Illinois' Best Public Land Deer Hunting
August 23, 2017
These tips and locations can help you tag a deer this season.
by Don Gasaway
Public land deer hunting has been, and continues to be, a hot subject in the Prairie State. It can be a controversial subject whenever deer hunters gather. To some, it seems a waste of time hunting public land. But every season, quality deer are harvested from Illinois public land sites.
Hunters in search of public land on which to hunt should pay attention to a variety of factors. Chief among these are past harvest rates. Although Illinois Department of Natural Resources harvest reports (which can be accessed on the department website) do not reflect the size of harvested deer, they do show the number of deer harvested in either the archery or firearms seasons in each of the past five or so years.
Although most acreage of the state is in private ownership, the IDNR owns, leases or manages over 200 sites throughout the state for public hunting purposes. Most are set up for the collection of scientific harvest information.
The land open to the public for hunting purposes varies in the site-specific rules. Some require special permits. Others demand a vehicle permit that is available via the department's website. It is advisable for a prospective hunter to check the rules published in the department website and at the site itself.
Statistics are a starting point when coupled to physical visits to the property and adjacent land. The adjoining land gives a picture of the food and shelter that may attract deer holding on the public land. In reverse, the public land may offer sanctuary for deer hunted on the private land surrounding it.
The total picture of the habitat in the vicinity provides a good look at the future of hunting in that area.
Here are some of those sites arranged from north to south geographically. We have picked sites with large land mass and with high harvest success.
Up along the state line with Wisconsin lies McHenry County. As one of the five collar counties surrounding the Chicago metropolitan area, most of the land is in private hands and probably does not allow hunting.
The McHenry County Conservation District manages recreational activities, including deer hunting countywide. It opens some of the sites to archery deer hunting either season long or on selected weekends. Perspective hunters must qualify for permits by participating in a shooting qualification process that demonstrates proficiency with bow and arrow.
All hunters, both archery and firearms, must show proof of having successfully completed a state- or federally-approved hunter safety education course. Applicants can use the District's online application system at www.mccdistrict.org to begin the process of getting access to county regulated hunting areas. Be sure to check the deadlines for submitting paperwork.
As might be expected, the success rate on the different properties varies. However, countywide last year eight firearms hunters took deer. Success for archery hunters was 94 deer.
Many more northern counties offer public land either county or state owned. For more information on these opportunities consult the 2017 Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations or online from the various county forest preserve districts.
East of Clinton, Ill., is the Clinton Lake State Recreation Area. About 3,693 acres of its 9,300 acres are huntable. The area is a combination of oak/hickory woodlands, shrub land and open grassland. This combination is home to a sizable deer herd.
Site-specific regulations for this and most Illinois public hunting areas are available on the IDNR website.
This is one of the sites where a free windshield card is mandatory. It is available online. Hunters thus registered are required to report their hunting success or lack thereof by mid-February or they forfeit their right to hunt the area the following year. Deer hunters must have special site-specific permits. This includes archery, muzzleloader and firearm hunters.
All deer hunters must remove all treestands daily. Hunters may not use treestands which damage trees.
During the 2016 seasons hunters took a total of 172 deer with archery equipment and 24 with firearms.
One of the larger public land units available in the central part of the state is the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area in Cass County. It is located northwest of Springfield. It contains 16,400 acres that are huntable.
The area contains rolling upland, crop land, timber and an assortment of native grasses, food plots and idled farmland.
Hunting takes place in selected units during the state seasons for firearms, muzzleloaders and archery. In addition there is a special youth deer firearm season. Firearm deer hunting is by permit issued through the permit Lottery System. Go to www.dnr.illinois.gov/hunting for more information.
Youth hunters can get a special permit form from the site office in Chandlerville, Ill. They must submit their name, address and birthdate to the site office for a drawing by late August. Permit winners must have a Cass County Youth Firearms Deer permit. Permits are available over the counter from licensed vendors.
In 2016-17 hunters took 98 deer with firearms and 217 with archery equipment.
A little farther south in Shelby and Moultrie counties is Lake Shelbyville near the town of Sullivan, Ill. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the IDNR share management of the numerous huntable acres on the Lake Shelbyville hunting lands. Hunters need to be sure which agency controls the land they plan to hunt. Site-specific rules and regulations can vary from one unit to another.
