Illinois' Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Illinois' Late-Season Deer Hotspots

Since 2004 has the potential of being another record-setting season, why not get out there to take advantage of it in December and January?

Photo by R.E. Ilg

By P.J. Perea

The barrage of slugs of the first firearm season has stopped, and for some hunters, the deer season is over. But for an increasing number of hunters, the season begins in December and goes until the middle of January. Second-season firearm hunters, muzzleloader hunters, archers and handgun hunters have plenty of opportunities to kill deer in Illinois. It is far more challenging to harvest deer in this period, but some relish the solitude of pursuing deer in places left behind by fair-weather hunters.

If last season's record deer harvest of 166,479 is any indication of the 2004 hunting season, this year's season has the potential of being another one for the record books. The 2003 record season featured a record firearm season harvest of 103,961 deer and a record archery season kill of more than 57,812 deer. Changes made by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in the permitting process have made available even more opportunities for firearm, pistol and archery hunters to harvest late-season deer during the 2004 season. Following are some of the changes for the 2004 season that affect late-season deer hunting.



Hunters were allowed to apply for both firearm- and muzzleloader-only season permits this year. In previous years, muzzleloader permits issued were few, averaging around 6,000. In 2003, the permits issued moved up to approximately 10,000 permits, with 3,039 deer killed. In 2004, up to 20,000 permits will be available for muzzleloader hunters.

Paul Shelton, head of the Department of Natural Resources deer program, commented on the muzzleloader season.

"The muzzleloader season was originally designed for the traditional muzzleloader hunters," said Shelton. "But with the increase in popularity of muzzleloader hunting, we've had to increase the number of permits and change the permitting process to meet the increase in requests for the season. The muzzleloader season amounts to a third season for firearm hunters."


For the second year, hunters will have the choice of using a pistol during the second firearm season.

The regulations allow hunters with permits for the firearm deer season to use centerfire revolvers or single-shot handguns of .30 caliber or larger, with a minimum barrel length of four inches. Legal ammunition includes a bottleneck centerfire cartridge of .30 caliber or larger with a case length not exceeding 1.4 inches, or a straight-walled centerfire cartridge of .30 caliber or larger, both of which must be available as a factory load with the published ballistic tables of the manufacturer showing a capability of at least 500-foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.

Non-expanding, military-style full-metal jacket bullets cannot be used. Only soft point or expanding bullets - including copper or copper alloy rounds designed for hunting - are legal ammunition. This year's January doe season, formerly known as the "handgun-only season," has also changed.


There are expanded opportunities for the January surplus deer season.

This January, a new season will allow hunters participating in the surplus deer hunting season - traditionally known as the "handgun-only season" - to use a handgun, shotgun or muzzleloading rifle. The season dates are to be Jan. 14-16, 2005. The season is open to Illinois residents only, and hunters are permitted to kill antlerless deer only.

Open counties included Adams, Brown, Calhoun, Clark, Crawford, Fayette, Fulton, Greene, Jasper, Jefferson, Jo Daviess, Lawrence, Macoupin, McLean, Morgan, Ogle, Perry, Pike, Randolph, Richland, Schuyler, St. Clair, Wayne, White, Whiteside and Williamson.


Firearm deer hunting will be allowed west of Illinois Route 47 in Kane County.

In recent years, landowners and other residents of Kane County have asked to be able to participate in the state's firearm deer hunting seasons in the more rural, western portion of the county. With attractive deer habitat and a growing deer population in western Kane County, it is expected that this added opportunity in northeast Illinois will be popular. Previous regulations allowed only archery deer hunting in Kane County.


The DNR will provide up to 15,000 archery deer hunting permits to non-residents effective with the 2004 season.

The non-resident permit quota had been 12,843 since the 2001 season. Demand for the permits has exceeded the number available each year. The increase in permits, combined with the state's growing deer population, will provide added opportunities for hunters.

The non-resident archery combination permits - allowing the harvest of one antlered and one antlerless deer - will continue to be issued through a toll-free telephone reservation system. Non-residents buying a combination permit will also be able to purchase additional antlerless-only permits.


