December 10, 2021
By Mark Kayser
Do-it-yourself big-game hunts are most often associated with the vast backcountry of the West. But there are almost countless hunts for the DIY whitetail crowd east of the Rockies and throughout the Midwest.
One such gem is basically a hop, skip and a jump from the mighty Mississippi River in southern Illinois. It’s a world away from congested Chicago, and even nearby St. Louis, and offers a lot to keep the whitetail addict interested.
We’re talking about the Shawnee National Forest, an expansive treasure that contains riparian ribbons, lakes, dense timber and designated wilderness areas that produces some of the highest whitetail harvest rates in the state.
If you’re considering a midwestern DIY whitetail hunt, the Shawnee National Forest should certainly be on your radar.
FOREST OF PLENTY
Shawnee’s 289,000 acres is administered by the United States Forest Service (USFS), making the agency the largest public landowner in Illinois. While the forest is not connected in one contiguous block of land, it does contain large tracts. That is both fortunate and unfortunate. On the negative side, it allows whitetails to escape to private property interspersed throughout the forest. Whitetails feeling pressure may hole up in a privately-owned hollow instead of on the public side of the fence.
However, these private lands can be a blessing, too. An agricultural field may offer nutrition to whitetails that still require the sanctuary and refuge of public land, thus giving you an opportunity to ambush deer traveling between the two habitats. Also, any private-property hunting pressure can make deer move across borders. Shawnee may initially sound like a giant block of timber, but it has a variety of environments hidden within its confines. Whitetails are creatures of the edge, and when you examine the inventory of edges within the forest and adjoining private lands, there are plenty of ambush zones.
Nearly 150 miles of rivers and streams meander through the forest. These waterways provide whitetails with edge cover and travel corridors, as well as reliable water sources. Meanwhile, the different vegetation species thriving along the banks offer browse and cover that varies from that of the interior hardwoods. Also scattered among the forest lands are more than 200 lakes and ponds. These wetlands encourage more diverse vegetation than is found in a typical timber tract—another boon to whitetails living in the region. Plus, if you need a break from whitetail hunting, the 5,200 surface acres of water yield plenty of fishing action.
Shawnee has plenty of places to hunt via roads and trails, but if you really want to distance yourself from the crowd, you certainly can here. Seven designated wilderness areas provide these escape havens for both hunters and deer. Approximately 30,000 acres—a whopping 10 percent of the total forest—have been set aside for these areas. Rugged topography and remoteness define most of these tracts, making them very attractive for those looking to embark on an extended hunting journey. You don’t need a permit to access the wilderness areas or to camp, but ensure you review regulations attached to each area before entering.
Overall, the forest has a mixture of timber species. But, for whitetail hunters, the two most important—and most abundant—are oak varieties and hickories. Both offer whitetails nutrition in the form of mast. During the early fall, these native crops can lure and keep deer from wandering to nearby private properties, giving you targeted areas to hunt.
Additional areas to focus on come courtesy of annual forest management in the form of prescribed burns. Personnel on Shawnee manage prescribed burns annually, with most occurring in the spring. These burns help maintain openings and edge communities of vegetation for added nutrition. Other management tools, like mowing and disking, help keep openings from being overtaken. These practices spur browse regrowth and allow sunshine to reach areas that can flourish due to the multiple-use management scheme on the forest.
Hunting tactics in this area are pretty standard fare for any Midwestern hunt. Nevertheless, there are some shortcuts to keep in mind. First, use a quality hunting app, like the free HuntStand app, to view property ownership boundaries. This not only helps eliminate trespassing allegations while hunting but also provides a roadmap to edges where whitetail activity is sure to increase. Whether the private land is used for livestock grazing, farming, timber harvest or managed food plots could determine deer activity across borders. Check all private property in your intended hunting area, and inventory both sides of the fence.
Next, check in with forest personnel on where they are actively working on habitat projects. Mowing, disking and especially prescribed burns attract whitetails that will adjust their home territories to benefit from the lush vegetation created. If bursts of moisture follow any of these practices, new growth is spurred under an open canopy, creating a natural food plot.
While speaking with any forest personnel and even local conservation officers, ask about any heavy concentrations of oaks and hickory communities. Hollows and ridges with mast-bearing trees provide good locations for early-season sets and are places deer may visit throughout the fall. A hungry buck could drop by during the craziness of the rut or prior to an unexpected winter storm.
Lastly, scout the wilderness areas. These regions may eliminate many hunters who fall into the categories of overweight and obese, which includes more than 70 percent of Americans. Being in shape gives you access to areas that see fewer hunters, and fewer hunters typically means more deer looking for refuge from hunting pressure. That summer scouting trip is an ideal way to review wilderness settings and decide how to tackle your ambush tactic. Do you pack in a treestand or simply find an opening on top of a ridge where you can shoot across and down? Either could potentially work.
Contrary to popular belief, DIY backcountry hunting opportunities exist on federal, state and local properties all over the country—not just the West. The Shawnee National Forest is an excellent example. It’s a large network of promising properties that anyone in the Midwest can easily access, and it offers a lot of great ground with solid opportunities for a satisfying hunt.
Tips for tackling a DIY hunt in the Shawnee National Forest.
Due to Illinois’ application process, you do need to plan ahead a bit if you wish to hunt deer in the Shawnee National Forest. Applying for deer permits begins in March for residents and May for nonresidents, and you apply based on the weapon you intend to use. The state does offer some over-the-counter antlerless permits with special rules, but like many states, you still must apply in advance for a chance to hunt.
After choosing the season you hope to hunt—these include archery, firearm and muzzleloader—your next step is deciding whether you plan on camping or renting a room in a nearby community. For the minimalist, primitive camping is allowed in the forest with the exception of developed areas or along lakes and riparian zones. Check the rules, but if you wish to hike into a roadless area or wilderness, you can camp primitively.
The forest also features nine developed campgrounds, plus a specialized RV campground operated by a concessionaire. Seasonal use varies on individual campgrounds, but many are open year-round, with others staying open until mid-December. Therefor, camping options are available during most hunting seasons. As you focus on an area, check the specifics of a nearby campground, especially if you are planning on a late-season hunt.
Associations such as the Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau provide handy links to B&Bs, cabins, house rentals and, of course, the easy convenience of a motel. Even though the forest is a world away from urban living, ample midwestern cities with small-town charm dot the area, giving you plenty of options for comfort. Large communities with chain motels surround the forest, including Metropolis, Murphysboro, Marion and Harrisburg to name a few. In the interior, you will find a number of rural small-town cafes, convenience stores and fuel.
Probably the best way to plan a hunting trip to the region is to set aside a week in the summer and visit the area. It offers abundant family activities such as camping, hiking and fishing. While recreating with the family you can check hunting access, camping advantages and motel possibilities, and determine how far you may need to drive between lodging and hunting. A family hike can easily double as a scouting mission to find clusters of oaks and edges and to make notes on your hunting app for a speedy launch to your hunt when fall arrives.