels while missing shots at the one in the tree in front of me. I now saw one of them hightailing it out of the area over the snow. That meant there were two in the trees in front of me. At least I knew exactly where one was, I just had to wait for him to show himself. After what seemed like an eternity, the squirrel suddenly appeared about 20 feet up the tree, hanging upside down with its head stretched out looking for me. I took my time, lined up the bead on the tip of the barrel with the squirrel and pulled the trigger. It dropped to the ground.

It was a pretty clean shot even though I was over a hundred feet away and I was in no hurry to run over and pick up the squirrel. There was still another one around and a little more waiting might get him to appear. Another eternity went by and I gave up on seeing the other squirrel. I headed over to pick up the dead one.

It was gone. On the ground was a splotch of blood, so I knew I hit it. With that much blood loss it couldn’t have lasted long so I looked along the blood trail for the squirrel. There was nothing around. The red blood stood out brightly against the clean snow and I followed it for about 20 feet, still no squirrel. Then another 20 feet away I saw it. It was dragging itself across the snow moving pretty quickly for being wounded. I could see that I had hit it in one of its legs.

I took another shot and missed. I was up to 5 shots at one squirrel. It went behind a tree. I got to the tree, looked on the other side and nothing. It was gone. I looked beyond the tree for marks in the snow and saw nothing. I looked up the tree and figured that was a long shot based on how the squirrel was dragging itself across the snow, nothing up there. Then I noticed that the tree was basically hollow, for whatever reason it had a hollow area that went up the inside of the tree.

There was nothing in the base of the hollow so I assumed it went up the inside. The tree came back together about 4 feet up then opened up again into a narrow slit. It looked like the hollow easily went 10 feet up into the tree. Then I saw its tail. It was behind the point where the tree came back together and the tail was hanging down into the opening. This posed a dilemma. Do I grab a wounded and probably extremely pissed off squirrel by the tail and haul it out of the tree?

I stood back about 10 feet and fired a round into the tree fully expecting to see a dead squirrel drop into the bottom of the hollow. The tail disappeared and nothing dropped down. I fired another round a little higher up figuring it was running up the inside of the tree. Still nothing. I fired another one a little higher and still no dead squirrel at the bottom of the hollow. I was now at 8 shots at one squirrel and had nothing to show for it. I took the barrel of the shotgun and stuck it in the hollow of the tree, the squirrel dropped down to the bottom of the hollow, hissing and snarling and curled into a tight ball.

This was just great. Even with thick gloves on I was in no hurry to grab an extremely pissed off squirrel out of the bottom of a tree by the tail. I decided to back up and fire one more round, finishing the poor thing off for good. I reached into my pocket for another shell and with the thick gloves still on, loaded it into the shotgun. The shell went in, or so I thought. I let go, the cover closed and the shell popped out into the loading chamber. This couldn’t be good.

I tried pumping the round into the chamber. It wouldn’t work. The gun was jammed. I looked over at the squirrel. It was watching me, waiting for me to do something and still snarling. I thought unjamming the gun would be easy, but the shell wasn’t cooperating. I broke down the gun, laying the pieces on anything that wasn’t covered in snow. I thought for sure the shell would fall out once the gun was all apart. That didn’t work. It looked like I had to somehow force the shell up into the chamber. There was a gap between the latch and the rest of the gun about the thickness of a knife blade. I could slide the knife in, work the shell forward and push it into the chamber. Only I didn’t have a knife. I quit carrying knives with me about two years ago when it set off a metal detector and I had a lot of explaining to do.

But I had my car keys!

The car key was working, kind of. Since the end was basically rounded and not pointed, I couldn’t get a good grip on the shell. I would get the shell half way into the chamber when it would slip back out. I knew it was going to work, I just had to be patient. When I took the key out after another failed attempt, it was bent starting about a half inch from the end. That couldn’t be good. I’ve bent car keys back into shape only to have two things happen, they break or they no longer start the car. I knew I was screwed if either of those things happened. There was no way I was going to convince my wife to drive out here with a spare key. So I did the only thing I could think of to do. Bent the key back in shape and continued to use it to force the shell up into the chamber. I just turned it a little so it wouldn’t bend anymore, I hoped.

After about 20 minutes of screwing with the shell, it finally worked. I got it up into the chamber. Put the gun back together, pumped it and out popped the shell. I looked down at the squirrel hoping that by now it would dead. It was staring back at me, a low growl like sound coming from it. “Son of a bitch, just die already damn it,” I heard come out of my mouth. With my gloves off this time, I picked up the shell, loaded it into the chamber, stood back and was going to finish off the squirrel.

