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Forecast By Jason Mitchell

It’s hard to believe that for over fifty years deer numbers were so low in Illinois that the deer season was closed. Since 1957 when the modern firearm season began, the Illinois deer herd progressively exploded through the late ’90s where the deer exceeded the carrying capacity of the landscape. To reach management objectives, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources began aggressively managing the deer herd by allocating more Illinois deer hunting opportunities and used hunters as a management tool with the goal of thinning the deer herd.

The all-time high deer harvest in Illinois took place during the 2005-06 season when 201,209 deer were killed. Since this time, deer harvest in Illinois remains relatively high but has declined slightly since the 2005-06 season as management objectives have been reached.

According to the preliminary harvest data from the 2012-13 deer seasons in Illinois, hunting success this past season continues to follow a steady downward trend and the success is very comparable to the season prior. While this past season is now a recent memory, the success rates of recent seasons do point to some of the best opportunities in the Prairie State for harvesting a deer in this upcoming 2013-14 season.

This month, we look at total deer harvest and highlight some of the best regions in Illinois for harvesting a deer (both antlered and antlerless). Typically, these statistics will reveal some of the highest population densities and best opportunities within the state. While there are some situations where high deer numbers might be present with compromised access in the case of urban sprawl or limited hunting opportunities, the consensus is simple: if there are good numbers of deer, the statistics typically reflect the deer population with a higher harvest.


Bill Ullrich with his 220-inch Peoria County non-typical.
Note that while harvest numbers have declined slightly each year since 2005-06 season where over 200,000 whitetails were tagged in Illinois, there are still tremendous numbers of deer across much of Illinois and great opportunities should be present this upcoming season for Prairie State hunters to harvest a deer.

While the result of this particular preliminary deer harvest data will reveal some of the best bet regions in Illinois for harvesting any deer, note that hunters would be wise to look beyond the raw numbers. For example, the best data we have concerning harvest is broken down by individual county, but realize as well that each county is a different size and that some counties are compromised by urban sprawl.

2012-13 OVERALL ILLINOIS DEER HARVEST SOLID

Truly great deer-hunting opportunities are available throughout the state. Like past years, however, some of the areas that have historically resulted in some of the highest harvests include regions where river bottoms or drainages are interspersed with productive farm ground. Pike County continues to live up to its reputation as a premier area for whitetails. While Pike County led the way with an overall deer harvest at 7,239 total deer, the counties of Adams, Fulton and Jefferson all recorded at least 4,000 deer harvested.

Also note that some of these extremely productive areas are highly sought after where either leasing or hiring an outfitter is mandatory for accessing such property. There are diamonds in the rough where high-quality hunting opportunities exist, either on public land or regions without as much notoriety. Word is out on locations like Pike County, so many hunters are forced to seek out alternative hunting locations that are not as well known.

Collectively, Illinois hunters harvested a preliminary total of 180,669 deer this past season. This harvest compares similarly to a total harvest the year prior of 181,451 deer. This past season, bucks comprised 51 percent of the total deer harvest. Relatively speaking, deer harvest remains high while the Illinois Department of Natural Resources attempts to reach management objectives with the state’s deer herd.

Archery hunters harvested a preliminary total of 59,728 deer. Last season, archery season began October 1 and ran through January 20 with a similar season framework expected this season. From the year prior, the overall archery harvest was down about 2,000 deer.

The Late-Winter Anterless Only and Special CWD deer seasons also ended on January 20 this past season and accounted for a combined harvest of 14,726 deer. These late, split seasons were held from December 27-30 and January 18-20. The CWD season was available in Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Jo Daviess, Kendall, La Sallie, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson and Winnebago counties and Kane County west of Illinois Route 47.

Out of 102 counties in Illinois, a total of 56 counties participated in the Late-Winter season. Ten counties (Cass, Christian, Henry, Johnson, Lawrence, Mason, Morgan, Tazewell, Union and Wabash counties) were dropped from the Late-Winter Season from the previous year. Both late hunting seasons offered hunters additional opportunities for harvesting deer and also served to aid management objectives for controlling the deer herd and limiting the possible spread of chronic wasting disease.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued 334,000 Firearm Deer Permits this past season. During the regular Illinois Firearm Deer Season (which is a split season that ran from November 16 through the 18 and again from December 7 through December 9 in 2012), hunters harvested a whopping preliminary total of 99,461 whitetails. The first season produced the lion’s share of these 2012 totals with 72,111 deer. According to IDNR Forest Wildlife Program Manager Paul Shelton, the season is split to safeguard against weather patterns and other environmental factors that could possibly limit hunter success so that management objectives are more likely to be met.

This past season, the first firearm season coincided with perfect conditions; that explains the lopsided harvest. Cool temps, combined with light winds, harvested crops and rutting activity created ideal hunting conditions.