In general there are some 6,200 acres of huntable land. The units are the Kaskaskia and West Okaw Rivers in addition to the Wolf Creek and Eagle Creek State Park hunting areas. Hunters should obtain permits in advance at the IDNR website.
During last season firearms hunters took 107 deer on the Kaskaskia and Okaw units and an additional 12 on state land. The archery hunters took 182 deer on the federal land and 55 on the state land.
Rend Lake SFWA and the surrounding Corps of Engineers land is located along Interstate 57 south of Mt. Vernon, Ill. The state property consists of 7,690 acres of huntable land out of the total 12,690 total acreage.
There are site-specific regulations posted on bulletin boards and at the headquarters.
Take note there is the rule requiring archery deer hunters harvest an antlerless deer on the refuge before they can take an antlered deer. Due to hunting pressure during the October archery hunt, the deer often move off the refuge onto the surrounding agricultural land. However, wise hunters often set up on the edge of the refuge in hopes of ambushing deer coming back to the sanctuary of the public land.
The habitat on the refuge includes bottomland hardwoods and upland agricultural fields. Vegetation sought by the deer for food consists of areas farmed by tenant farming, site staff and from natural moist-soil production.
Additional public hunting is available in areas around the lake owned by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. For information about hunting the Corps lands contact their office in Benton, Ill.
Each year on the first day of the firearms deer season the Corps and a local high school hosts an Accessible Deer Hunt. Last year 26 hunters participated on probably the coldest day of the fall. They did manage to take six deer. The Corps office mentioned above should have information available for those interested in participation.
In 2016-17 firearms hunters harvested 137 deer on the Corps land and 22 on the state property. Archers took 187 deer on the federal land and 44 on the state property.
Crab Orchard NWR is another of the federally owned lands open to public hunting in Illinois. Unlike the others mentioned above, this one belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. They still require all hunters observe all state laws governing deer hunting.
The visitor center and refuge office are located in Marion.
Visitors must pay a day or weekly user fee at the visitor center. During non-business hours a fee collection box is available outside the entrance to the center.
The refuge contains some 44,000 acres. The restricted area is open to the public through a special permit system. It contains 21,000 acres. The open area is 23,000 acres and is open to the public for hunting in compliance with state hunting regulations.
A special youth hunt takes place early in the season. The state brochure 2017-18 Illinois Digest of Hunting & Trapping Regulations contains information on this and all available deer season hunts in the refuge.
If one does not draw a permit in the restricted areas it is still possible to hunt in the open areas. Harvest success throughout the refuge tends to be quite high.
Last year the archers hunting on this property took 141 deer from the open area and one from the special permit area. Firearms hunters harvested 156 deer from the open area and 151 from the special permit area.
Stretching from Cave-in-Rock on the Ohio River to Grand Tower on the Mississippi River, Shawnee National Forest includes parts of 10 southern Illinois counties.The counties involved include Jackson, Pope, Johnson, Union, Williamson, Harden, Saline, Gallatin, Massac and Alexander.
All totaled there is some 280,000 acres of forest. Coupled with a number of State public hunting areas in the vicinity there are nearly 600,000 acres of huntable land.
The forest is interspersed with areas of private property, some of which allow hunting while others do not. There are a high number of oak trees combined with agricultural areas containing corn. In winter deer seek out both of these food sources.
The harvest total for the entire forest land is archery 866 and 1,835 gun. This does not include deer harvested on any land other than that owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
As Illinois' largest state park, Pyramid State Park also provides a large amount of huntable public hunting. Former strip-mine land reclaimed, Pyramid contains a number of lakes as well as timber and old field cropland. The huntable acres of the five units total 18,588 acres.
Hardwoods and pines grow in the reclaimed land along with small food plots.
The park divides for management purposes into five units: Pyramid State Park, Captain Unit, Denmark Unit, East Conant Unit and Galum Unit.
Pyramid is south of Pinkneyville in Perry County. A number of site-specific regulations apply to deer hunters in this area. They are available in the park office.
Archery, muzzleloader and shotgun hunters can harvest only antlerless or antlered deer with at least 4 points on a side. Otherwise all state regulations apply here, including windshield cards downloaded from the IDNR website and a state hunting permit.
In the past year's deer hunting season, archers harvested a total of 176 deer while gun hunters took 72.
No matter which area of our state you plan to hunt in this season, there are great opportunities for harvesting that big buck you've been searching for. Now it's time to hit the woods and fields at one of the locations noted above or another productive hunting land near you.