Discovering these Illinois public land deer hunting hotspots requires careful considerations — primarily, available deer food, deer shelter and sanctuary space deer need to thrive.
Illinois’s reputation for producing quality white-tailed deer has hunters constantly seeking great places to hunt. Discovering those sites requires careful considerations — primarily, available food, shelter and sanctuary deer need to thrive.
But weather, disease among the local deer herd, and loss of deer habitat also impact hunting success, which is measured annually by deer harvest statistics collected by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The IDNR also supports restoration, management and protection of deer habitat. Using science-based programs and statistical data, state wildlife biologists and technicians strive to maintain healthy and balanced deer herds that can sustain hunting pressure.
Of course, Illinois deer hunters have different perspectives on the size and condition of the Illinois herd, but the IDNR is driven to maintain deer populations that are healthy and disease free, while observing physical impacts deer herds place upon the habitat, as well as public safety issues associated with deer-and-vehicle accidents.
It has been found that deer-and-vehicle accidents are an accurate barometer of herd population trends. The Illinois Department of Transportation manages one of the most comprehensive databases in this field for the entire country. It holds years of data that defines county-based, deer-and-vehicle accident rates that are associated with changing property development and changing traffic patterns.
The goal is to visualize the number of deer per square mile (or by county) so local authorities can determine when deer herds exceed the carrying capacity of the land — whether it is classified as rural, urban or suburban — and how the herd impacts the defined forests, grasslands, agricultural properties and public safety within a measured area.
IDNR also regulates deer hunting around the incidence of diseases within the state-wide deer herd. This includes Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), which reared its ugly head again this year but at a much lower rate than in the prior season. EHD — a hemorrhagic disease of white-tailed deer caused by an infectious, sometimes fatal, virus that is characterized by extensive hemorrhages — is found throughout the United States. In Illinois last season, its prevalence — primarily in the east-central part of the state — was rated low compared to the moderate rate of occurrence in 2016.
IDNR also watches closely for the incidence of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). This fatal disease — typified by chronic weight loss — was first identified in 1967 and has spread to free-ranging and captive deer populations in 23 states and two Canadian provinces. CWD is widening its presence in Illinois, but state wildlife biologists say its impact remains at levels not yet affecting the overall health of the statewide deer herd.
HUNTS AND HARVESTS
Hunters participate in the management of the Prairie State deer herd simply by hunting across eight segments of the hunting season, reaching out recreationally and for culling purposes intended to create a more balanced and healthy deer herd. The deer hunting season begins in October and concludes in mid-January. Along the way, deer hunters will enjoy shooting handguns, shotguns, muzzleloaders, bows and crossbows.
Over the past five years, the Illinois deer harvest has averaged 148,000 whitetails annually, with the highest harvest during that period taking place across the 2015-16 season, when hunters killed 155,131 whitetails. Last year’s preliminary total, when “all” hunters killed 147,535 animals — 54 percent bucks, 44 percent does — marked increased harvests over the 2016-17 season in 62 of Illinois’s 102 counties. Archers killed nearly 58,000 deer, while traditional firearm (shotguns) hunters killed slightly more than 80,000 animals.
Dr. James Kroll and Pat Hogan discuss the impact of wind on deer behavior. (Via North American Whitetail)
But localized deer harvests don’t always meet the goals of the officials who collaborate to build season dates and regulations. That’s when “late winter seasons” are initiated to help reduce local deer numbers. For the 2017-18 season, these included “antlerless-only” hunts in 22 counties and “CWD hunts” in 15 counties (two less than in 2016-17), resulting in almost 4,696 deer killed (3,505 in 2016-17). The CWD hunts take aim on slowing the spread of chronic wasting disease in the herd and are available primarily in the northern counties of the state. Counties whose harvest for the year is at or below population goals for two consecutive years may be removed from the late-winter season, which typically is planned for the first Thursday-Sunday period after December 25; and the first Friday-Sunday period after January 11.
Hunter Fact Sheets and more information about Illinois’ deer hunting seasons is available on the website of the IDNR at dnr.illinois.gov. While visiting the site, search for the Illinois Recreational Access Program, which matches hunters with landowners in 48 counties who are willing to allow access to private land. Illinois ranks 46th in the nation for publicly-owned land; in fact, more than 95 percent of the land in Illinois is privately owned. That’s why the IDNR in 2011 created IRAP, which has enrolled more than 17,600 acres for outdoor recreational activities. It’s an especially attractive program for bowhunters. The hunter agrees to abide by landowner rules, obey all laws, conduct safe and ethical hunting practices and waive any claim against the landowner for personal injury.
