Springfield — Heading into its final weeks, the 2014-15 Illinois deer season has become a comparison of numbers and of perspectives.
Perhaps the most credible vantage belongs to hunters, who recognize the difference in their hunts and in the deer herd from year to year and decade to decade.
An alternate view is that of the general public, which following the second shotgun season this month were treated to headlines that boasted, “Hunters Increase Deer Harvest.”
That much is true. Second season shotgun hunters took 24,717 deer, up from the 18,483 taken in 2013. And, with the 51,830 taken during this year’s first firearms weekend, the total gun harvest this year was 76,547, up from the 74,318 deer harvested during the 2013 firearms season.
But those numbers are nowhere close to even five years ago, when during the 2009 firearms season hunters took 99,755 deer. The number has gradually slid – taking its biggest plunge last year when the gun harvest dropped from 99,546 in 2012 to the 74,318 mark last year.
Many expect the total deer harvest to be similar to last year, when 148,614 deer were taken.
“Non-hunters see the news and think ‘I guess deer numbers are back, what are hunters whining about,’” Larry Thomas, of Pekin, noted. “But hunters know we’re way from being back where we belong. We know the score.”
That score includes totals from this year’s muzzleloader season (Dec. 12-14), when rifle hunters harvested 3,444 deer, down slightly from the 3,485 in 2013. As of Dec. 18, bowhunters had taken 51,005 deer. The season ends Jan. 18, meaning hunters have about three weeks to match last year’s total archery harvest of 57,303. The late-winter seasons aren’t likely to boost the total harvest, as 20 counties were dropped from the season. Last year’s late-winter season produced a harvest of 8,920 deer.
Meanwhile, few of those in the woods have changed their opinions about the state of the deer herd.
Ryan Craig, who hunts with buddies in Pope, Johnson and Saline counties, said there seems to be a common theme when deer hunters get together.
“I think the kill for the south will be similar or up a little from last year, but my main concern is that my group of hunters and multiple other groups we’ve talked with did not see very many deer at all,” Craig, who did take an 11-pointer with a bow in Pope County on Nov. 8, said. “I personally think the deer herd is in decline and hasn’t reached the bottom yet.”
Craig said the best part of the year for his hunting friends was Halloween though Veteran’s Day.
“I believe this is when deer were chasing the most, and we did fairly well on seeing deer and seen several big deer,” he said.
According to DNR’s harvest report following the seven-day firearms season, southern Illinois did fare better than other regions in the state. Jackson County was up nearly 300 and Williamson and Randolph counties increased by more than 200. Nearly 11,500 deer were harvested in Jefferson, Jackson, Williamson, Franklin, Randolph and Perry counties.
“You kind of have to look at the timeline for some of these counties,” Paul Shelton, forest game manager for DNR, told the Southern Illinoisan. “Some of these counties have been shut down for the late-winter season longer than others.
Jackson and Williamson have been seeing some results of that.”
Shelton summed up this deer season when he added, “Somebody’s good news is somebody else’s bad news.”
West-central Illinois, typically the top harvest region, continued its reign, even as some counties in that region saw decreases in gun harvest. Pike County led the state in harvest totals, checking in 2,163 deer during the gun season, although that was 107 fewer than last year. Hunters killed 785 deer in Pike County during the December portion of the season, which was second to northern Illinois’ Jo Daviess County, which had 819 deer taken last weekend and 2,014 overall.
Cliff Watson, of Adams County, filled both of his permits during the second firearms weekend, bagging a nine-point buck the first afternoon and a doe on the morning of the third day. His brother also killed a doe.
“Maybe there are plenty of deer still around,” Watson told the Quincy Herald-Whig. “We’ll wait and see what next year brings before I believe that whole-heartedly.”