Hunting Illinois' Late-Season Whitetails

Hunting Illinois' Late-Season Whitetails

We have so many deer in our state that they are just dying to get into someone's freezer this winter. You can help them achieve that goal all around the Prairie State. (December 2005)

Photo by Mark Werner

Once upon a time, late-season deer hunting in Illinois was considered a sport designed for diehards and fanatics. That time is long past. Today's healthy and abundant whitetail populations, combined with expanded seasons and liberal weapons options, leave little reason for an empty freezer in the Prairie State.

Tom Micetich, deer project manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, appropriately set the tone for our discussion about chasing venison in winter.

"Late-season opportunities abound throughout the state," he said. "Reduced hunting pressure and the concentration of deer around limited available food sources make late-season hunting quite enjoyable. Of course, the weather will play a key role in your pleasure afield, so dress accordingly."

Thermal underwear isn't the only consideration. A fundamental lesson taught first-year business majors is that there are three keys to success. That lesson easily equates to enjoying a successful late-season hunt. So what are those three important keys? Location, location and location!

"Late-winter deer tend to be bunched, so hunters will endure 'all or none' situations," explained Micetich. "You may not see any deer or you might see dozens. I guess that's why they call it hunting!"

This question of seeing deer is a primary reason why hunters don't hunt during late winter. This is a critical issue primarily because of a long-standing fallacy about late-season deer. Somewhere down the line, hunters came up with the notion that whitetails pack their bags and leave the country for parts unknown right after the first shotgun blasts of fall fill the air. Well, I'm here to tell you, Odocoileus virginianus is not wintering in the tropics!

The Good Witch told Dorothy to always remember, "There's no place like home," and deer believe in that same philosophy. Micetich was right when he explained you "may not" see any deer. There are few guarantees in hunting and there is always the possibility of going home empty-handed.

But one guarantee does exist in the world of the hunting -- if you don't get off the couch, you won't be filling any tags.

Bowhunting statistics bear out the fact that when you go, specifically, isn't nearly so important as you might think. What is important is that you just get into the field.

There are distinct disadvantages that accompany a hunt with stick and string, especially after shotgun-toting hunters have educated deer about man's ominous presence. Nonetheless, archers still manage to kill deer on every single day of the late season. In addition to that fact, there is a pattern in their success.

During the last two years, data indicates a deer was killed on every day during the late-season archery period. Also apparent is a common rise and fall in the number of animals taken when comparing the last two seasons. These similarities are obvious even when examining each season over the last 10 years.

The similarities in harvest results are no accident. Peak performance occurs on weekends, during the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and just before the final buzzer. This is significant because it illustrates quite clearly that more deer are killed when more hunters get into the field.

Most folks take the time to hunt only when the demands of work allow, and that generally translates to weekends. Additionally, family gatherings, traditional outings and those couple extra days away from the office during the holidays are usually a hunting advantage and, of course, we always seem to be able to make a little extra time as the clock runs out on an empty tag.

If you can spare the time midweek at any point throughout the season, however, there is good reason to do so. Deer will be in the woods whenever you make the time to join them. A full 39 percent of all late-season archery deer are taken on Saturdays and Sundays, but that also means that slightly less than two-thirds are bagged Monday through Friday.

So when is the best time to hunt late-season? Every chance you get!

Okay, the decision has been made. Just as soon as you finish this article, you'll be going out to fill that tag. From here, you have a lot of options to consider. To help you plan the rest of your approach we gathered the data, crunched the numbers and put together this advice on late-season deer opportunities.

Firearms are a popular choice for late-season but the limited number of tags that are issued prevents us all from taking advantage of this option. We'll discuss that momentarily. In the interim it's important to recognize that bowhunters are still in the game. In fact, archers take a substantial number of deer after the echoes of second season shotgun have faded from memory.

During the 2003-04 season, archers took 6,477 deer from the end of the second shotgun hunt until the final bell rang on Jan. 15. Even higher numbers were attained in 2004-05 when the total climbed to 7,332 whitetails in the freezer for those using bow and arrow.