Only from this angle I would have had to shoot it right up it’s ass. The hind end is where the bulk of the meat is and after all this effort, I wasn’t going to destroy a perfectly good squirrel out of impatience. I walked up to it and grabbed it by the tail not having any real clue what I was going to do next. The squirrel immediately curled upwards, trying to grab onto and bite into my gloved hand. I made a backward bowling motion with my arm and released the squirrel to go flying through the surrounding brush. It hit the ground and began to drag itself across the ground away from me. I loaded the shotgun as I walked after it, stopped and fired from about thirty feet. Missed it again.

The squirrel stopped and laid in the snow. It was obviously tired. While rabbit hunting, I’ve had to put a wounded rabbit out of it’s misery by placing the butt of my gun on it’s neck and pressing down till it died. I’ve done that numerous times. I don’t recall ever doing that to a squirrel, but then I don’t recall ever taking more than one shot at a squirrel. I placed the butt of my gun on it’s neck and tried to press down. The squirrel immediately flipped onto it’s back, grabbed onto the stock with it’s front paws and bit into the butt of the gun.

I lifted the gun straight up into the air expecting the squirrel to let go and drop back to the ground. Instead, it grabbed on tighter and tried lifting it’s hind legs up to get a grip on the gun. It was clawing and gnawing on the stock while growling wildly. I pumped the gun straight up and down violently a few times, like I was churning a vat of butter. The squirrel refused to let go. I lifted the gun, grabbed the barrel like a baseball bat, and swung it hard. The squirrel flew off through the brush like a line drive down center, hit the ground and took off crawling again.

Son of a bitch, I heard some one say out loud.

I reluctantly followed the path it was taking only to find it had disappeared again. A little searching found it hunkered down in the rotted out root ball of a fallen tree, hiding behind the tangle of roots that had been exposed. I backed off a little and was going to take another shot at it. There were too many roots in the way and the squirrel was crawling around among them trying to stay away from me. I picked up a stick, there was no way I was reaching my hand into the root ball, and tried for a few minutes to prod it out of its hiding place. Eventually it worked and the squirrel started crawling across the forest floor again.

When it was about 15 feet away I took another shot. Missed it again. I was starting to wonder if I wasn’t shooting blanks. By now the frustration, anger and embarrassment of the whole thing was starting to get to me. All I heard in my head was damn it, damn it, damn it over and over again. The squirrel had finally given up too. It now lay in the snow looking around. It was breathing hard. I backed off a few feet, sighted down the barrel and took another shot.

The squirrel shivered a few times then lay still. I could see that it’s breathing had stopped. I walked over and looked. A clean shot had given it a reverse mohawk right down the middle of the top of its head.

I leaned the gun against a nearby tree. Took off my gloves and dropped them in the snow. My hands were shaking. Damn it, damn it, damn it was still being repeated in my head. The embarrassment of the whole situation had me standing there feeling almost ashamed at all that I had just done. My heart was pounding in my chest. The thought rushing through my head was . . . so much for being a conscientious hunter. This was humiliating.

I sat down on a nearby log, took out a cigar, lit it and sat looking at the dead squirrel. It’s auburn fur stood out starkly against the bright white of the snow. In my head I was apologizing to it for the torture I just put it through. It had been about an hour since I took that first shot. It had taken 12 shots to kill this squirrel. No animal should be put through that.

My heart slowly started beating normal again. My hands were no longer shaking. I picked up the squirrel and stuffed it into the back of my vest. Without stopping again, I hiked the mile back to the check in station. Doubts were raging through my head. Of ever bothering to go hunting again. Of just what kind of a hunter was I.

On the way home I stopped to clean the squirrel. As I washed down it’s flesh with water, scrubbing away the blood and remnants of fur, I had a squirrel stew recipe in my head. This was why I hunted. For the opportunity to eat wild things. To feel like I live in a world that is more than just packaged dinners and trips to the grocery store. This whole hunt was just an aberration, a once in a life time screw up. There’s no way it could ever happen again. I wouldn’t let it.

A Past Squirrel Hunt in Three Parts: Part Two, the Build Up

By the time December rolled around, I was beginning to believe that getting out again in 2007 just wasn’t going to happen. Finances had taken a nose dive once again. Round trip from my house to Marseilles State Fish and Wildlife Area used up the same amount of gas as one round trip to work. That’s how tight things got. I couldn’t justify using up that one trip of gas for the opportunity to hunt down a few squirrels. What if going hunting meant I couldn’t make it to work one day?

Mid December came and so did an unexpected chunk of change. Just enough to pay a couple of neglected bills, buy some little Christmas gifts for the kids and to give me an extra tank of gas. It’s much easier to wander around the woods in search of squirrel when you aren’t guilt tripping about the possibility of money wasted in the endeavor.

