According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois deer hunters harvested 148,569 deer last season. The 2013 total marks a significant decline from the 2012 total of 180,811 deer killed by Illinois hunters.
Illinois is hardly alone in the declining deer harvests across the Midwest. Deer harvests were down in several states including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and both Dakotas. In some regions, winter mortality reduced deer numbers. In other cases, epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreaks across the Heartland continue to affect deer herds in localized locations.
Since 1957, when the modern firearm deer-hunting season first opened, the Illinois deer herd progressively grew through the late 1990s to the point that deer exceeded the carrying capacity of the landscape. To reach management objectives, the IDNR began aggressively managing the deer herd by allocating more hunting opportunities and used hunters as a management tool, with a goal of thinning the deer herd.
The all-time high deer harvest in Illinois took place during the 2005-06 season when 201,209 deer were killed. Since that time, the annual deer harvest has declined as deer-management objectives have been reached.
Currently, the IDNR is revising deer population objectives for more than 40 counties following a two-year review. Some counties are shifting from herd reduction to strategies that maintain or increase deer numbers.
"Clearly, this year's preliminary firearm harvest numbers are below previous seasons. And while bad weather conditions throughout the state played a role, it cannot be the only factor," said IDNR Director Marc Miller. "Once all deer seasons are complete, our biologists will evaluate deer management goals on a county-by-county basis to achieve stability in our deer herd."
According to the preliminary harvest data from the 2013-14 deer seasons in Illinois, hunting success this past season continues to follow a steady downward trend. Hunter success this past season dipped nearly 25 percent below the 2012 harvest numbers. The 2013 season is now recent memory, but the trend in hunter success rates over several seasons still reveals great opportunities for deer hunters in the Prairie State to harvest a deer in the upcoming 2014-15 deer-hunting season.
This month, Illinois Game & Fish magazine looks at the total deer harvest of the 2013-14 deer-hunting season and highlights the best regions in the state for successful deer hunting for both antlered and antlerless white-tailed deer. Next month, we cover the best places in Illinois to take your trophy buck.
The statistics we cover reveal some of the highest deer-population densities and the best hunting opportunities in the state. There are some situations where high deer numbers might be present where hunter access is compromised — in the case of urban sprawl or limited hunting opportunities, for example — but the consensus is simple: If the deer numbers are good, the statistics typically reflect local deer populations with a higher harvest rate.
While the result of this particular preliminary deer harvest data reveals the regions where the bets are best for harvesting any deer, note that hunters would be wise to look beyond the raw numbers. For example, the best data we have concerning harvest is broken down by individual counties; but realize, too, that each county is a different size and some counties are compromised by urban sprawl.
A SOLID DEER HARVEST
While declines in deer harvest often paint a picture of doom and gloom, Illinois deer hunters should remind themselves they combined this past season to harvest a staggering number of deer.
Like past years, some areas historically produce the highest deer harvests. Pike County continues to live up to its reputation as a premier area for deer hunting, leading the way with an overall deer harvest of 5,647 animals. Fulton County deer hunters stand right behind their neighbors, with 4,083 deer killed last season. And the deer hunters in the counties of Adams, JoDaviess, Randolph, Jackson and Jefferson all recorded at least 3,000 deer harvested.
Also note that some of these extremely productive areas are highly sought for deer-hunting leases or require an outfitter for accessing productive private property. Yet, there are diamonds in the rough where quality hunting opportunities exist either on public land or in regions without as much notoriety. Because word is out on locations like Pike County, many hunters are forced to seek alternative hunting locations that are not as sought after.
Illinois deer hunters collectively harvested in 2013-14 a preliminary total of 148,569 deer (antlered and antlerless) Bucks comprised 49% of the total This harvest is down, compared to the 2012-13 deer harvest of 180,811 deer, and the consensus is that the decline is caused by a combination of factors including aggressive deer-management objectives, disease outbreaks (including EHD and chronic wasting disease), along with adverse weather conditions during the deer gun season. In particular, the second gun season (December 5-8) greeted hunters with strong blustery winds, freezing temperatures, freezing rain and snow.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources issued more than 340,000 firearm deer permits for the 2013-14 deer-hunting season. During the regular Illinois firearm deer season (a split season that ran from November 22-24 and December 5-8), hunters harvested a preliminary total of 74,191 whitetails. As usual, the first season produced the lion's share of these 2013 totals, with 55,708 deer killed According to IDNR Forest Wildlife program manager Paul Shelton, the season is split to safeguard management objectives that can be compromised by adverse weather patterns and other environmental factors.