Archery permits for resident hunters will continue to be sold over the counter by DNR and permit vendors with no quota.

While more non-resident archery permits will be available in 2004, resident hunters continue to account for the vast majority of Illinois deer hunters. Last year, Illinois issued approximately 490,000 permits for all deer hunting seasons, and more than 95 percent of them were to Illinois residents.


John Kube, a retired DNR white-tailed deer biologist, talked about how late-season deer are different from the first part of the season.

"With the peak of the rut over, deer are not as interested in breeding as staying warm and finding winter food sources," said Kube. "Deer have learned to utilize waste grain left in fields from the fall harvest. With the loss of vegetation as the winter progresses, deer will be forced into areas that have better cover to get out of the wind and stay warm. So hunters may want to concentrate on deep draws and areas that are thick with brush and are relatively near waste grain or mast sources."

Kube pointed out that Illinois deer also differ from deer in more wintry climates such as northern Wisconsin and Minnesota in that

they do not "yard up."

"Our winter climate in Illinois is much milder and far less snowy than up north, so the deer usually do not leave the area they are found in during the regular season unless the food runs out," he said. "In late winter, some does that were bred during the rut may move toward spring birthing areas."


Examining the 2000 to 2003 second-season data revealed that there is some pattern to the counties that have very strong late harvests.

The top eight spots, held by Boone, De Kalb, McHenry, Stephenson, Winnebago, Ogle, Will and Henry counties, were in northern counties. In fact, 12 of the top 20 counties were northern counties. Perhaps it is the timing of the first firearm season that made the harvest of deer more conducive for second-season firearm hunters. Not surprisingly, the second-most numerous counties, with five counties for second-season harvest, were found in central Illinois - Sangamon, Scott, McDonough, Mercer and Schuyler. White and Wabash were the only southern Illinois counties with strong second-season harvests. It seems that the counties in the southern portion of our state tended to kill most of their deer in the first season, but in counties in the northern part of the state, the harvest between the first and second seasons was a little more balanced.

Another way of analyzing the second-season data is examining the numbers of deer harvested. The 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 numbers of deer killed were averaged for the four years and divided by the square mileage of the county to level the playing field.

In Zone 1, Jo Daviess County still reigned as the top county for second-season deer killed per square mile, with 1.34. But most deer in that county were typically taken during first season, with only 36 percent of total firearm season harvest in the second season. In contrast, Boone County and Stephenson County both produced good numbers of deer harvested per square mile, and second-season hunters had almost even odds of bagging a deer as first-season hunters did.

In Zone 2, Bureau County was still the top zone producer as a second-season county for numbers harvested per square mile. The surprises were De Kalb, Henry and Stark counties. They not only produced good numbers of deer, but also, the odds were good for killing a second-season deer.

In Zone 3, Schuyler, Fulton, Hancock and Putnam counties were the standouts for second-season hunting, but like the rest of the counties in the zone, most deer were killed during the first season.

In Zone 4, Calhoun, Brown and Pike counties continued to hold the top three second-season spots for numbers harvested per square mile. Scott County had the best odds for second-season deer and posted the fifth-best numbers in kill per square mile.

In Zone 5, tiny Menard County was the top second-season harvest/square mile, more than doubling most of the other counties in the zone.

In Zone 6, Richland, Crawford and Edwards counties were the top three late-season counties in kill per square mile. The counties near the Wabash River seemed to have a pattern of consistency also seen in previous forecast analyses. Wabash County was the top county to take a second-season deer and also had good numbers of deer.

In Zone 7, traditionally strong Randolph, Jefferson, Perry and Marion counties were good sites for second-season deer hunting, but as with most southern Illinois counties, most deer were taken during the first season.

In Zone 8, Hardin, Union and Pope counties finished out on top for second-season harvest per square mile.


Archers, muzzleloaders, pistol shooters and shotgun hunters face tougher odds, harsher weather and fewer animals in December and January. Some people relish the challenge, while others take on the season after other pursuits, such as waterfowling, wind down.

