For millennia the turning of the leaves, the flight of waterfowl and the bite of frost has turned our minds to what lies ahead and the need to gather food against the coming winter.
Some of us just want meat for the freezer. A nice buck would be great, but a couple of fat does would be even better. But, with the downward trend of harvest, will we tag a deer? Generally between 45 and 47 percent of Illinois hunters do. Then the next question, can we tilt the odds in our favor? The answer to both questions is yes, if we do our homework.
First in a two-part special, we'll look at the best places in Illinois to put meat in the freezer. And next month, we'll look at the best counties to put a trophy rack on the wall.
The record deer harvest in Illinois took place during the 2005-06 season, during which 201,209 deer were taken. Since that time, the annual deer harvest has declined, which stands to reason since the goal was to reduce the herd.
But, if you have been doing your homework, you know that Illinois hunters had a great season last year.
Hunters in Illinois harvested a preliminary total of 155,131 deer during all 2015-16 seasons, which concluded Jan. 17, reports indicate. The total preliminary deer harvest for all seasons of 155,131 compares with a total harvest for all seasons of 145,720 in 2014-15. While the harvest was not at levels seen in 2005-2006, it does stop a downhill slide.
The experts attribute part of that increase to one major event. What was that?
"Most of the increase in harvest can be attributed to a successful firearm season," advised Chris Young, of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, noting that hunters "enjoyed good conditions during much of the seven-day season."
In plain English, it means the weather was great, which means more hunters spent more time in the woods. It's a simple fact, we can't see deer if we're sitting at home on the couch.
Here are some other facts. There's nothing magical or mysterious about the deer genetics in certain counties, "golden" or not. All Illinois counties have the potential to grow deer, given the right set of circumstances.
By analyzing which areas of the state have the highest historical harvest rates, we can see which counties provide the best opportunities to tag a deer.
Many experts look at the overall harvest numbers by county, but that doesn't give an accurate picture because it inflates the data for large counties and discounts small, but potentially better, counties.
For the sake of accuracy in this article, we will be going by deer harvested per square mile. This will give us a true picture of the hotspots of the state, some of which may surprise you.
Overall, there were 2.79 deer harvested per square mile in Illinois. That's an average. Some areas were lower, such as DuPage County, a predominately urban area which scored 0.11 deer per square mile. Some were higher, such as Hardin County, which once again leads the state with 8.46 deer harvested per square mile. As the saying goes, to improve your odds of success, find the "target rich" areas. But what makes Hardin County so good?
Deer need four things to proliferate, including food, water, cover and fellow deer. Of the four, water is not an issue in Illinois. Some would argue food is not an issue in Illinois. After all, just look at our hardwood forests. And fields of corn and soybeans stretch as far as the eye can see in some areas.
Part of the year, they are correct. The flat, agricultural areas provide a fantastic smorgasbord for summertime deer. But every fall, that easy food gets put into grain bins and railroad cars, leaving a virtual moonscape that some call the "corn desert." In some places there is no food or cover for miles and miles. The occasional woodlot and river bottom is the only place left for deer to feed and hide.
So where are the best areas for deer? Prime deer habitat is where a varied diet is available and where the terrain is rugged enough to deter hunters. That usually means wooded hills and ravines interlaced with agricultural fields. This accurately describes Hardin County. The IDNR breaks the state down into five regions. Let's take a look at how the top counties within those regions performed.
Jo Daviess County is one of the top 10 counties in the state, with an average 6.5 deer harvested per square mile. Fulton (5.06) and Putnam (4.68) counties are also great picks. Wooded ravines with fingers deep into farm fields dominate all three counties and offer excellent habitat for deer. Reclaimed strip pits in Putnam County also provide seclusion for pressured deer.
Urban sprawl dominates a large portion of Region 2, so it is not surprising that the harvest rates are well below state averages. Of the counties in the district, Grundy County leads, with an average running 1.93. While the forests around the Illinois River help Grundy County, McHenry (1.74) and Will (1.43) counties are also good choices.
The open agriculture that dominates the mid and northern sections of Region 3 provides little cover and year-round forage for deer. But, Clark County, with an average of 4.04, is home to creek bottoms that lead into the Wabash River. Cumberland (3.32) and Shelby (2.65) counties offer much of the same terrain that make great deer highways.