Archery hunters harvested a preliminary total of 57,290 deer, which is a slight drop from 59,728 deer harvested during the 2012 archery season. Last year, archery season opened October 1 and ran through January 19. A similar season framework is expected this season (but season dates were not available at press time).
The late-winter anterless-only and special CWD deer seasons last year also closed on January 19 and accounted for a combined harvest of 10,366 deer. These late-season split seasons were held December 26-29 and January 17-19. Both late seasons offered hunters additional opportunities for not only harvesting deer but also served to aid deer-management objectives for controlling the deer herd and control the possible spread of CWD. As deer-management objectives are reached, deer hunters should expect to see these additional hunting opportunities decline.
Illinois also offers a youth firearm deer-hunting season that typically provides a two-day season for young hunters who have not reached their 16th birthday by the first day of the hunt. This year, that hunt is open October 11-13. Last season, youth hunters harvested 3,012 deer. The state's three day muzzleloader-only deer season in early December also contributed 3,546 deer to the total harvest.
ZONE BY ZONE
Illinois is divided into eight separate deer-hunting zones to strategically manage the deer herd throughout the state. During the 2013-14 season, hunters in Zone 4 produced the highest harvest totals. While each zone features counties where the hunting could be considered excellent, it is not surprising that counties with extremely low harvests within a particular zone almost always coincides with urban areas where habitat for good deer numbers is compromised.
For example, Dupage County deer hunters recorded 42 deer kills — the smallest countywide deer harvest recorded in 2012-13. Nearby, Cook County deer hunters recorded 146 deer kills. During the same year, the number of homicides in these two counties were more than double the deer harvest, and Cook County is the second-most populated county in the United States and home to more than 5 million people.
Deer-hunting Zone 1 is located in the northeast corner of Illinois and features steep river breaks and classic river bottom terrain along the Illinois and Iowa border, where the Mississippi River flows. While the Quad Cities crowd the area with urban sprawl, the sharp-rising river valleys and bluffs are often wooded and scenic.
Jo Daviess County deer hunters posted the highest recorded deer harvest in Zone 1 for the 2012-13 season with a respectable 3,551 deer killed. The second-highest harvest came from Knox County deer hunters (2,248), and third place went to Carroll County deer hunters (1,605).
Deer-hunting Zone 2 encompasses north-central Illinois and is regarded as relatively good whitetail deer habitat. The terrain is predominantly hilly forests consisting of oak, hickory and white pine interspersed with agriculture and hayfields. The perennial top-producing county in this zone for deer harvest is Peoria County, where hunters tagged 2,139 deer. Both Bureau County and La Salle County hunters produced 1,888 and 1,897 deer, respectively.
Zone 3 in eastern Illinois is considered one of the most populated regions in the United States but can be overlooked by deer hunters due to its heavy concentration of urban and suburban populations. As a result, the northeastern corner of the state ranks low with overall deer harvest but amid the urban sprawl, deer-hunting opportunities can be found. Dupage and Cook counties ranked extremely low last year, with an overall deer harvest that, combined, equals less than 200 animals. Iroquois County deer hunters posted the highest countywide deer harvest with 133 deer killed.
Located in west-central Illinois, deer-hunting Zone 4 boasts some of the most notorious regions in the state for great white-tailed deer hunting. The swath of rich agricultural land that is interspersed with stands of oak and hickory between the Mississippi River and Illinois River is often referred to as the "Golden Triangle" among deer hunters. These bottom lands and waterways provide ideal edge habitat preferred by whitetails.
Zone 4 typically leads the way with the annual total deer harvest. Pike County is renowned for deer hunting, where deer hunters killed 5,647 deer, the highest countywide harvest in the state. Fulton County deer hunters killed 4,083 deer, the second highest total — not just in Zone 4, but across the entire state. Adams County hunters combined for a total deer harvest of 3,480 animals.
Indeed, the Golden Triangle continues to live up to the hype, leaving hunting access in the area very difficult to obtain.
Deer-hunting Zone 5 is located in the center of Illinois. This rural area is comprised of agriculture and wood lots, with some rolling hills. Fayette County deer hunters traditionally top the deer harvest in the zone. This past season they killed 2,312 deer. Shelby County deer hunters posted the second-best total harvest of 1,738 deer.
Deer-hunting Zone 6, located in east-central Illinois, seems to be gaining more attention from deer hunters. The predominantly features rural farming ground, broken up with some wood lots and waterways or river bottoms that often have either hickory or oak woods.