Tim Edison of Loda is an example of an Illinois hunter who enjoys both the challenge and, as an avid waterfowler, takes up late-season deer shortly after duck season ends. Edison works as a biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey and is very keen on observing the animal behavior as part of his job. He uses his skills as a biologist to help him consistently kill winter deer.

"Many of the important aspects of successful deer hunting still apply," Edison said. "Scent, camouflage and scouting skills are even more important under the tough conditions. The deer's behavior is different in late season, and hunters need to be flexible and mobile to increase their odds of harvesting a deer.

"The easiest pattern is focusing on food sources," he continued. "Deer need to eat to keep their metabolism up and stay warm, so setting up near farm fields and winter food plots are great places to start."

Edison observed an interesting pattern in late-season deer feeding behavior.

"Deer really like eating black locust seed in the wintertime," he said. "I never see them eating the pods during the regular season. But when the farm fields are getting bare, they are all over the stuff. When I first saw this pattern shortly after a snowfall, I did not know what they were doing when they flocked to locust trees. Once I saw them eating, it was a pattern that I've been able to find in many other places in Illinois. I've reset stands nearby trails leading to locust trees and had great luck taking deer."

Edison recommended scouting and stalking shortly after recent snowfall.

"Deer are easier to pattern in terms of when and where they are moving in the snow," he explained. "The soft snow also makes the hunter's approach much stealthier. The stuff tends to melt and refreeze later in the day, creating a noisy, icy crust that makes stalking much tougher."

Another factor is wind.

"Hunters who have used the same stands early in the year will need to move stands to adjust to the different wind patterns of the winter," he said. "Earlier in the year the winds are westerly and southerly. Winter winds are more from the north.

"Look for deer to bed and hide in the thick stuff - the thicker, the better. I've observed deer bedding and hiding in Osage orange fencerows, cattail thickets and willows. Set up along movement corridors leading in or out of these areas."

Edison also braves the elements on cold days. While most people would rather stay out of the low temperatures, he finds that deer move a lot in frigid temperatures, especially on cloudy days.

One last tip from Edison was hunting areas that are away from hunting pressure.

"The deer have been under pressure for more than two months, so they are well aware of areas that are hit hard by other hunters and have adjusted their behavior to avoid certain are

as at certain times," he said. "Low pressure sites are places where late-season hunters will do their best. This means walking the extra mile, hunting a little deeper in the woods and getting out of the way to find these deer."


While the rut is over, some does and maturing fawns that were not bred during the regular rut will experience a secondary rut in late December. Hunters should note if scrapes are being refreshed, and then use calling or estrus scents to attract a secondary rut buck or doe.

Be sure to hunt all day. Deer will tend to move during the heat of the day to conserve energy. Mid- to late morning movements are common, so don't quit at noon. You may be missing a deer of a lifetime while you are at lunch.

Some hunters are utilizing portable hunting blinds to take late-season deer. The lightweight blinds allow hunters to get away with more movement, stay warm and protected from the elements, and slow the dispersal of unwanted scents.

Watch for special hunts offered by the DNR and federal agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Refuge hunts have become popular methods to reduce high deer populations that wreak havoc on winter waterfowl refuge habitats.

More and more landowners are utilizing food plots to hold deer on their property. The choices for many hunters in this "growing" trend are either to plant a food plot, make friends with a landowner or set up in a corridor leading to one of these winter feeding areas.


The 2003 season was marked with record archery and firearm harvests.

With the Illinois deer population approaching another high mark of 750,000 to 800,000 animals, the extra opportunities afforded to hunters by regulation changes by the DNR make 2004 potentially one of the best on record - barring any bad weather, of course. The only downside is that this high pattern of harvest was also seen before the previous 1995 record-book season and the population growth should slow down if another record kill is made in 2004.

"Hunters will still be seeing good numbers of deer in the future," said Shelton. "It is just tough to expect every season to be a record-book year."

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