Illinois'™ Late-Season Deer Options
October 04, 2010
Not all of you have a place to hunt deer, but if you go afield now, you could be surprised at the number of opportunities around our state. (Dec 2006)
A long time ago, somebody started an ugly rumor that late-season deer are hard to hunt. Cold temperatures, adverse weather conditions and skittish whitetails are the traditional signature of the ensuing winter solstice. But while it's true the late season poses a challenge to Illinois hunters, deer during this time can be very predictable. Conditions push deer into specific areas, and for those who know where to hunt, the action just begins to heat up after winter arrives.
If you're the kind of diehard hunter who just can't seem to say goodbye to the deer season, then pay close attention. Whether you are a bowhunter, muzzleloader or perhaps even have a leftover tag from a previous season and are interested in the late-season antlerless hunt, there are still plenty of opportunities to kill a deer. We've consulted wildlife biologists throughout Illinois to gain their perspective about the deer herd in each region. We've also compiled information about some of the more prominent late-season action on our public land. So whether you're planning on hunting a specific county or tract of land — or you haven't decided yet where to hunt — we have you covered.
Most hunters agree that to find late-winter deer, you need to find areas other hunters overlook, and when the elements become adverse, find places where heavy cover and food come together. To narrow your search, we've located places in each region where winter whitetails concentrate. Some of the following comprise private ground, while others provide public opportunities, but all serve as important wintering quarters. Also, many sites for public hunting discussed herein have site-specific regulations concerning the bowhunting, muzzleloader and late-winter antlerless season. Contact numbers are provided, so be sure to check ahead before you plan your trip.
Known for its impressive numbers and a handful of the top deer-kill counties, northwest Illinois offers late-season hunters one of the best chances for success.
Department of Natural Resources biologist Scott Schaeffer said one of the best areas of the northwest sector is in Ogle and Whiteside counties through the Rock River corridor.
"Castle Rock State Park and Lowden Miller State Forest (815/732-7329) offer excellent opportunities for archery, muzzleloader and late-season antlerless deer," Schaeffer said. "In between the towns of Morrison and Mount Carroll are the Rock Creek and Spring Creek corridors, which also hold good numbers of deer. And the Plum River valley is heavily forested and likewise houses good numbers of winter whitetails. Although this is private land, many landowners are interested in deer management, and it's not impossible to find a place to hunt in this area."
Schaeffer also pointed out that one of the most important wintering areas is in the Driftless Region near Palisades State Park, (815) 273-2731, and Mississippi River Pool No. 13, (815) 273-2732. Palisades offers bowhunting, while Pool 13 offers archery, muzzleloader and late-season antlerless hunts.
"One of the best areas in my district is Spoon River State Forest (309/879-2607) in Fulton County," said DNR biologist Kevin Oller. "It's archery only, but it has a good complement of crops, food plots and woody cover, which make it a winter magnet. Banner Marsh FWA (309/647-9184) in Peoria County is another late hotspot for archery. Big River State Forest (309/374-2496) in Henderson County has scores of winter wheat that attract an impressive late-winter herd, but it is archery only. And Argyle Lake State Park (309/776-3422) in McDonough County has a good stand of pines and oaks that draw deer. Archery and muzzleloading are offered there."
The DNR's Byron Paulsen said good late-season hunting grounds can also be found in Peoria and Tazewell counties, especially in the Illinois River and Mackinaw River corridors.
"Jubilee College State Park (309/446-3758) has good late archery. Mackinaw River State Forest (309/963-4969), Pekin Lake State Forest (309/968-7135) and Spring Lake State Forest (309/968-7135) are open for archery," Paulsen noted.
Additionally, the Illinois River and Vermilion River bottoms in La Salle County are a prime winter yard for late-season deer. Starved Rock and Matthiessen state parks offer excellent archery access and a muzzleloader program, (815) 667-4726. And Jo Daviess County has exceptional opportunities for late-season hunters, including Mississippi River Pool No. 12, (815) 273-2732, for bowhunters and muzzleloaders. Apple River Canyon State Park, (815) 745-3302, offers all three hunting options.
In regard to overall harvest, Region 2 isn't in first place, but during the winter, numbers of whitetails find refuge among forest preserves and parks. For the savvy hunter who can find areas open to hunting, the last hurrah can be phenomenal.
DNR biologist Ray Eisbrener said his McHenry County area is a winter bowhunting hotspot.
"Deer habitat includes large blocks of woodland," Eisbrener said. "In McHenry County, Moraine Hills State Park (815/385-1624) and the McHenry County Conservation District draw numbers of winter deer."
To the east, Lake County also draws numbers of late whitetail hunters. Forest and marsh areas around Chain-O-Lakes State Park, (847) 587-5512, and Volo Bog State Nature Area, (815) 344-1294, offer archery.
