Late-Season Illinois Deer Hunting Tactics
December 18, 2017
There are still good Illinois deer hunting opportunities available for hunters trying to fill a tag.
Deer hunters have their own brand of lingo for certain aspects of the hunt, and we also have lots of catch phrases to describe certain segments of the hunting season.
Opening day, the early season, the October lull, pre-rut, peak of the rut, late season, the eleventh hour and the closing bell all relate to individual portions of the deer season. Some of those periods have already passed for this season, but we are a long way from the final curtain.
The numbers of deer hunters still out in the stand or blind at this time of year are greatly diminished from the many weeks previous. There are lots of reasons for the lower numbers. Some people have filled tags, stocked their freezers and moved on to other pursuits.
Some have simply deer hunted as much as they want this season, while others may only hunt a certain season each year. Others choose not to hunt the latter parts of the season due to the weather, and some have just simply given up.
However, for those still willing to stay in the game, there is a lot of season left and a plethora of opportunity still to come.
Archery season began on Oct. 1 and is ongoing through Jan. 14, 2018.
Bowhunter numbers dwindle as the season wears on, so those hunting with archery gear encounter fewer other hunters in the woods. Partly, this is because hunters have already filled tags or moved to other types of hunting.
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But another major reason is that archery hunting gets a lot tougher this time of year. The winter weather, coupled with pressured deer and the degree of difficulty staying concealed, causes a lot of bowhunters to not have the confidence to hit the stands this late in the year. However, for those who do, there is plenty of time left to fill a tag or two.
The Late-Winter Deer Season runs Dec. 28-31, 2017. Last season there were 24 counties open for this special season and hunters harvested 3,120 deer. Resident hunters may buy antlerless-only permits over the counter that are for specific counties. Hunters with unfilled permits from firearm, muzzleloader or youth seasons may also hunt for antlerless deer, provided the permits were issued for counties open for the special late-season hunt.
Hunters have two segments of Special CWD Deer Season in which to hunt. The first runs concurrent with the Late-Winter Deer Season. The second segment runs Jan. 12-14, 2018.
There were 14 counties open for the CWD hunt last season, and hunters took a total of 1,576 deer. County-specific antlerless-only permits are available without limit to residents and nonresidents, plus hunters with unfilled firearm, muzzleloader and youth permits valid for open CWD counties may be used during this season as long as the hunter uses only the weapon allowed by that permit and only harvests the sex of deer allowed by that permit.
Before determining a hunting location, please keep in mind that not all counties and public lands mentioned here are open for all late hunting seasons. Additionally, just because a location was open for a particular hunting season last year does not mean it is open this season. Open counties and public lands often change due to deer densities and management objectives, so always consult the latest regulations before heading to any destination.
The best county for archery hunters last season was Pike, with a harvest of 2,062 deer. This significantly outdistanced the next closest result, which was Fulton County, at 1,492 deer. Rounding out the top five were Jefferson (1,231), Adams (1,202) and Randolph (1,005).
These same counties also showed up in the top five lists for firearm and muzzleloader hunters. The top five firearm counties were Adams (2,362), Randolph (2,290), Jackson (2,247), Pike (2,131) and Fulton (2,013). The best counties for muzzleloaders last season were Pike (160), Adams (105), Fulton (92), Randolph (88) and Jefferson (84).
There were four counties closed to late-winter deer hunting that were previously open, but there was one new county added. Hunters took more than 3,000 deer in the 24 open counties, with about 80 percent of the harvest being female deer. The top counties were Fulton (337), Perry (261), Brown (231), Schuyler (214) and White (169). The special CWD hunting season was open in 14 counties including Boone, DeKalb, Grundy, Jo Daviess, Kane, Kankakee, Kendall, LaSalle, Livingston, McHenry, Ogle, Stephenson, Will and Winnebago.
On public lands, bowhunters had the most success at Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area, where they harvested 259 deer. Not far behind was Clinton Lake State Recreation Area, with a take of 214 deer. Other public lands with significant bow harvests were Pyramid State Park, with a harvest of 146, Sangchris Lake SRA (91), Siloam Springs State Park (79) and Kaskaskia River SFWA (75).
Jim Edgar Panther Creek SFWA was also the top spot for firearm hunters, with a harvest of 129 deer. Kaskaskia River SFWA was also right at the top, with a harvest of 128 whitetails. Rounding out the top five firearm harvests were Cache River State Natural Area (83), Giant City State Park (75) and Castle Rock State Park (72).