Illinois also offers a Youth Deer Season that typically provides a two-day season during early October and youths harvested 3,124 deer. The state’s thee-day Muzzleloader-Only Season in early December also contributed 3,630 deer.

ZONE RUNDOWN

Illinois is divided into eight separate zones to strategically manage the deer herd throughout the state. During the 2012-13 season, Zone 4 had the highest harvest totals. While each zone does feature counties where the hunting could be considered excellent, it is not surprising that counties with extremely low harvests within a particular zone almost always coincide with areas that are urban where there is obviously less habitat for deer or compromised access for hunters. Dupage County, for example, recorded 35 harvested deer, which was the county with the fewest recorded deer in 2012-13 and nearby Cook County recorded 158 harvested deer. During the same year, the number of homicides in these two counties wasmore than double the deer harvest, and Cook County is the second-most populated county in the United States and home to more than five million people.

Zone One is located in the northeast corner of Illinois and features steep river breaks and classic river bottom terrain along the Illinois and Iowa border, which is formed by the Mississippi River. The sharp-rising river valleys and bluffs are often wooded and scenic. Urban sprawl is present from the Quad Cities. Jo Daviess County had the highest recorded deer harvest in Zone One during the 2012-13 season with a respectable 4,364 deer. The second-highest harvest came from Knox County (3,000) and third place went to Carroll County (2,047).

Zone Two encompasses north-central Illinois and is regarded as relatively good whitetail deer habitat. The terrain is predominantly hilly forests consisting of oak, hickory and white pine interspersed with agriculture and hayfields. The perennial top county in this zone for deer harvest is Peoria, with 3,035 deer last year. Both Bureau and La Salle counties, however, produced 2,501 and 2,457 deer, respectively.

Zone Three, to the east, is considered one of the most populated regions in the United States but can be overlooked by hunters due to its heavy concentration of urban and suburban populations. The northeastern corner of the state ranks low in overall deer harvest, but amidst urban sprawl opportunities are present. Both Dupage and Cook counties ranked extremely low with overall deer harvests that combine to equal less than two hundred animals. But of the 18 deer that were harvested in Dupage County this past season, 17 of those deer were bucks. Iroquois County has the highest harvest totals in 2012-13 with 1,368 deer.

Zone Four, located in west-central region of Illinois, boasts some of the most notorious regions in the state for whitetail deer. The swath of rich agricultural land that is interspersed with stands of oak and hickory between the Mississippi River and Illinois River is often referred to as the “Golden Triangle” amongst deer hunters. These bottomlands and waterways provide the ideal edge habitat preferred by whitetail deer

This zone typically leads the way in deer harvest. Pike County is renowned for deer hunting and had the highest county harvest in the state with 7,241 animals. Fulton County had 5,717 harvested deer, which also happened to be the second-highest total not just in Zone 4 but the entire state. Adams County had a total harvest of 4,607 animals. The Golden Triangle continues to live up to the hype. Access in this area, however, can be extremely difficult.

Zone Five is located in the center of the state. This rural area is comprised of agriculture and wood lots with some rolling hills. Fayette County traditionally tops this zone for deer harvest and produced 2,805 deer this past season. Shelby County was runner up with 2,190 harvested deer.

Zone Six, located in east-central Illinois seems to be gaining more attention from deer hunters. This area is predominately rural farming ground broken up with some wood lots and waterways or river bottoms that often have either hickory or oak woods.

The highest numbers of deer harvested seem to follow the stateline along the eastern edge of the zone. Clark County recorded a fairly impressive 2,591 deer and nearby Crawford County ended the season with 2,220 deer.

Zone Seven is located in the southwestern corner of the state and is known for the flat farm ground formed by the floodplain of the Mississippi River. Southern Illinois does offer some extensive public-hunting opportunities on sizeable public forests and state management areas. Parts of the Shawnee National Forest are located within this zone.

The top deer-producing county in this zone this past season was Randolph County with 3,677 deer. Jackson County, located next to Randolph County, had the second-highest harvest in Zone Seven with 3,181 deer.

Zone Eight creates the southeastern tip of Illinois. What defines this particular zone is the amount of public land and fairly rugged topography often referred to as the Shawnee Hills. Much of this terrain makes up the Shawnee National Forest.

Jefferson County ranks as one of the top deer-producing counties in the entire state. This past season, Jefferson County produced 4,268 deer for hunters. Marion County, located just north of Jefferson, came in second place with 3,293 deer.

For a complete listing of regulations, season dates and licensing information, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has some helpful resources online at www.dnr.state.il.us. Many state- and regionally-owned public areas offer deer-hunting opportunities, but these areas typically each have unique regulations and management goals. Some public-hunting areas also require special permits and registration. Illinois hunters need to research the particular public property before ever taking to the field.

Don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!