Illinois' Late-Season Deer Hunting Hotspots

Illinois' Late-Season Deer Hunting Hotspots

If you find yourself with an unfilled tag and the season dwindling to a close, don't worry. Excellent deer-hunting opportunities stretch in all directions for the late season. (December 2007)

Late-winter hunting in Illinois has been so lucrative in recent years, more counties have been opened for the state's late-winter season; muzzleloader hunting permit applications are increasing; and more and more archers are hitting their stands in late December and January.
Photo courtesy of Ron Sinfelt.

Illinois' proverbial whitetail cup has been overflowing.

In fact, late-winter hunting in Illinois has been so lucrative in recent years, more counties have been opened up for the state's late-winter season; muzzleloader hunting permit applications are increasing; and more and more archers are hitting their stands in late December and January.

Late Winter 2006

Every deer hunter who had the chance to go afield the second shotgun season last December will probably remember the frigid, blustery weather conditions that accompanied them in the Illinois deer woods. The cold weather stretched into the muzzleloader deer season a week later, and, as a result, the late harvest numbers reflected a lower outcome -- 29,117 deer statewide -- than the previous season.

However, Illinois muzzleloader hunters enjoyed the best year in recorded history, bringing in 20,881 whitetails with an overall hunter success rate of 28 percent. Moreover, hunters who took advantage of the antlerless late-winter season added 9,700 deer to the total, marking an outstanding success rate of 78 percent!

2006 Second Shotgun Season

The "second shotgun season" in the Prairie State is a true misnomer for deer hunters. Some years, it can be a balmy affair, as bucks capitalize on late does still in estrus. Other years, this season can be a frigid set of circumstances, with deer behaving more indicative of the traditional solstice.

Across the duration of the second shotgun season the last two years, arctic weather grasped the entire state. Near-record lows were tabbed north to south across the Prairie State, and whitetail activity was significantly reduced. Still, Illinois hunters rose to the occasion and bagged plenty of deer through the waning hours of the 2005 and 2006 deer-hunting seasons.

Hunters in Pike County campaigned a commanding lead on the rest of the state, with 1,002 deer taken during the four days' duration of the northern chill. Deer hunters in Jo Daviess County tallied 861 deer kills to rate second. Jefferson County hunters, located in the southern third of the state, brought in 812 deer. Jackson County hunters, in the Shawnee Forest, brought down 812 deer. Adams County hunters took the fifth spot last season, with 680 whitetails. And the top 10 deer harvest ratings for the 2006 second shotgun season rounded out with Williamson County (678 deer), Randolph County (645), Marion County (642), Wayne County (626) and Union County (596).

Further harvest numbers for the 2006 second shotgun season included: Fayette County (593), Hancock County (571), Clay County (467), Pope County (462), Greene County (456), Johnson County (455), Hamilton County (446), White County (436), Macoupin County (423), Stephenson County (413), Calhoun County (389), Schuyler County (373) and Ogle County (371).

Late Winter, January 2007

Last season, 72 counties in Illinois were open for the late-winter deer hunting. The antlerless-only regulations provide a last hurrah for hunters who are allotted a tag for a specific county from the regular lottery, and hunters who hold an unfilled firearm tag from a specific county permit or an unfilled archery permit.

Handguns, too, are allowed during this time for deer hunters. Bowhunters can hunt all open areas of the state, but hunters with specific late-winter season tags or unfilled county-specific tags must hunt in the county -- and with the firearm or bow -- for which they were issued.

Hunters in Pike County again led the pack in the deer harvest numbers in the late-winter season, with 559 whitetails tallied. Jefferson County hunters fell into second place, tagging 328 deer. Ogle County hunters in northwest Illinois surprised hunters elsewhere when they placed third in the county-by-count harvest numbers, with 289 deer. The top 10 counties rounded out with Randolph County hunters tallying 287 deer; Fulton County hunters bagged 278 deer; Wayne County hunters logged 271 deer kills; Jo Daviess County hunters scratched out 267 deer; hunters in Fayette County bagged 245 deer; Adams County hunters notched 236 deer kills; and Perry County hunters tagged 212 deer.

Further harvest numbers for the late-winter deer season (January 2007) included: Bureau County (203), Jackson and Hancock counties (202), Macoupin and Marion counties (191), Peoria County (188), Schuyler and La Salle counties (183), White County (177), Brown County (175), Union County (166), Knox County (148), Williamson County (144) and Jasper and Greene counties (139).

Putting It Together

Taking the top 25 counties in the 2006 second shotgun season and the January 2007 late-winter season, we gave a mark for all counties that fell into either category. Muzzleloader harvest, unfortunately, is not reported per county; rather, it's tallied as a continuance of the second shotgun total, and the state keeps no records beyond a comprehensive season total for specific December and January bowhunting harvests.

Overall, 19 counties tallied deer kills in the top 25 for both the December shotgun harvest and the January late-winter season harvest. A number of counties had marks in one category, and there are a few lesser-known hotspots that went unnoticed after the formula was applied.