And these figures do not even include our largest public land in the state. The Shawnee National Forest spreads through numerous counties in southeastern Illinois and totals some 280,000 acres. Hunting the state forest requires some diligent scouting, which is especially important after there has been a lot of hunting pressure. But deer numbers are very good in many parts of the state forest.
THE CATCH 22
Going back to thoughts on lingo, there are some phrases particularly fitting for the late season. Catch 22 and several others perfectly describe a conundrum faced by deer hunters late in the year. There simply is not as much food as there was earlier in the year.
When the hunting season first began, deer had an almost limitless supply of food sources. There were still lush grasses and vegetation, standing and leftover grain crops as well as persimmons and other soft and hard mast. When the acorns started dropping, the real buffet was on. However, at this time of year, a lot of those food sources are either gone or tremendously depleted.
That is good and bad for hunters. On the positive side, it means that deer congregate more near any available food sources. The bad part is that, if there are limited food sources on the property being hunted, the numbers of deer on that property may be greatly diminished as the season and winter progress.
LATE SEASON TACTICS
Deer habits and travel patterns have changed a lot by this time of the season. Although in some areas there might be a significant second breeding period, for the most part hunting tactics need to be adapted to fit the time of year. A bowhunter may have had lots of deer activity sitting a stand overlooking a hot trail into a corn or soybean field early in the season.
Later in the season, a stand near where there is a lot of doe activity may have produced numerous buck sightings. A sit in either of those stands right now may or may not result in seeing deer. Hunters must re-evaluate their hunting locations and be willing to accept that "old reliable" may not be the best stand choice for this late in the season.
Aside from the aforementioned second breeding period, deer at this time of year are primarily concerned with food and shelter. Water sometimes factors in, but most times it is not of such significance that hunters can rely on it to pattern deer. However, if it is determined where the deer are feeding and where they are bedding, this is a huge step toward filling a tag. Feeding and bedding are of even more importance now than they were early in the season.
As mentioned earlier, food sources are somewhat depleted now. And they continue to diminish throughout winter. If hunters find the new sources of food the whitetails are utilizing now, there is an excellent possibility there are very good numbers of deer congregated in the vicinity of the food source.
Winter food sources consist of any remaining waste grains, acorns, honeysuckle stands and quality browse, the latter being a major staple in the winter diet. Consider also that deer may venture into urban areas to forage on plants in yards.
The other major factor, shelter, is a tricky one in the late season. Deer have been pressured by hunters for several weeks now, so they look for bedding locations affording some reasonable amount of relief from humans. However, deer are also concerned with thermal relief from the elements, so they might pick spots providing shelter from a strong northwest wind or one that affords some direct sunlight.
Scouting and being familiar with the hunting area are very important at this time of year, perhaps even more so than in the early season. If hunters know where the deer are eating and where they are bedding, it swings the odds a little more in their favor. A stand site near the food source or bedding location or along a trail between the two is the most used tactic for late season.
Another very important factor for this time of year is stealth and concealment. The leaves and much of the other foliage that provided a certain amount of concealment earlier in the season are now gone. That lets hunters see farther into the woods, but deer can see even better. A deer may see the hunter and vacate the area without the hunter even knowing it was around. And it is not just deer with which a hunter must be concerned.
Turkeys form large flocks in the winter months, and a hunter who is not still and very well concealed cannot even begin to hope to escape all those high-powered sets of eyes. The commotion of spooking a large flock of turkeys puts every deer in the area on high alert.
Stand sites must be chosen with concealment in mind. Stands in evergreen trees, or at least a tree with a lot of branches, help break up the hunter's silhouette somewhat. Camouflage should be matched to the surroundings as much as possible. Movement needs to be kept to an absolute minimum. And when movement is necessary, it should be very slow and deliberate.
Warmth and staying dry are very important factors, too. A hunter who is cold or wet is a hunter who fidgets and is forced to move around more in the stand to produce warmth or get comfortable. Getting wet or cold not only increases the risk of illness, but it often forces the hunter out of the stand much earlier, and thus ruins the chance of success or the enjoyment of the hunt. One of the best investments a late-season hunter can make is in quality boots and clothing.
The late season is not without its challenges, but there are also many rewards. Now it's time for you to hit the woods at one of the locations we've discussed here or another great hunting spot near you.