The highest numbers of deer harvested in the zone seem to follow the state line. Clark County deer hunters recorded a fairly impressive harvest of 2,066 deer. Nearby, Crawford County deer hunters closed the season with 1,766 deer harvested.
Deer-hunting Zone 7 is located in the southwestern corner of the state and is known for the flat farmland formed by the flood plain of the Mississippi River. Among the many private hunting leases here , southern Illinois offers some extensive public hunting opportunities on sizeable public forests and state management areas. Parts of the Shawnee National Forest lie within this zone.
The top deer- producing county in Zone 7 this past season was Randolph County, where deer hunters killed 3,312 deer. In Jackson County, located next to Randolph County, deer hunters recorded the second highest harvest in the zone, with 3,133 deer taken by area hunters.
Deer-hunting Zone 8 occupies the southeastern tip of Illinois. It is defined by public hunting lands and the fairly rugged topography — often referred to as the Shawnee Hills. Much of this terrain makes up the Shawnee National Forest.
Jefferson County ranks not only high on the list of deer harvest numbers in the zone, but it also stands as one of the top deer-producing counties in the state. In 2013-14, Jefferson County deer hunters produced 3,732 deer. In Marion County, located just north of Jefferson, deer hunters posted the zone's second-best deer harvest, with 2,705 animals.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
In many cases, the best deer hunting found in Illinois takes place on private leases and private properties. However, many state and regionally owned public areas offer good deer-hunting opportunities, sometimes under unique hunting regulations and deer-management goals. Some public hunting areas also require special permits and registration.
Make sure you know the deer-hunting regulations where you plan to hunt. Research the deer-hunting opportunities found on any particular public property before taking to the field. The complete listing of Illinois deer-hunting regulations, season dates and licensing information is available online from the IDNR.
Over his years of chasing whitetails, A.J. Downs of Conroe, Texas, has taken a number of big bucks with his bow. But none of the other mounts in his trophy room can match the size, or the meaning, of the freak whitetail that fell to his arrow shortly after daylight on opening day of the 2012 archery season.
Thirty-five years of bowhunting have taught Bill Ullrich a few things about chasing whitetails.
Several seasons ago, Bill had made up his mind to take off work early to spend an afternoon in the woods, and he knew exactly which tree he was headed for that afternoon. He was almost to the tree when something told him he needed to turn around and, instead, opt for a tried and true setup he had long-ago named the 'good luck tree. '
One hour and ten minutes later, he realized that was the best decision he had ever made, as he watched his arrow bury to the nock in the largest whitetail buck he had ever shot at.
Bill Winke has earned himself a spot as one of the best Midwestern whitetail hunters of all time with this massive double G4 Iowa giant.
The huge Iowa non-typical Bo Russell took is testimony to the rewards of smart scouting and hard work. Not to mention being adaptable enough to overcome some outside interference — including a crew of archeologists!
Russell's giant had a gross score of 246 4/8 inches and a net of 231 4/8. That made him the second-largest bow kill entered from the 2012 season.
After many years of chasing the same buck and coming up empty, Brian Hollands' luck finally turned around. On a fateful morning two seasons ago, Hollands not only found a lost little girl wandering the back roads of Missouri, he also found the buck of a lifetime.
Brian Herron fought numerous obstacles and setbacks to eventually bag this 184-inch bruiser.
The 16-point Daigle buck, scored by Boone & Crockett measurer Lonnie Desmarias, grossed a whopping 197 0/8 inches gross and netted 191 0/8 inches as a non-typical, breaking the existing Massachusetts state record by seven inches, according to the Northeast Big Buck Club records.
In 2009, Dean Partridge started having encounters and getting trail camera photos of a small 4Ã—4 whose back tines were a little bladed. There was nothing out of the ordinary at the time, so Partridge and crew carried on filming that fall and finished off the season. The next summer, he was back in the woods, checking to see which bucks had made it through the harsh winter. And much to his surprise, the buck that seemed ordinary had grown into an extraordinary buck with a large droptine that he aptly named "Droppy."
You need only skim the pages of the record books to understand why the majority of hunters pick the November rut as the prime time to hunt giant whitetails. Mature bucks are never a pushover, but they are more vulnerable when their nose is glued to the ground trailing an estrus doe. Fred Swihart proved, however, that you can have success outside the rut — sometimes it's just a matter of persistence.
Whitetail fate played its hand for Arkansas' Shane Frost in the big-timbered, fertile ground of the Black River Bottoms in Clay County. The ancient oaks and sloughs, in all their years, had likely never witnessed a more epic bowhunting scene, which ended with a 216-inch trophy on Frost's wall.