Here's what each of the Illinois deer-hunting regions has to offer this winter, based on last winter's late-season harvest numbers.

Region 1

Three counties in Region 1 made it into the top 25 for both categories. Leading the pack was Jo Daviess County. With a second place finish in the second season shotgun harvest for the state, and a seventh place finish for the late-winter season harvest, Jo Daviess County is a very high-percentage winter deer-hunting yard for any Prairie State hunter to consider.

"The Driftless Region in the northwest sector of the county is a classic (deer) wintering area, complete with bluff and ravine topography," said IDNR wildlife biologist Doug Dufford. "And thick maple bottoms adjacent to lowland agricultural fields along the Mississippi River create a superb situation for winter whitetails."

Fulton County likewise scored in both categories.

"The Spoon River basin, along with her main tributaries, provide excellent cover for winter whitetails," said IDNR wildlife biologist Kevin Oller. "The Illinois River corridor, on the county's southeast border, and the strip mines around Canton and Cuba are other prime (deer) wintering areas."

Ogle County was an eye-popper among the 2006 late-season deer harvest totals, scoring in both categories. A third place finish for overall late-winter season harvest totals demonstrates the concentration of cold-weather deer to be found here. Primary areas lie in the Rock River basin, but the Kyte River corridor and Kilbuck Creek are both brushy areas with nearby farm fields, holding excellent numbers of deer.

Other areas in Region 1 where late-season deer-hunting prospects are good include Knox County, which marked among the top finishers for the 2006 late-winter harvest. Oller suggested area hunters should focus their efforts on the deer food resources at Spoon River State Forest and the hill-and-ravine district south of Snakeden Hollow State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Peoria County similarly scored for harvest totals during the late-winter season. The outer bluff region west of Chillicothe, patch forest around Jubilee College State Park, and the southwestern corner around Banner Marsh combine to form a natural winter deer yard.

Bureau County also marked high among the late-season harvest totals. Big Bureau Creek, the hill country north of DePue, and south of Tiskilwa are areas where hunters are expected to do well.

Finally, La Salle County deer hunters should find the late-winter season fruitful. The county frequently stands atop all counties in the total harvest numbers. It was also poised among the top 25 in the January 2007 late-season harvest totals. The bulk of the local herd resides during wintertime in the Illinois River and Vermilion corridors.

Region 2

Chicagoland didn't see a single county make the cut for either harvest tab, but deer are thick in some areas here.

McHenry and Lake counties are phenomenal bow destinations for hunters who can get in amid the region's urban sprawl. And savvy hunters who find a place to hunt between forest preserves and municipal parks find both these counties rival any county in Illinois for overall whitetail density.

The Fox River bottom and the surrounding area in Kendall County concentrate numbers of cold-weather deer well into the town of Dayton, where some public access is found at Silver Springs State Park. It's not uncommon for a number of hunters to fill their last tag with a bruiser buck from this region.

Will and Grundy counties constitute the best opportunity for archers and muzzleloaders in Region 2. Thousands of wintering whitetails range among the large tracts of mixed grassland, forest and river bottom in the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Goose Lake State Park, Des Plains FWA and Heidecke Lake areas. Public access is superb.

Region 3

Statistically, not one county in Region 3 made the formula cut for late-season hotspots. Still, on the region's southernmost border, Shelby, Cumberland and Clark counties hold respectable numbers of deer. Hunters here do well to concentrate on the Kaskaskia River basin, the Wabash corridor, Wolf Creek State Park and Eagle Creek State Park on Lake Shelbyville.

Also, McLean County is well known for producing some of the state's largest bucks. Biologist Darryl Coates said the northwest corner of the county, around Comlara Park, and the Mackinaw River basin is prime winter deer yards.

Keep your eye on DeWitt County, as well. Whitetail density is low, but deer heavily concentrate in the late season around Clinton Lake, Weldon Springs or in the basin of Salt Creek.

Vermilion County is a constant best for the archery deer harvest and stands perennially as a prime destination for late-season bowhunters. Most of the action takes place in the Vermilion River basin and its tributaries, but don't discount the rough ground of the old strip mines around Kickapoo State Park. Superb cover meets food-rich fields and is a natural over-wintering area for cold-weather whitetails.

Region 4

Overall, seven counties in Region 4 received high marks for great deer harvests in both the 2006 second shotgun season and the January 2007 late-winter season. Pike County topped this list, with Adams, Hancock and Schuyler counties not far behind.

"Finding deer in this area is not a problem, and virtually every farm, woods and bottom ground are going to have deer. So, to pick a specific area (for the best hunting opportunities) is tough," said district wildlife biologist Brad Poulter of the INDR. "Generally, during the winter we see numbers of deer using the high parts of hills and bluffs for a wind break and to sun themselves. However, lowland ravines are key, too, and cedar and pine stands attract winter deer. Find these and you'll find the whitetails."

