Resident Illinois deer hunters without access to private land will be happy to learn that the IDNR has increased public firearm deer hunting opportunities for 2006 throughout the state of Illinois. Not only are more areas being opened, but a new "bonus buck" program at several state sites will allow hunters to hunt bucks in areas that have been "doe-only" in the past. Stand-by opportunities have also been added to a number of sites.
The majority of deer permits for public sites will be awarded in the first lottery, so it is very important for your applications to be received by the IDNR by the April 28th deadline. Last-minute applicants should use the on-line firearm application screens, which can be accessed by clicking here. Have a back-up alternative site selected as a second choice, just in case your first choice fill up before your application is processed. If you are applying in a group, make sure that all members of the group submit their applications online (with exactly the same choices) before the deadline. Checking the "second-season option" is also a good idea, since it increases your odds in obtaining a permit in some cases. A "second-season only" permit is better than no permit, and you can always join the first-season standby lines at a site that offers standby opportunities.
Muzzleloader permit applicants currently do not have an online application option, and must rely on paper forms. Last-minute muzzleloader applicants are encouraged to hand-deliver their application to the DNR permit office in Springfield by the April 28th first lottery application deadline. The DNR recognizes only applications that have been physically received in Springfield headquarters by their cutoff dates, so postmarks are irrelevant in meeting all Illinois deer permit lottery deadlines.
Make sure that you look for any special notations on the listing, which note special restrictions or extra opportunities available at the site. (standy permits, bonus-buck program, etc.) Sites with extra restrictions often do not fill up as fast and therefore become a good second-choice site.
There are also a handful of public sites throughout Illinois that sometimes allow firearm deer hunting, but don't appear on the permit application list. These sites rely on special drawings for holders of county-specific permits permits, and receive very little publicity. Local area newspapers are the traditional sources for this information. Illinoishunter will publish information on such sites when they become known to us later in the year.
If your firearm deer permit application is unsuccessful, according to the IDNR you will be issued a refund check by July 15. Permits will also be mailed around July 15. Prior to that time, the IDNR will have activated their on-line system that will allow you to check the status of your permit applications.
If you are unsuccessful in the first lottery or simply missed the April 28th deadline, it will be best to wait until the first drawing results are published before applying in the second lottery. That way, you won't be applying for permits at sites which are already full.
Current regulations allow individual residents to apply in both the regular firearm and muzzleloader drawings at the same time. Unless your first application is unsuccessful, you cannot apply for additional permits in either category until the "random daily drawing" period later this year.
The new "bonus buck" program at several public hunting areas has generated a lot of interest, but at press time it is still unclear how the program will be administered at each site. Online "Hunter Fact Sheets" for most IDNR hunting sites are still carried over from the 2005 season, and a random sampling by phone at various sites revealed that most locations were still deciding how to implement the program locally. Since most "bonus buck" sites will be issuing antlered permits on a standby basis, I asked whether standby hunters who had already harvested a doe would be given preference in the standby waiting line over other hunters. Answers ranged from a flat "no" to an honest "we don't know yet." More than one site indicated that hunters who had met the "bonus buck" requirements during one weekend season would possibly be eligible for an antlered stand-by permit in following weekend seasons on the same site. However, all sources were reluctant to be quoted because the procedures had not been finalized. Although many public sites have always permitted either-sex hunting, sites in the new "bonus buck" program will give their hunters an opportunity to hunt antlered deer in areas with superior quantity and quality of bucks in the local population. All indications are that it will be worth the extra hassle, especially at the state sites which have never previously allowed buck hunting in either the firearm or archery seasons.
This writer has successfully hunted a number of public sites over the years, and I am continually amazed at the quality of opportunities available for resident deer hunters on public land. Bowhunters have the best deal, as quality bowhunting opportunities are available on public lands throughout the state, even at sites that are extremely competitive for limited numbers of firearm permits. However, I have taken over 30 deer with firearms at state sites in Illinois over the years, including several nice 9-point and 10-point bucks. I have learned to emphasize patience, and attempt to either avoid the crowds or have their presence work in my favor.
Many public hunting areas have site-specific rules and regulations, so it pays to carefully read their hunter fact sheets. For example, several years ago I showed up at Starved Rock State Park with a firearm deer permit and a scoped inline Knight muzzleloader. Unfortunately, their site-specific rules prohibited using muzzleloaders during their special firearm season, and I had to do a late-night run to borrow a slug shotgun that was inferior to the ones that I had left at home!
If you apply for a state hunting area away from your home county, remember that motels in popular deer-hunting areas fill up really early. Campgrounds at several state sites are also closed during the firearm seasons, so do your homework and make appropriate reservations well in advance of the rush.
By doing some homework and having a little bit of luck, resident deer hunters can be rewarded with the opportunity for a quality low-cost whitetail deer hunting experience on public ground that equals or exceeds a high-dollar hunting trip out of state. Applying for that permit is the first step. In the coming months, IllinoisHunter will give you some additional useful tips on making your public land hunt both more enjoyable and more successful.
Read Part 2 of this Special Report