It is one of the most anticipated days of the year, no matter the firearm you choose to carry afield. Opening day of the Illinois deer hunting season — whether you’re outfitted with a bow, crossbow, shotgun, muzzleloader or handgun — is filled with your hope of taking your deer, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
If you have done your homework and planned your deer hunt, chances are you will be having fresh tenderloins for supper. If you hunt like some folks play the lottery — hoping a quick score will fund his or her retirement — you’ll likely find the odds of success just about the same, and “tag soup” might be on your menu at the end of deer season. Successful deer hunters invest in scouting, studying and planning. Let’s face it. The success rate of Illinois deer hunters is about 30 percent, and, for many, success hinges on hoping a deer walks by. Other hunters go into the woods knowing deer will walk by, and many of those folks are fairly certain the right deer will walk by. The difference between the two hunters is one tilts the odds in their favor through research and scouting.
The 2017-2018 Illinois deer season continued the stable, if not slightly upward, trend on total deer harvest. Last year’s harvest was more than 2 percent (3,385 deer) higher than the kill total of the 2016-2017 season, but 27 percent lower than the largest Illinois deer season kill total just 12 years ago in 2005. Of this, the archery season saw the highest increase in success with 4,469 deer killed. That’s an 8 percent increase, which was attributed to the new regulations allowing full use of crossbows during archery season. The firearm harvest might have seen an equally impressive increase in deer killed, but heavy storms kept hunters out of tree stands on the first opening weekend.
THE IMPACTS OF HABITAT AND DISEASE
Changing habitat also plays into changes in deer numbers. According to the Quality Deer Management Association, habitat loss is the No. 1 cause of dropping deer numbers in the Midwest. As commercial growers buy out smaller farms, fence lines are bulldozed, woodlots are cleared, and marginal areas are drained and put into crop production. Previous safe places and travel corridors for deer are stripped away. Add to that the growing trend of expansive mowing and vegetation control. While much of the state rural areas look park-like with crisp clean ditches and backyards, it leaves no cover for wildlife — deer, especially. The changes are generally small and localized, but over time, they have huge impacts.
Another trend worrying Illinois deer hunters is the increase of coyotes and bobcats. Some studies claim predators have little impact on deer populations, while other research has shown localized fawn mortality in the Midwest can be close to 50 percent because of predators. That’s a sobering statistic that can be linked to habitat loss.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) — chronic weight loss in deer that leads to death — and the impact it has on local deer herds is something deer hunters must deal with in Illinois. Steps are being taken seem to restrict it from spreading, but the question is “if” the spreading can be stopped.
Illinois has a feral hog problem; many states do. The pigs seem to be under control, but some folks in Illinois want feral hogs to roam our wild areas. Some would have no issue with clandestinely trucking in a load or two to jumpstart their population growth. It’s happened elsewhere. Along with the Pandora’s Box of problems feral hogs bring to our natural habitat and agricultural business, research has found that they can also carry CWD. That places the need for vigilance against such acts at a whole new level.
The dark cloud of CWD is always headline news and for good reason, but other diseases can be just as deadly. Everyone remembers the outbreak in 2012 of EHD — Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, a viral disease that’s usually fatal and stands as the most common disease among white-tailed deer. It killed deer by the thousands. As this is going to print, we have had a cold, wet spring, which can bring other issues, but normal rainfall that keeps creeks running can help hold EHD at bay. If all we have are minor outbreaks, deer in Illinois can rebound quickly to a threat like that.
While some deer hunters may disagree, state wildlife biologists say the overall deer population in Illinois is good and even increasing. While habitat conditions vary from county to county, and even township to township, all of Illinois has great genetics and the ability to produce quality deer if they are given the right blend of food and habitat.
A nearly balanced doe-to-buck ratio in the Illinois deer herd means the rutting period is condensed, which allows almost all does to become bred quickly and drop their fawns at the optimal time of the year, and bucks can get back to foraging to improve body condition for the winter. An overall smaller herd size means the available forage on the landscape can allow deer to achieve their greatest potential and not be limited by a lack of food resources that occurs in deer populations with large numbers.