Will County has one of the prominent archery harvests in Illinois, and some of the best access in Region 2. Des Planes Conservation Area, (815) 423-5326, offers good bowhunting in its extensive tracts of grass. Midewin National Tall Grass Prairie, (815) 423-6370, offers archery and muzzleloading.
Grundy County had the highest kill density in the region in 2005. "In farm country, deer make heavy use of ditches, small woodlots, thick fencerows and even patches of tall prairie grass," said DNR biologist Bob Massey. One of the best overall late-season yards in the region is in Goose Lake Prairie, (815) 943-2899, and Heidecke Lake State Park, (815) 942-6352. Expansive grasslands attract herds of wintering deer. Goose Lake is an antlerless-only hunt, but chances for success are excellent.
On the Kankakee/Grundy County line, Mazonia State Forest at (815) 237-0063 attracts good numbers of deer to the heavy cover of this reclaimed mining area. Slag hills, grass and brush are challenging to hunt, but there's plenty of deer and some nice bucks, too.
The openness of west-central Illinois isn't the greatest place to kill a winter whitetail, but
within Region 3 are some pockets that provide good late-season deer hunts.
"The best opportunity is at Clinton Lake SRA," said DNR district biologist Carl Handal. "The area around the lake constitutes about 90 percent of all the viable cover in De Witt County. I've walked through the park and kicked up gigantic bucks in the grass plantings. There's definitely a lot of deer that winter here." Clinton Lake, (217) 935-8722, offers both archery and muzzleloader hunting.
Darryl Coates, DNR district biologist for Ford, Livingston and McLean counties, said winter deer concentrate in the Mackinaw River corridor of McLean County. "Moraine View State Park (309/724-8032) offers a good late-winter archery program, and the area around Comlara Park (309/726-2022) north of Normal offers limited archery and is literally full of deer in the winter."
Additionally, Vermilion County ranks among the top bowhunting counties in our state. Kickapoo SRA, (217) 442-4915, offers excellent bow and muzzleloader access. Shelby led all counties in Region 3 for overall kill in 2005, and the Kaskaskia corridor provides an important winter refuge. Shelbyville FL, (217) 774-3951, and Shelbyville WMA, (217) 665-3112, offer excellent bowhunting. Clark County boasts the highest harvest density of the region, and the big focus is in the Wabash River Valley. Lincoln Trail State Park, (217) 826-2222, has a new archery program that is worth checking into. Coles County and Cumberland County share the Embarras River Valley. Fox Ridge State Park, (217) 345-6416, offers bowhunting.
With the top overall harvest and some of the highest densities in Illinois, if given the choice, many Prairie State deer hunters would opt to try Region 4. You can find deer anywhere here, but some places are better than others.
One of the most prominent late-season hotspots in Region 4 can be found in the corridor between the Illinois River and Mississippi River. Calhoun County has one of the highest densities in the state, and the entire county is superb wintering ground. There are over 18,000 acres that offer public access for all three late seasons. Contact the Calhoun County Conservation Area at (618) 376-3303 for more information.
On the other side of the Illinois River, the western half of Jersey and Greene counties likewise provide superb habitat and harbor a high density of whitetails, primarily in bluffs and bottoms adjacent to the river. Pere Marquette State Park, (618) 786-3323, offers public bowhunting and muzzleloading opportunities.
Pike County led the state in all kill totals in 2005. Excellent facilities exist in Mississippi River Pool No. 24. Numbers of deer that were pursued in the western bluff area of the county seek refuge in the lowlands, and the hunting can be awesome when that happens. Call (217) 285-2221 for more information.
DNR biologist Brad Poulter oversees the hot triangle of Adams, Brown and Schuyler counties. "Adams County is the No. 2 deer harvest county in the state," Poulter said. In addition, Brown and Schuyler counties have remarkable deer densities and good harvest reports, plus a textbook balance of forest and agricultural ground that boast a phenomenal concentration of winter whitetails. Prime locations include the ridge area in the eastern part of both counties and the LaMoine River bottoms "I highly recommend Siloam Springs State Park (217/894-6205) and Weinberg-King State Park (217/392-2345) for great late-season archery, and the Great River National Wildlife Refuge (Long Island Division at 217/285-2221) near Quincy for excellent late archery and muzzleloading."
The Kaskaskia River corridor through St. Clair, Monroe and Randolph counties constitutes what could be the most prominent winter yard Illinois has to offer. "The late herd is tremendous," said Nick Middleton, site superintendent of Kaskaskia River FWA at (618) 785-2555. "There are so many deer, it's sickening." Heavy bottomlands draw deer pushed from the strip-mining regions to the east, and offers 14,000 acres of public bowhunting, muzzleloading and late-season antlerless access for hunters with either a Randolph, St. Clair or Monroe County permit.
Additionally, the Sangamon River corridor through Sangamon, Menard and Mason counties is an important winter deer yard. Oakford CA, (309) 597-2212, Sanganois CA, (309) 546-2628, and Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Forest, (217) 542-7741, offer muzzleloader and archery hunts.
