Illinois' Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Late-winter whitetails are on the move and the opportunity to connect with one before the close of the season is excellent. (December 2008)

Illinois' vast croplands ensure whitetails get plenty to eat in the winter months. Photo by Judd Cooney/

Mother Nature can be cruel in late winter. Take for instance the second firearms season in the Prairie State last year. What began as a balmy early December hunt quickly turned bitter cold with blizzard-like conditions in the north and driving sleet from mid-state south. The first muzzleloader season a week later wasn't much better as far as temperatures go, and hunters participating in the late-winter antlerless season and chronic wasting disease season in the north-central counties got a taste of near-record low temperatures.

The deer didn't seem to mind the conditions, however. Hefty late-season harvest totals were reported throughout the state, giving good credence to the theory that despite cold temperatures, there's still great hunting to be had. If you've found yourself with an unfilled tag, or just have a hard time saying goodbye to deer season, then get out your shotgun, muzzleloader or bow and head to some of the following hotspots. Late-winter whitetails are on the move and the opportunity to connect with one before the close of the season is excellent.

The second shotgun season saw 31,218 whitetails harvested statewide, commensurate with 29,117 deer harvested in 2006. Muzzleloaders brought down 4,333 deer during the first season, considerably lower than the previous record-setting season of 20,881 set in 2006. The late-winter antlerless and CWD season saw another record harvest with 12,434 deer killed, considerably higher than the 2006 total of 9,700.

To arrive at the absolute best areas to hunt in each region, we investigated five harvest descriptors of winter whitetail harvest, harvest totals in the second firearms, muzzleloader and the late-winter/CWD season, the aggregate of all seasons, and harvest density, deer killed per square mile. A point was allotted to the top 25 counties in each category. Each county's respective marks were tallied to arrive at the best areas based upon the collection of marks respective counties received. Ten counties scored in all five areas. Many had marks in multiple descriptors. The analysis results are as follows.

Pike County was tabbed the highest count with 1,122 deer taken the first weekend in December. Jefferson County bagged 808. Randolph came in third with 708. Jackson brought in 699. Pope County had 670; Fulton chalked 668; Hancock was seventh with 660; Adams had 651; Wayne tabbed 640, and Marion County shot 618 whitetails during the second firearms season to round out the top 10 areas.

Pike County again led all areas with 199 deer taken during the muzzleloader-only season. Jo Daviess County wasn't far behind with 141. Fulton County blasted 115. Hancock County tabbed 110; LaSalle brought in 107; Jefferson shot 101; Bureau had 100; Schuyler brought down 85; Marion notched 82, and Brown County recorded 75 to round out the top 10 areas of 2007.

Late-season hunters from Pike County outpaced the rest of the state with a count of 712 whitetails taken Jan. 18-20. Jefferson County was a distant second with 431. Golden Triangle member Adams County bagged 371 for third place. Wayne County with 370 was a close fourth. Jo Daviess took fifth place with 355; Randolph chalked 343; Fulton shot 331; LaSalle had 322 to lead counties open for the CWD season. Marion tabbed 314, and Schuyler County bagged 300 deer to complete the top 10 areas statewide.

The aggregate kill totals for all three late seasons were tabulated for each county. Pike County came out on top with 2,035 whitetails taken. Jefferson shot 1,340; Fulton had 1,114; Randolph chalked up 1,110; Jo Daviess killed 1,103; Wayne tabbed 1,079; Adams checked in 1,022; Jackson had 1,016; Marion recorded 1,014, and Hancock County hunters harvested 1,009 whitetails in December and January to complete the 10 best areas.

Density is calculated by dividing the number of deer harvested in Illinois during the winter seasons by the respective square miles that encompass a county. Numbers represent deer killed per square mile. Calhoun County came out on top with 3.1 whitetails per square mile. Brown was a near second with 2.5. Pike had 2.4, Jefferson 2.3, Schuyler 2.2, and Johnson and Hardin tied at 2.0. Union had 1.95; Pope had 1.9 and Randolph County rounded out the top decant with 1.86 deer harvested per square mile.

Region 1
Jo Daviess and Fulton County scored in all areas of the analysis. Both areas constitute excellent late-winter opportunities. In Jo Daviess County, much of the focus is upon the ravine and hill country of the region in between Galena and Hanover. There's excellent public hunting in Apple River Canyon SP (815/745-3302) and Blanding (Mississippi River Pool 12, 815/244-3655). In Fulton County, the thick bottoms of the Spoon River and tributaries constitute prime winter quarters for a dense whitetail population. The brushy grounds in the old strip mine areas to the county's east are also prime targets.