For the best hunting opportunities, look to the counties that hold late-winter hunts, which indicates a local over-abundance of deer. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources produces a map that highlights those counties. Start scouting by using Google Earth to scout the landscape with high-resolution satellite imagery.
While the late-winter hunt counties are a great starting point, so are the counties that record high deer-harvest densities. Hardin County is always the leader year to year, and it’s easy to see why. The simple truth is that deer need year-round food and a place of sanctuary away from predators. Corn provides great food and cover during the summer, but once it’s harvested, the field might as well be a parking lot. Small tracts of woods hold limited food and cover, and predators can flush deer easily into open areas where there’s nowhere to run to. The best areas are a patchwork of crops, lowlands and forest — the picture of Hardin County — where deer can live and breed unmolested by humans, and where they can escape dog and coyotes without exposing themselves to other dangers.
GETTING DOWN TO IT
In a recent study it was found that Illinois was rated as one of the top states when measuring hunting pressure upon deer. That’s not a flattering judgement, and the study goes on to claim there’s almost a one-to-one ratio of hunter-to-deer. Considering some states hold 16 deer per every hunter, the Illinois rating does not project good odds for locally successful hunts. So how can a hunter find unpressured deer in Illinois?
Statistics show the average age of a deer hunter in the Midwest is 41 years. The truth is, at that age most deer hunters avoid steep, rough or swampy terrain and prefer to focus on stand sites that can be easily walked or driven to. That means, if a hunter is willing and able to walk a little farther, they might find themselves with little or no hunting pressure on opening morning.
Indeed, prime deer habitat lies all over Illinois, but the hilly southern section of the state is perfect for deer (and turkeys), as are the breaks along the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers. The hills of Hardin, Williamson and Brown counties out-produce many nationally lauded locations, when the number of deer per square mile are compared.
Illinois’s urban areas are also overlooked deer hunting Meccas. As urban sprawl moves into croplands and other traditional deer habitat, the deer easily transition to eating exotic plants and fruit trees that suburbia plants and grows. With a wide variety of food available, urban deer are healthy and often grow massive antlers. While firearms are prohibited in much of the urban areas, there are still exciting possibilities available if you find the spots where using archery equipment is permitted. In fact, many archers prefer hunting the urban areas because many of these sites are located on their routes home from work. That means more time to hunt!/p>
The No. 1 factor that determines hunting success is you. The most successful deer hunters in Illinois are those who do the homework long before the season starts and stay in the woods when everyone else is heading home.
Think You’ve Got A Record-Book Buck?
You’ve shot your buck, and now you wonder if it might be record-book worthy. What do you do?The Boone and Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club are the two most prominent record-keeping authorities. B&C maintains big game records for animals taken by all hunting methods. P&Y is the archery-specific counterpart to B&C.
Each club has detailed procedures for record-book whitetail entries — found on their respective websites. Both require that the skull plate be completely intact and unaltered, and that antlers be unrepaired and unmodified. So, ensure neither are damaged while caring for your trophy.
Both also require a “drying” period of at least 60 days at room temperature after harvest. Before this, clean the skull plate — again, ensuring no damage is done.
You can “green score” your buck before drying to see if it meets record-book status, but your next step after drying is contacting an official scorer. Both clubs have an online tool for locating scorers.Each club has different minimum score requirements. B&C requires typical whitetails to have a final score of 160 inches for its Award book. For non-typical, it’s 185. P&Y minimums are 125 and 155 inches for typical and non-typical, respectively.
After official scoring, you’ll do additional entry paperwork and documentation according to the organization. These must be followed to the letter.
If you’re looking to add your name to one of these books, check out the upcoming December/January issue, which has an article with tips on where to hunt some of the most productive big buck areas in the state.