The well-known "Golden Triangle" lies within Region 4, and it's easy to see why. The area between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers is a rich kaleidoscope of mast-producing hardwoods, lush thick bottomlands and rich farm fields. Deer have everything they need to prosper within easy reach, and the comparatively rugged terrain deters most hunters from going any great distance from a road. Brown County (7.41) has the second highest average in the state. Calhoun (7.04), Schuyler (6.20) and Pike (6.08) counties all more than double the state average. Adams (4.39) isn't far behind. At the southern end of the district Randolph County (6.02) is also a hotspot.
If Region 4 holds the "Golden Triangle," then 5 should be considered the "Platinum Diamond." All of the counties in this district are above two deer per square mile. Most are well above the average, and one is the top producer. Many of the counties hold the Shawnee National Forest, which provides opportunities for hunting on public land. At 8.46 deer harvested per square mile, Hardin County is a powerhouse deer factory. Williamson (7.44), Johnson (7.30), Union, (6.92), Pope (6.88), Jefferson (6.17), Jackson (6.12) and Franklin (6.11) all more than double the state average. Seven other counties in the district are well in excess of the state average. If there were an area to buy or lease deer-hunting property in the state, this would be the first area to look.
Another facet of our deer forecast are deer harvest quotas. The more deer the IDNR wants to be harvested, the more liberal the permits available. Deer harvest quotas are set on a county-by-county basis.
While deer hunters prefer high deer population numbers, we are not the only citizens being affected by their impact. The University of Illinois explains this well in their deer management literature, noting the following: "A large deer population provides ample opportunities for those who enjoy watching, photographing,
or hunting white-tailed deer€¦ In areas of high deer density, deer can also cause extensive agricultural losses; damage to nursery and orchard stock, ornamental plantings, cemeteriesw and golf courses; and the loss of natural vegetation that negatively impacts important ecosystem functions."
The Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control characterized Illinois' deer herd in the following terms: "Deer overpopulation is rampant in some counties in Illinois, causing accidents on our highways, increasing crop damage for Illinois farmers, and making it easier for disease and starvation to afflict our deer populations."
In era of failing state budgets, hunting is still the most cost-effective means to control deer populations.
A breakdown of the Illinois 2015-2016 deer seasons can be found in the annual IDNR report. What follows are some preliminary season totals.
Archery deer hunters in Illinois took a preliminary total of 56,732 deer during the archery season, compared with the archery deer harvest of 56,143 in the 2014-15 archery season.
Resident archery deer hunters have unlimited access to over-the-counter combination permits (one either-sex and one antlerless only); and/or single "antlerless only" permits for both Illinois resident and non-resident archers. The archery deer season lasts for more than 100 days in all 102 Illinois counties.
Youth Young deer hunters harvested 2,841 deer during the 2015 Illinois youth deer season, compared with 2,770 deer harvested by youths in 2014.
Traditional Firearm Season
Hunters harvested a preliminary total of 86,839 deer during the 2015 Illinois firearm deer season, compared with 76,575 taken during the 2014 season, reports indicate.
Firearm deer permits are issued by lottery to Illinois residents and non-residents. There are separate quotas of either-sex and antlerless-only permits for the firearm and muzzleloader deer hunting seasons in each county open to firearm deer hunting (99 of 102 Illinois counties).
Hunters using muzzle-loading rifles harvested 2,375 deer during the 2015 muzzleloader-only deer season. This compared with 3,471 in 2014, reports indicate.
The 2015-16 late winter antlerless only and special CWD deer seasons concluded on Jan. 17, with a combined preliminary harvest total for both seasons of 6,344 deer, compared with a harvest of 6,761 deer taken during those seasons in 2014-15, the IDNR reported.
With the addition of Kankakee and Kendall counties this year, 14 northern Illinois counties were open to the special CWD season, compared to 12 in 2014-15. The Special CWD season is used to assist in slowing the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease throughout the Illinois deer herd.
Counties in which Chronic Wasting Disease has been found are managed to control the spread of the disease. Are the efforts working? That is up for debate, but lower deer densities minimize the risk of spreading it further.
The following counties fall into this management category: Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Jo Daviess, Kane, Kendall, Kankakee, LaSalle, Livingston, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will and Winnebago.
Eight fewer counties were open for the late-winter antlerless season in 2015-16 because they had reached deer population goals, according to DNR reports. The number of open counties went from 35 in 2014-15 to 27 for 2015-16.
So what does this data mean? If we want to improve our odds of filling our tags, find the counties that historically have had better than average harvests, and have the most liberal seasons and permits. That's where we should focus our hunting efforts. And, it doesn't hurt to take a lesson from last year and realize that more time in the woods equates to better chances of filling the freezer.