Bureau County scored in four out of the five areas for late-season potential. The best winter hunting here is in the basin of the Illinois River, Big Bureau Creek and the wooded ground south of Sheffield. Knox County scored in three areas. Excellent numbers of deer can be found in the Spoon River basin and the heavily wooded areas south of Snake Den Hollow. Public hunting can be had at Spoon River SF (309/879-2607).

Putnam County received a mark for harvest density. LaSalle County scored in overall harvest, late-season and muzzleloader counts and has plenty of public opportunity in Starved Rock and Matthiessen State Park (815/667-4726). And Ogle County is a definite must see. Good public access in Castle Rock and Lowden/Miller State Park (815/732-7329) scored in the top 25 for CWD season and muzzleloader harvest.

Region 2
Chicagoland and the collar counties did not have any representation as far as any categories of harvest analysis were concerned, but there are a few potential areas that deer hunters in the northeast will want to consider. The southern portion of Will County tends to be a late-winter area for deer but very exclusive.

Des Plaines CA (815/ 423-5326) and Midwein National Tall Grass offer considerable public access. Access to much of this is by early lottery and daily drawing. Grundy County was open last season for the CWD season. Excellent public hunting can be had at Hiedecke Lake or Goose Lake Prairie (815/942-6352). In

addition, McHenry County is packed with whitetails. Some public access can be found in Moraine Hills State Park (815/675-2385).

Region 3
Only two Region 3 counties scored in any portion of the analysis. The most noteworthy was Clark County, which had a mark for late-winter season totals, as well as harvest density. The best winter grounds here include the Wabash basin along with the North Fork Embarras River, Mill Creek and Big Creek drainages. Only public archery is allowed at Lincoln Trail SP (815/826-2222). Vermillion County made it into the top 25 for muzzleloader harvest. Some public area is available in Kickapoo State Park.

Additionally, in Iroquois County, you'll find a high density of whitetails in the brushy, thick Iroquois River bottoms. There's some good public opportunity in Iroquois CA (815/435-2218). McLean County has a noteworthy winter yard around Comlara Park in the northwest corner. DeWitt County around Clinton Lake State Park (217/935-8722) is a whitetail mecca. Shelby County, specifically around Wolf Creek and Eagle Creek SP (217/756-8260) on Lake Shelbyville, experiences a pilgrimage of deer every winter but is open only for archery.

Region 4
In the Land of Lincoln, it's hard to find a better area than Region 4. Five counties scored in all areas of the analysis with Pike coming in at No. 1 for every category except density. The entire county is excellent potential, but the woodlands on the western and eastern bluffs are prime but difficult to gain access. For John Q. Hunter, Mississippi River Pool 24 Federal Land (217/285-2221) offers about 10,000 acres of public access, receives less pressure than the "prime ground" and is full of whitetails. Much huntable ground must be accessed by boat. Ray Norbut FWA (217/894-6205) likewise offers about 1,300 acres of public access.

Hancock County scored in all descriptors. The Mississippi River bottoms along with the LaMoine River, Bear Creek and Panther Creek are heavily wooded and a prime focus. Little public hunting is available. Schuyler County scored in all categories. The entire county is a prime winter yard. Weinberg-King FWA (217/392-2345) offers about 1,500 acres for archery, muzzleloading and second season firearms hunting.

The best winter hunting with the best access can be found in two counties.

The first, Calhoun County, scored in all areas of the analysis and has the absolute highest density of whitetails in Illinois. Public access is excellent on both the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Chances for success here are high. Some public hunting contacts are Rip Rap Landing, Red's Landing, Bachtown FWA, Calhoun Point FL and Stump Lake WMA. Information on all of these areas can be had by calling (217) 376-3303.

The second, Randolph County, scored high in all areas of the analysis, and with Kaskaskia River FWA (618/785-2555) and Randolph County CA (618/826-2706), there are nearly 20,000 acres of heavily wooded public access to one of the absolute best winter yards in the entire state.

Other noteworthy areas include Brown County. Pike County's little brother scored in all aspects except overall harvest. Adams County is always a hotspot, and has good public access along the Mississippi River (573/847-2333). Greene County, Macoupin County and Jersey County had collective marks in all of the areas considered. There's not much public access in either Greene or Macoupin, but Jersey offers about 5,000 acres in Pere Marquette SP (618/786-3323).