The bottomland along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers holds historic winter deer yards, too. Public access is superb among the several small state land tracts and where federal lands are found in this area.

Greene and Macoupin counties notched high tallies in both harvest categories. Greene County deer hunters focus their efforts on the bottoms along the Illinois River and its tributaries. And deer run rampant in all corners of Macoupin County, where 50 percent of the land stands in timber, with a good complement of creeks, ravines and lowlands.

According to IDNR wildlife biologist Brian Mahan, finding deer in Randolph County during the late season also won't be a problem.

"We have an overabundant (deer) population," Mahan said of the Randolph County deer herd. "There are a lot of public hunting areas that tend to get overlooked."

Represented in both December 2006 and January 2007 harvest totals, Randolph collectively holds about 25,000 acres of public-hunting land. Mahan suggested the best lands lie in Kaskaskia River State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Also, Brown County -- which holds a top rating among last year's county-by-county late-winter season deer harvests -- is a traditional winter deer yard. Calhoun County holds the absolute highest whitetail density in the state. Area hunters enjoy thousands of acres of public access through phenomenal river lowland.

Speaking of river land, the Sangamon River bottom through Cass, Mason, Menard and Sangamon counties is premium winter ground for much of the region's whitetails.

Region 5

Illinois deer hunters in Region 5 collectively posted the highest overall deer harvest for last season. Collectively, 10 counties scored in both categories, 11 counties scored among the top 25 in the late-winter season harvest, and 14 counties stand among the top 25 in the second season shotgun harvest.

According to IDNR wildlife biologist Gary Potts, Fay

ette County is a premier destination.

"For the best (deer-hunting) opportunity, focus on areas where river lowlands coincide with cropland," Potts said, pointing out that the Kaskaskia River basin, the upper sloughs of Carlyle Lake and the bottom lands just south of Vandalia are prime areas.

White County on the Wabash River also scored high among the region's county-by-county deer harvest totals. IDNR wildlife biologist John Bozett said the lowlands associated with the river couldn't be beat.

"After a heavy rain or snow and the river goes up, the deer push out of the lowlands and head for the hills and bluffs nearby," Bozett observed. "When that happens, deer hunting in the adjacent areas can be incredible."

Deer hunters in Marion County, too, were represented in both of last year's deer harvest totals. Look for many of the county's late-season deer to be hanging around the Kaskaskia corridor in the Skillet Fork.

IDNR wildlife biologist John Tippett fingers the Rayse Creek, Big Muddy River and Casey Fork bottoms in Jefferson County, which had a mark in both late seasons, as holding superb deer-hunting opportunities this season.

"The riparian areas are good to focus on, but you'll also find good numbers of deer in the Corps (of Engineers) ground on top of Rend Lake," Tippett pointed out.

Wayne County continually finds its way into the top 10 for harvest in the state. For winter deer hunting, it's hard to top. Concentrate on the Skillet Fork and the basin of the Little Wabash River east of Fairfield for the best winter yards.

Perry County scored high in the formula. Beaucoup Creek and the strip mines southeast of Pickneyville provide good winter deer cover.

Jackson County also made its way into the top 25 in all categories of harvest this past season. Public-hunting access is outstanding in the Shawnee National Forest, and good potential lies in Crab Orchard Creek, the Big Muddy River and the Mississippi River bottoms around Fountain Bluff.

Region 5's Williamson County was home of Illinois' largest typical whitetail taken in 2005. Holding one of the highest herd densities in the state further heightens the county's trophy-deer potential. The lowland sloughs around Crab Orchard Lake make for awesome winter cover, as do reclaimed strip mines throughout the area.

Union County took honors in both categories. According to IDNR wildlife biologist Dan Woolard, there are more public sloughs, woodlands and river lowlands in this place than most sportsmen could hunt in a lifetime.

Looking east, Johnson and Pope counties boast high late-season harvest totals from January 2007. IDNR wildlife biologist Chuck Zeiler said hunters look no farther than the heavy lowland areas associated with the Shawnee River.

"In Johnson County, Cypress Pond and the Cache River State Forest are areas that draw numbers of winter deer," Zeiler revealed. "In Pope County, though, you'll want to find the areas where forest meets crop fields. These are scant areas, but where the two environments coincide, winter deer concentrate. Most potential is in the southeastern portion of the county."

Good late-season harvest numbers were also posted in Hamilton, Clay and Jasper counties. And it should be noted that despite the fact that Hardin County didn't make the harvest numbers cut, this little gem at the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers enjoys a top-five rating for overall whitetail density in the state.

* * *

It matters little this season whether you're an archer, a muzzleloader hunter or a hunter who prefers a standard shotgun. When the cold sets in, the adage "feast or famine" wanes heavily toward a banquet of excellent late-winter white-tailed deer hunting across the Prairie State.

For more information about public deer hunting in Illinois, visit the Web site of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at http://dnr.state.il.us.

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