Garry Greenwalt teamed up with North American Whitetail's Gordon Whittington to kill this amazing Washington buck, known to Greenwalt as "The Ghost." Greenwalt spent a good deal of time tracking down the amazing 172-inch Washington giant, but it was all worth it.
It was mid-afternoon on Nov. 13, 2009, and Gary Morris of Winslow, Ark., was heading south out of Iowa. Driven by a haze of internal frustration, he was headed back to Arkansas six days early. The last three years of planning, anticipation and excitement for his Midwestern hunt had been stolen by an encounter with a 170-inch behemoth buck and a blown 12-yard 'chip-shot. ' After his miss, Morris thought about giving up bowhunting altogether. But it's a good thing he didn't.
With the help of her husband, Kevin, Ohio resident Lindsay Groom scouted this buck for two weeks before coming across its path again. Lindsay shot the buck with her crossbow at about 10 yards, but was unable to locate the buck.
After watching the kill shot again on film, the couple decided to track it the next morning, finding the deer just 30 yards away from where they stopped looking the night before.
Jeff Iverson hunted this particular buck for three seasons. In 2010, when the buck was a six-by-six typical, he missed a shot at it with his bow but Iverson's persistence eventually paid off.
On Nov. 14, 2012, the wind was right for hunting, and Jason decided to sit all day. At about 7:30 a.m., he heard chasing over the steep hill in front of him. Then a doe came running up the hill and went past him. Jason could hear grunting from the cedars below. It was the buck he had named "Cyclops."
With the buck at only 70 yards, Jason cranked up his scope and looked at the buck closely. Immediately he saw the glassy eye, and he knew Cyclops was his. It was a chip shot for his accurate .270 Win. After the shot, the huge buck only went about 75 yards before he crashed.
After years of hunting other people's property, Schmeidler finally got his own in 2010, when he purchased a 750-acre property consisting of river bottom cover and cropland. He immediately planted multiple food plots, his favorite being milo, and two seasons later, nine straight days of hard, smart hunting gave Schmeidler his trophy.
Despite one of the worst droughts in history, in July 2012 Jim Cogar's expectations for deer season in central Ohio were as high as ever. Trail cameras were set, mineral sites were established, and other attractants were strategically placed throughout the farm.
After discovering a giant on his trail camera, that he aptly dubbed Conan, Cogar set out on a mission to bag Conan before the end of the season.
It was Super Bowl Sunday before the opportunity presented itself to Cogar. As Conan led two young bucks down a hill, a distraction opened the door for Cogar to bag his buck of a lifetime.
Joshua Earp's Georgia giant scored 187 inches green, weighing in at 235 pounds, and was a great October surprise.
'I've hunted 25 years for this," Earp said. "I give all thanks to God and my father for teaching me and introducing me to this sport I'm addicted to. '
Lucas Cochren killed an amazing 238-inch Kansas trophy, but it all started with a blood trail gone cold. Fortunately, Cochren stuck to it and bagged the trophy of his lifetime.
Mike Moran's Saskatchewan buck was a dream come true for the hunter who'd spent 27 years looking for a deer of that quality. He finally got his wish one Thanksgiving day, an experience he won't forget.
Payton Mireles, age 10, of Indiana, with her first buck: a 154-inch bruiser.
Having two years of history with this particular buck, Rhett Butler was able to track where he had taken pictures of "Hercules." The deer seemed to be ranging over 1-1.5 square miles revolving around a 100-acre alfalfa field.
When the buck stepped out, Rhett put the crosshairs onto the buck's left shoulder and squeezed the trigger of his Winchester .270 bolt action. At the crack of the rifle the buck dropped in his tracks and never even kicked. The hunt for Hercules was over.
Killing the buck that had come to be known to the Taylors as 'Big Daddy ' was Robert's primary focus in the fall of 2012. He arranged his work schedule so he could be in a deer blind most mornings and afternoons during the waning weeks of the season.
After a sleepless night and an unsuccessful afternoon tracking a blood trail, Ryan Dietsch was sure he'd squandered the opportunity of a lifetime. He and friends went back to track the deer he thought he'd hit, but couldn't find so much as a drop of blood. His luck all changed, however, and the rest — along with his 219-inch trophy — is history.
Stanley Suda with his Southern Ohio buck, estimated between 235 and 240 inches.
"The shot was perfect," he said. "I watched my dream buck run across the field and pile-up about 20 yards inside the wood line. This was definitely my finest moment in the treestand. '