Micetich talked about bowhunters in late season and outlined a regulation change for this season.

"The late season is available to all bowhunters -- resident and non-resident alike -- with valid archery deer permits," he explained. "All 102 Illinois counties are open to archers. A change for the 2005-06 year will include the availability of over-the-counter Non-Resident Antlerless-Only Archery Deer Permits at $26 each."

It is certain that folks in some circles will respond negatively to this change, but the rationale for doing so is pretty basic. "We can't kill enough antlerless deer," Micetich said. Despite expanded seasons, new hunt areas and fewer restrictions on weapons choice, hunters have failed to kill sufficient numbers of antlerless deer.

The DNR has a responsibility to manage whitetail herds within certain population levels, and non-resident antlerless archery tags offer one more alternative that presents additional opportunities for hunters. There are other alternatives that would be far less palatable, such as the use of sharpshooters. Any time hunters are given the nod in management decisions, wildlife managers should be commended and not condemned.

Of course, a real benefit afforded bowhunters in late winter is the ease of access to ot

herwise inaccessible lands.

"Hunters willing to shoot does will find themselves to be very welcome in most areas of the state," Micetich explained. "Farmers and other landowners experiencing crop and/or ornamental damage due to deer are more than happy to allow somebody to remove some of the offending animals.

"I know a few archers who get permission in the late winter to shoot does only on several farms," he continued. "Between them, approximately 30 deer are removed annually. Meat is donated to needy citizens whom they know personally and/or the Sportsmen Against Hunger program. Years of demonstrating proficiency with archery equipment have allowed them access during 'prime time' to farms they could not enter just a few years ago."

Bowhunters have made huge contributions to deer management over the years but they simply cannot keep pace with expanding deer numbers. That brings us to the late-winter firearms season.

Historically, this hunt was a handgun hunt. It was originally introduced to address overpopulation issues and, at the same time, provide incentives for participation through new weapon options. That changed only recently to allow for even greater opportunities with a variety of arms, including muzzleloaders.

"The season formerly known as 'Handgun Season' is now called 'Late-Winter Season' and is available only to residents," Micetich said. "This Late-Winter Season allows the take of antlerless-only deer with firearms. We expanded the Late-Winter Season to 43 counties in January 2005, and are considering a handful of others for the January 2006 campaign."

Despite this recent change, the data that best represents historical success has been handgun results. We analyzed those results to help gauge each area's potential for the coming year.

Though it normally gets little attention from the media, the late-season handgun hunt has provided substantial opportunities over the years. From 1995 through the 2003-04 season, a total of 101,985 hunters have taken advantage of the special season and were responsible for killing 17,202 deer. That is a lot of sausage.

In descending order, our next four counties include Fayette with a nine-year total of 765 deer and a success rate of 15.9 percent, Perry with 746 and a rate of 17.2 percent, Adams at 720 kills and a success rate of 14.2 percent, and Brown with a total harvest of 702 deer and a hunter success rate of 20.8 percent.

While the cumulative success rate percentages have bounced around a point or two over the years, the nine-year average statewide hunter success rate came in at 16.9 percent. Success rates within individual counties, however, showed great variation and ranged from a low of 7 percent to a high of 35 percent in any given year and location.

As would be expected, some areas have maintained a leading role in late-season hunter success. Based upon the nine-year totals, our top 10 handgun hunt areas were calculated and are reviewed below. Not included in our calculations were those counties recently added to the Late-Winter Season simply because there is no historical data upon which to gauge their potential. Those counties include Bureau, Carroll, Cass, Clay, Franklin, Hamilton, Hancock, Jersey, La Salle, Madison, Marion, McDonough, Montgomery, Peoria, Scott and Washington. Counties are added and/or removed from the list on an annual basis depending upon specific herd dynamics within that area.

As anticipated, Pike County takes honors on our top 10 list with a total of 2,383 deer harvested over nine years. During this time they maintained a hunter success rate of 28.7 percent. The 2003-04 season was fairly typical in that 895 hunters bagged 254 deer for a success rate of 28.4 percent.