Region 5
The greatest potential for late-season success occurs in Region 5. Three counties scored in all areas of the analysis, but 14 counties were in the top 25 for late-winter harvest density, and 12 were in the top 25 for overall harvest.

The absolute best area may be Jefferson County. Intermittent woods and fields dominate, and with nearly 15,000 acres of public access in Rend Lake WMA (618/279-3110) and Rend Lake FL (618/724-2493), Fayette County tabbed all areas of the analysis.

The best areas are the northeast corner in the drainage of the Kaskaskia River, east of Vandalia in the Hickory Creek bottoms, and the upper reaches of Carlyle Lake. About 10,000 acres of public hunting are available at Carlyle Lake WMA (618/425-3533). Marion County completes the tribunal of top-scoring counties. There's not much public access, but if you're willing to do some homework, the East Fork Kaskaskia and Skillet Fork basins are prime late-season areas.

In the southern tip, six counties should be on the late-winter list of any serious deer hunter. Jackson County scored in all areas except muzzleloader totals. Williamson County was a leader in second season firearms harvest and overall harvest. Union County had a mark in all areas save late-winter season totals. Johnson had marks in all but overall harvest. Pope had representation in everything but late-winter season numbers, and Hardin County boasts the fourth-highest concentration of deer in the state.

All of these counties have access to a collective 277,645 public-hunting acres in the Shawnee National Forest (618/253-7114) in addition to numerous other areas of public access. In Jackson County, there are Kinkade Lake (618/684-2867), Oakwood Bottoms (618/687-1731) and Giant City SP (618/457-4836). In Williamson County, Crab Orchard Refuge (618/997-3344) offers 23,000 acres. In Union County, there are Trail of Tears SF (618/833-4919) and Union County CA (618/833-5175). In Johnson County, Cache River SNA (618/634-9678) is about 12,000 acres of great hunting. There's also Ferne Clyffe (618/995-2411).

Other remarkable places in Region 5 include Perry County, which scored in all areas except muzzleloader totals. Excellent public access can be had in Pyramid SP (618/357-2574). Franklin County had one of the best density totals in the state. Both Hamilton and White counties are deer factories. The Wabash River basin is the prime focus in White County. Great public access can be had in Hamilton County at Hamilton County FWA (618/773-4340) and Ten-Mile Creek FWA (618/643-2862). Saline County had a mark for whitetail density and good access to the Shawnee National Forest. Wayne County scored in everything except density. Clay had a mark for all but muzzleloader. Crawford County on the Wabash River had a mark for density, and has decent opportunity in Crawford County FWA (618/563-4405), and Jasper County had a tab for overall density.

The second firearms season will begin on Dec. 4 and run through Dec. 7. This season is also considered the second muzzleloader season and hunters with a valid muzzleloader permit may hunt with blackpowder during this time. Although most shotgun and muzzleloader permits are issued through lottery earlier in the year, a number of public hunting facilities in the counties listed above offer a standby system for permit holders that do not show up on a particular day.

The second muzzleloader (muzzleloader only) season begins on Dec. 12 and runs through Dec. 14. Archery season closes at sundown on Jan. 15. The late-winter antlerless and CWD season begins on Jan. 16 and runs through Jan. 18. Hunters are allowed one antlerless deer per permit. The same standby procedure is in effect in some public hunting areas statewide for hunters who

did not receive a permit for the late season in the preceding lottery.

CWD tags in Winnebago, Boone, Stephenson, LaSalle, DeKalb, Grundy and Ogle counties are available over the counter at participating sporting goods stores within the CWD zone. During the season, multiple tags can be obtained when you check in a deer at a check station, and a number of public hunting areas within these counties offer hunters holding permits the opportunity to draw and stand by to hunt during this season. Last season, my son, father and I had the chance to hunt in Ogle County, and the hunt was extraordinary, ending with each of us filling our tags on the first day.

Visit the DNR Web site at more information and a list of public hunting area contact numbers, as well as information on site-specific regulations.

Late-winter deer hunting in Illinois has gained much popularity with the whitetail constituency from north to south. If you're among the many Prairie State hunters itching to connect one last time with a nice buck or perhaps put a little freezer meat away, then be sure to give one of our late-winter hotspot counties or public hunting areas a try.

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