To the casual observer, northeast Illinois — the Chicago metropolitan area, including Cook and the collar counties — appear to provide little in the form of deer habitat. But the whitetails found here prove the animal is surprisingly tolerant of humans in its territory. Still, they seek the sanctuary found in those isolated portions of the region where deer habitat stands strong and provides seclusion from what is locally heavy human traffic. In fact, excellent deer habitat lies among the area’s many forest preserves and state parks, as well as the bottomland along the Des Plaines, Kankakee, DuPage and Illinois rivers.
A number of good deer hunting areas lie in northwest Illinois. Most are found along the Illinois River and its feeder creeks. Deer hunters in Fulton County, downriver from Peoria, posted the second-best county-by-county deer harvest last year, with 4,014 deer harvested.
As the Illinois River winds its way to meet the Mississippi farther south, the bottomland is often joined by woodlots and agricultural fields, combining for food, shelter and water in a small area.
Central to the area is the Middle Mississippi River Refuge, including a number of islands.
Hunting pressure is heavy in the counties along the Illinois-Wisconsin border, where the IDNR hosts additional CWD seasons. With a couple of exceptions, most of the CWD cases were found among these counties. IDNR continues to collect tissue samples to determine the extent of the problem.
From west to east, central Illinois is a wide stretch — 210 miles from the Indiana border to the westernmost reach of the Mississippi River. Its eastern flank is flat to rolling hills comprised of farms where deer hunting access can be difficult. While deer are taken in good numbers here, the land is mostly privately owned, and gaining access can be difficult.
On its west side, central Illinois is a deer factory. Everything a deer needs or wants is found here. River bottomlands with heavy cover lie near agricultural fields, combining for habitat that offers plentiful water, food and secluded bedding areas. It is no wonder that Pike County deer hunters repeatedly take the state’s highest county-by-county deer harvest. Last year they combined for taking 4,459 deer. Just north, Adams County deer hunters combined their efforts in 2017-18 to record the state’s fourth best harvest with 3,754 deer. As might be expected, access in this area is in high demand and difficult to obtain.
Thanks to the Shawnee National Forest, deer hunters in southeast Illinois enjoy wide access to public hunting land. The forest actually stretches across the state in multiple tracts from the Mississippi River to the Ohio River, with much of the forest’s southeast tracts generally bounded on the west by Interstate 24 and State Highway 45. It rolls away generally southward from State Highway 13 and is bounded on its east by the Ohio River. The modern-day whitetail herd had its origins in this part of Illinois when what was then the Department of Conservation imported deer from other states and established them here. Later, deer were trapped here and used to stock other areas of Illinois.
Heavily wooded, with farm inholdings scattered throughout it, most of the forest is open to hunting. Southeast Illinois’ most significant deer harvests are commonly reported by Pope, White and Gallatin counties.
The region’s northern reach includes Jefferson County, where deer hunters combined to report a total harvest in 2017-18 of 3,253 whitetails. Most of the land in this northern portion is devoted to farming, so private land dominates the area, but public hunting land lies in Mount Vernon State Game Farm near Bakerville and the federal land surrounding Rend Lake west of Interstate 57.
South of Jefferson County, Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge stretches its 43,890 acres mostly across Williamson County. Last season 2,770 deer were harvested in the county, mostly from the refuge, where a prescribed number of farmed acres are left as food for the refuge’s wildlife. Learn more about the refuge’s controlled and open hunts online at fws.gov.
In southwest Illinois, on the western tracts of the Shawnee National Forest, the land lies in generally rolling hills and bottomland. A number of state public hunting areas nearby hold special hunts or are open to the general statewide deer seasons, including Randolph County State Recreation Area near Chester; Turkey Bluffs State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chester; Kaskaskia River State Fish and Wildlife Area near Baldwin; and Cypress Creek National Wildlife Refuge near Ullin.
Of particular interest is Illinois’s largest state park, Pyramid State Recreation Area, near Pinckneyville. The area has been designated as a Quality Deer Management Area, meaning only antlerless deer or antlered deer having at least four points on a side may be taken. This applies to all deer hunting (firearm, muzzleloader and archery), and the site is closed for a Late Winter Antlerless Only Season. Site specific information is available online at dnr.illinois.gov.
Randolph County, along the shores of the Mississippi River, reported the third-best deer harvest in Illinois last season. Hunters combined to take over 1,200 more animals — a total of 3,511 deer —than harvested in the 2016-17 season.
FACTS AND FACTORS
No doubt, Illinois deer hunters take a lot of whitetails every hunting season, averaging more than 148,000 deer harvested annually. Those who do it best do it with knowledge of the weather, an understanding of preferred deer habitat, and information about how deer herds are managed to maintain their health and balance their numbers. The staff of the IDNR further supports hunting success with habitat restoration and protection, the collection of deer harvest numbers, and the dissemination of localized information that makes any hunting trip in Illinois more likely a successful hunt.