Wayne County took the No. 2 spot even as their late-season harvests have declined over the last couple of years. Total handgun kills in 2001 totaled 181 deer, dropping to 150 and 128 over the following two years, but the nine-year total reached 1,178 deer and an average hunter success rate of 25.9 percent.

Jo Daviess County ranked next on our list and produced just shy of Wayne County's mark with a total of 1,117 deer over nine years. Late-season harvests have been in decline here as well, with totals over the last four years coming in at 173, 148, 128 and 106, respectively. Hunter success has followed the same trend from a high of 19.9 percent in 2000 to 14.4 percent in 2003-04. The average hunter success rate over nine years came in at only 14.2 percent.

Jefferson County is No. 4 on the list. Their experience over the last few years has been erratic, with kill numbers falling, climbing and then falling again. The 2002 season gave up 145 deer, followed by a drop to 114 in 2003. The nine-year total was 912 filled tags and a hunter success rate of 17.8 percent.

Moving down the list from here, the difference between nine-year totals from one county to the next becomes less significant, often averaging out to a gap of only several deer per year from one county to the next. In descending order, our next four counties include Fayette with a nine-year total of 765 deer and a success rate of 15.9 percent, Perry with 746 and a rate of 17.2 percent, Adams at 720 kills and a success rate of 14.2 percent, and Brown with a total harvest of 702 deer and a hunter success rate of 20.8 percent. Rounding out our top 10 are Jasper County with a nine-year total harvest of 654 deer and a success rate of 19.5 percent, and Randolph County with a success rate of 14.4 percent and 643 deer in the freezer.

As you put together your own hunting strategy, there is an important consideration -- beyond total harvest numbers -- that may be of interest, and that is the odds for individual hunters to fill their tags. In this regard, the late-winter season fleshes out like all the other regular seasons. Those counties on our top 10 list definitely offer higher totals for deer killed but there are many counties with lesser harvests that actually perform at higher success rates.

The statewide average hunter success rate over the last nine years was 16.9 percent. In other words, for every 1,000 hunters that took to the field, there were a total of 169 who actually filled their tag.

We have identified seven counties that didn't have the dramatic harvest numbers found on our top 10 list but which performed above this statewide hunter success average. These counties fall into a "sleeper" category because of their success rates. The kind of hunt you prefer and the priorities you set for choosing your hunt location may lead you toward one of these alternatives.

Calhoun County ranked next with a success rate of 21.3 percent and a total take of 549, followed by Lawrence County at 20.4 percent and 264 kills. Greene County made the sixth spot with a hunter success rate of 19.7 percent and a nine-year total of 502 deer.

Our top sleeper county is a good example of the tradeoffs that may be involved. During the late seasons, White County gave up only 381 deer over the last nine years. That total is 40 percent lower than Randolph County, which is ranked No. 10 on our top 10 list. However, during that same time period, only 14.4 percent of Randolph County hunters filled their tags while those in White County were successful 25.2 percent of the time. In other words, out of every 1,000 hunters who went afield in these respective counties, 108 more were successful in White County than in Randolph County.

Crawford County is No. 2 on our sleepers list with a nine-year harvest total of 523 deer and a hunter success rate of 23 percent. The success rate in Richland County was close behind at 22.9 percent, though their kill total over nine years reached only 368 deer.

Calhoun County ranked next with a success rate of 21.3 percent and a total take of 549, followed by Lawrence County at 20.4 percent and 264 kills. Greene County made the sixth spot with a hunter success rate of 19.7 percent and a nine-year total of 502 deer. Clark County just squeaked past the statewide average hunter success rate of 16.9 percent with their own average of 17.2 percent and a take of 389 deer over nine years.

Sleeper counties can definitely offer excellent opportunities for those hunters who prefer a little more solitude in the woods and who may be willing to give up seeing huge numbers of deer in exchange for better odds of actually killing one.

No matter how you shake it out, the late-winter deer hunts offer exceptional opportunities to get into the woods and out of the house. Ask your doctor if this is the perfect antidote for cabin fever. He'll say yes.

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