Having the overall highest kill density in 2005 and the influence of the Shawnee National Forest, the late-season game is slightly different in this neck of the woods. But opportunities, public access and chances for success are perhaps the best Illinois has to offer.
District biologist Rich Whitton said that in Jackson, Perry and Williamson counties, late winter is very productive.
"Deer herds are dispersed evenly," Whitton said. "In Jackson County, there are 48,900 acres of the Shawnee National Forest (618/253-7144), there are 44,000 acres in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge (618/997-3344) in Williamson County, and Pyramid State Park (618/357-2574) in Perry County covers 21,000 acres."
The Shawnee National Forest offers bowhunters unlimited access, while Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge and Pyramid State Park offer access for all three hunting options. Kinkaid Lake, (618) 684-2867, and Giant City State Park, (618) 457-4836, allow bows and smokepoles.
Just to the south, Union, Johnson and Pope counties are within the Shawnee. Union County hunters killed 528 whitetails last December, and the county had an overall harvest density of 6.3 deer per square mile. Johnson's hunters shot 439 deer and had a density of 6.8 per square mile. Pope County hunters bagged 545 animals, while it had a density of 7.6 per square mile. Within each county, access is superb. Muzzleloading and bowhunting are available at Union County CA, (618) 833-5175, Trail of Tears State Forest, (618) 833-4910, LaRue Swamp, (618) 833-8576, Bluff Lakes, (618) 833-8576, Ferne Clyffe State Park, (618) 995-2411, Cache River SNA, (618) 634-9678, and Dog Island WMA, (618) 949-3394.
DNR district biologist John Bozett said in Hamilton and White counties, the late-season deer hunting couldn't be better. "In White County, the Wabash and Little Wabash are overrun with deer," he said. Ten Mile Creek FWA, (618) 643-2862, and Hamilton County FWA, (618) 773-4340, offer good opportunities for late-season archers, frontloaders and late antlerless shotgunners.
Another important winter corridor in Region 5 exists from Fayette County down through Marion, Jefferson and Franklin counties. This four-county area averaged through 2005 an aggregate density of 5.1 deer killed per square mile, and saw better than 12,760 whitetails harvested. Within this area are a number of very accessible late-season focal points.
According to DNR district biologist Gary Potts, the Kaskaskia basin and upper slough of the Carlyle WMA, (618) 425-3533, in Fayette County draw incredible numbers of deer each winter to the heavy bottoms. "Each year, Fayette ranks among the top for harvest and den
sity," Potts said. Bow and muzzleloader opportunities are available. Potts also said Ramsey Lake State Park, (618) 423-2215, offers great late-season bowhunting.
"Both Forbes State Park (618/547-3381) in Marion County and Sam Dale Lake CA (618/835-2292) in Wayne County are great for winter bowhunting," said DNR biologist Steve Kern. Both counties have a prime balance of woodland to agricultural ground, and both ranked atop the region for harvest in 2005.
Jefferson County had the fourth-highest kill in the state last year and the fifth-highest harvest density overall. The bottom sloughs of the two northern branches of Rend Lake comprise perhaps the most predominant wintering areas in Illinois. Rend Lake Forest (618/724-2493) offers bow, muzzleloader and late-winter antlerless opportunities. Hunters will probably have the most success around available food sources.
"Mature white oaks are a good bet to find deer in the late season around Rend Lake," said DNR district biologist John Tippitt. "If the acorn crop is down, I'd look to standing corn fields and transition routes in between."
Rend Lake WMA, (618) 279-3110, also offers good bowhunting access, and Mt. Vernon Game Propagation Center, (618) 242-0830, has both bow and muzzleloader hunting. In Franklin County on the lower end of Rend Lake, Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park, (618) 629-2320, provides superb bowhunting.
"Effingham County is also a pretty decent county late in the winter," biologist Potts said. "Wildcat Hollow SHA (618/547-3381) offers archery and muzzleloading. In Jasper County, Newton Lake FWA (618/783-3478) and Sam Parr State Park (618/783-2661) provide a compliment of heavy cover with agricultural ground, and both offer superb bowhunting. Sam Parr also has a muzzleloader program. And Crawford County has an important corridor in the Wabash River basin. Crawford County FWA (618/563-4405) provides access for all the late-winter seasons."
The late-winter season may be the most challenging time of the year to hunt, but if you're hunting some of these areas our state has to offer, chances are good you'll have no trouble filling your tag. Be sure to call ahead before making a trip to the public lands mentioned to find out about any site-specific regulations that could be in place for the late season.
For information on our public lands, surf to www.dnr.state.il.us. Click on the "Hunting" link at the right side of the page, then scroll down to "General Information" and click on "Hunter Fact Sheet Directory."
Have a good late hunt, and try to stay warm!