Illinois hunters harvested 145,804 deer this past 2014-2015 season, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reported. Deer harvest for this past season was very similar as to the season prior (2013-2014) when 148,569 deer were harvested. The past two seasons saw a significant decline from the 2012 total of 180,811 deer killed by Illinois hunters.
Deer management has shifted from herd reduction to maintaining and increasing deer populations, state wildlife officials reported.
Illinois is hardly alone in the declining deer harvests across the Midwest over the past few years. Deer numbers have been down in several Midwest 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. This past season, 20 counties were removed from the late season antlerless deer season.
Some counties are shifting from herd reduction to strategies that maintain or increase deer numbers.
During the 2015 late anterless deer season, 35 counties participated, down from 55 counties the year prior. Counties that are at or below individual population goals for two consecutive years may be removed.
According to the preliminary harvest data from the 2014-15 deer seasons in Illinois, hunting success this past season was very similar to the season prior, but on an overall downward trend. However, hunter success this past season was nearly 25 percent below the 2012 harvest numbers.
What goes unsaid however is that there are still large numbers of whitetail deer in the state, and many hunters were successful this past season. In fact, 51,830 deer were harvested over a three-day span during the first Illinois gun season this past fall. Regardless of whether deer numbers stabilize or even increase from the past few years, Illinois hunters will be able to find deer with a little bit of effort.
This month, Illinois Game & Fish magazine looks at the total deer harvest of the 2014-15 season and highlights the best regions in the state for hunters.
The statistics we cover reveal some of the highest deer-population densities and the best hunting opportunities in the state based on the most recent data available. 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.
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 and that some of the record harvest numbers from the recent past will probably never be possible again as management levels are met.
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 5,167 animals.
Fulton County deer hunters stand right behind their neighbors, with 4,166 deer killed last season. And the deer hunters in the counties of Adams, Jo Daviess, Randolph, Jackson and Jefferson all recorded at least 3,000 deer harvested.
Illinois deer hunters collectively harvested in 2014-15 a preliminary total of 145,804 deer (antlered and antlerless) Bucks comprised 53 percent of the total.
During the regular Illinois firearm deer season (a split season that ran from November 21-23 and December 4-7), hunters harvested a preliminary total of 76,729 whitetails.
As usual, the first season produced the lion's share of these 2014 totals, with 51,830 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 51,830 deer, which is a significant drop from 59,728 deer harvested during the 2012 archery season a few years back. Last year, archery season opened Oct. 1 and ran through January 18. 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 closed on Jan. 19 and accounted for a combined harvest of 6,746 deer. This past season, Will County was added to the 11 other counties that participate in the special CWD season.
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. Last season, youth hunters harvested 2,768 deer. The state's three-day muzzleloader-only deer season in early December also contributed 3,478 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 2014-15 season, hunters in Zone 4 reported 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 hunters recorded 36 deer kills — the smallest countywide deer harvest recorded in 2014-15. Nearby, Cook County deer hunters recorded 130 deer kills. 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 2014-15 season, with 3,818 deer killed. The second-highest harvest came from Knox County, with 2,461 deer harvested. Third place went to Rock Island County, with 1,613.
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 2,049 deer. Bureau County and LaSalle County hunters harvested 1,738 and 1,752 deer, respectively.
Zone 3 in eastern Illinois is considered one of the most populated regions in the United States and 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. Will County deer hunters posted the highest countywide Zone 3 deer harvest with 1,093 deer killed.
Located in west-central Illinois, deer-hunting Zone 4 boasts some of the most celebrated regions in the state for great whitetail 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 bottomlands 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. Hunters killed 5,167 deer, the highest countywide harvest in the state. Fulton County deer hunters killed 4,166 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 3,495 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 2,176 deer. Shelby County deer hunters posted the second-best total harvest of 1,731 deer.
Deer-hunting Zone 6, located in east-central Illinois, seems to be gaining more attention from deer hunters. The area 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 1,853 deer. Nearby, Crawford County deer hunters closed the season with 1,848 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 Jackson County, where deer hunters killed 3,333 deer. In Randolph County, located next to Jackson County, deer hunters recorded the second highest harvest in the zone, with 3,124 deer taken by area hunters.
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 2014-15, Jefferson County hunters harvested 3,491 deer. In Williamson County, located just south of Jefferson, hunters posted the zone's second-best deer harvest, with 2,826 animals.