Got out to Marseilles before dawn. The weather conditions for this trip were perfect. There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground, the temperatures were in the low 30’s and a nice fog kept visibility down to a couple of hundred yards. The fog almost proved to be a horrible hazard. On the road in the dark on the way there, front end of car almost met ass end of deer. Why a deer would be standing ass facing the traffic on the edge of the road grazing is anyones guess. A lucky swerve to the left kept us both from becoming another deer/car accident statistic. I can’t believe that the only thing this deer could find to eat was growing out of the edge of the asphalt of the road.

But I could be wrong. Maybe it needed a little road salt for flavoring.

Based on my trip out here at the beginning of November, I knew not to waste my time going to the spot where I knew I would do well. It was still closed to hunting. I’ve heard that somewhere back there a mock Iraqi town has been built. The military uses it for training. I find it odd that they would close this area during the fall and winter hunting season. How much of Iraq resembles northeastern Illinois from October to March? From the film footage I’ve seen of Iraq, and the guys I know that spent time there, I don’t see or hear about too many deciduous forests, or snow. A big flat farm in central Illinois that was covered in sand would be a better training ground. I guess that describes Texas doesn’t it? So why not Texas?

This forced me to rethink where I’ve been on this large piece of land. Marseilles is almost 4 square miles and over 4 years, I barely covered a square mile of it. Almost down the middle of it runs a creek that flows and meanders north to the Illinois River. Except for the area that is now off limits, I’ve concentrated most of my hunting on the west side of this creek. By maps, I’ve estimated I’ve walked almost three quarters of a mile north of the gravel road that runs east/west from the check in parking lot. But these were more like probes inland. Walk north until meeting an impassable situation, or in my case a situation where you stand looking down into a steep ravine and say to yourself “there is no way in hell I’m going down there.” Then turn around and go back.

This day I decided to go directly to the east side of the creek. Up a hill and out into a large open field. Across the field to the edge of the heavily wooded ravine that slopes down somewhere along the east side of the creek. I had crossed this creek in the past and I kept an eye on it looking for one of its many shallow spots. There weren’t any. I was looking down into water that was easily 3 feet deep. Not good when all you have on are waterproof, calf high boots. This deep water couldn’t last that long, I thought. I was far enough along that I now had no choice but to commit to finding a crossing. I dropped down into the ravine, sitting and standing every now and then in anticipation of the bounty of squirrel that I imagined to be there.

The description is correct except for the bounty of squirrels. And the slope of the ravine. At the far edge of the ravine, the slope and the snow had me sliding down much faster than I thought would happen. Luckily there were plenty of saplings to grab onto. I’d say it all went smoothly, but then how would I account for the loud thud that was let out when I hit the bottom. It took a bit to regain my composure.

It seems that just about all state parks and forest preserves are no more than former farm land. I’ve proven this to myself while lost in the woods on numerous occasions. Buried deep within what seems like impenetrably dense woods will be remnants of buildings. Sometimes no more than the overgrown outline of a foundation. Rotting out cars are sitting miles from roads with mature trees growing through their floor boards. Remnants of fence posts line up through the woods and if you look, lines of barbed wire along the ground follow the paths of the posts.

After abruptly coming to the bottom of the ravine I looked around and at the bottom of a steep slope 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. Amazing how nature quickly reclaims all that is man made leaving almost nothing to be found.

The sound of running water woke me from my day dream. There was a way across the creek. I was still along side the pool of the creek and followed the sound down stream. I could see in the distance the flowing water over rock. The creek again was just inches deep. As I followed the creek I came across the cause of the pool. Beavers had constructed a densely packed, 3 foot tall dam spanning from one shore to the other. With just sticks and mud it was holding back a good quarter mile of 3 foot deep water. Imagine the pressure of that much water.

How do they do that.

On the other side of the creek I stopped and leaned against a tree to smoke a leisurely cigar. Below me was a tangle of woods with a series of narrow ravines. A big doe tip toed down the far slope of the ravine in front of me, got to the bottom and had to stop to figure out how to get up this side of the ravine. Again, if I had a bow, a perfect shot was presented to me. No more than 80 feet away and standing perfectly still side ways to me. Next year for sure I’m getting my deer permits. I wonder if they allow you to go both deer and squirrel hunting. I could sling a bow over my shoulder and carry my 20 gauge pump for squirrels. The deer gave up trying to figure out how to get up the steep slope, turned around and went back the way it came. It never did see me.

Up one slope and across a point and I was back in an area I hunted 3 years earlier. On cue, off in the distance, 3 squirrels took off heading away from me. They jumped up into a big poplar and came back down on the other side of the creek. They were heading off to a nest I could see high in a tall maple. With the leaves now all gone and a layer of snow on the ground, their rust colored fur was easy to spot as they moved. But when they stopped, usually on the side of a tree facing away from me, they may as well have vanished into thin air.

I headed in the direction of the nest . . .

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

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.