When it comes to whitetails, it just doesn’t get much better than Illinois. Wisconsin with 383 entries, is the only state to put more Boone & Crockett whitetail entries in the book than Illinois (299 deer) from 2005 to 2010. Iowa had 224 entries and gets a lot of publicity but it takes years to get a tag there. When considering how many fewer deer hunters there are in Illinois compared to Wisconsin, it is easy to see that Illinois may be the best deer hunting state in the country.
There are hundreds of thousands of public land acres to chase whitetails. But keep in mind that deer hunting in Illinois isn’t all milk and honey. The pressure can be intense, especially during the weekends. The most successful public land hunters do things others won’t do. They are extra careful about scent control, hunt mid-week, and simply walk further than most hunters. Another good strategy is to hunt mornings. Most people work the day shift and sneak out for the final few hours of the day. Morning hunters usually have the woods to themselves during the week. Even if it’s only one morning a week, you can see a big difference in your results.
Here are a few of the top spots for public land deer hunting in Illinois.
Shawnee National Forest
Deer hunting in Pike County gets the headlines, but there are some great deer in the southern part of the state as well. With nearly 300,000 acres of public access land available, the Shawnee National Forest is the largest piece of public hunting land in Illinois. It is also several hours from the Chicago metro area, making the Shawnee perhaps the lowest pressure public land hunting spot in the state. The forest is managed with cuttings, mowing, and burnings to create habitat for a wide range of wildlife including whitetails. Residents and non-residents can hunt the Shawnee but a forest map is suggested. Private land is interspersed within the national forest.
Mississippi River Pool 24
Want to experience Pike County deer hunting? This may be the only place you can hunt in Pike County without knowing someone or paying a guide. There are several islands open to public land hunting and you’ll need a boat to access most of them. That is good news and bad news. Yes, it takes more work to get there but that effort also weeds out some of the crowd. When deer get heavy pressure in bluff country, they will often swim to an island for refuge. I know of a handful of hunters that use this strategy and they generally write a check to the taxidermist every year. Be sure to keep an up-to-date map with you. Hunting with an Illinois license on the Missouri side of the river is a good way to get a citation.
Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area
This 26 square mile area is one of the top destinations in Illinois for public land hunting. You’ll find a mix of timber, farmland, and even prairie. Resident hunters must check-in at the beginning of the year and non-resident hunting is by drawing only. Bucks must have four points on one side to be legal… a big plus for trophy hunters, perhaps a downer if you just want to put a deer on the ground. One of the best spots for deer hunting is known as “Site M” in Menard County. It’s 16,000 acres were formerly used as a coal mine and is now the Illinois DNR’s largest land holding.
Weinberg-King State Fish and Wildlife Area
Consisting of over 2,000 acres spread across four units in Schuyler and Brown Counties, Weinberg-King FWA is another great spot worth hunting in western Illinois. The creek bottoms are made up of hardwood forests with plenty of feeding areas within and surrounding the public land. The rolling terrain creates natural funnels and savvy hunters can put themselves in position for success. Designated parking areas give you a good idea of the amount of pressure an area is experiencing.
As always, check regulations before hunting anywhere. Some of these places have special regulations for deer hunting. Of course, if time is valuable the other option is to go with a whitetail deer guide or hunting lodge in Illinois. Some people don’t like the idea of paying for a hunt but unless you’re a landowner it is often the only way to hunt lightly pressured deer.