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Illinois deer hunting: Harvest shifts come during archery and traditional firearm seasons

Archery harvest by Illinois deer hunters rapidly nears that of harvest during trraditional firearm seasons.

Resized/Sun-Times
For decades a deer hunter’s first buck, such as Emily Miller’s in 2012, or first deer, would come during one of the firearm seasons; but the harvest trajectory now suggests that may be shifting toward archery season.
Dale Bowman

Should the growing use of crossbows in Illinois lead to a shift in deer seasons?

That question came to me when I looked at the preliminary breakdown of Illinois’ overall deer harvest for the 2019-20 seasons and noticed a dramatic shift.

Archery harvest jumped to 67,696 deer during the 2019-20 season from 61,096 in `18-19, while harvest during the tradition firearms seasons fell to 75,349 during ‘19 from 80,957 in ‘18.

If a similar shift in archery and traditional firearm harvest occurs in the ‘20-21 seasons, archery will surpass traditional firearms in harvest.

I figured it would be five to 10 years before archery came close to equaling harvest during the traditional firearm seasons. Now I wonder.

``I would contribute that to crossbows,’’ said Frank Williams, vice president of Illinois Taxidermist Association and owner of Antler Ridge Archery and Taxidermy in St. Anne. ``It blows my mind how many crossbows I’ve sold. And it is to die-hard bowhunters. It is a total switch.’’

He wasn’t making a value judgment, simply noting what he has observed. Williams thinks crossbows are just another weapon for hunting deer.

He was right in his guess.

USDA wildlife disease specialist Dan Skinner working on deer checked in at Kankakee River State Park.Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
Dan Skinner, now forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, working at the Kankakee County check station in 2018.
Dale Bowman

Dan Skinner, forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, emailed on Wednesday this breakdown of archery equipment used in harvest: compound bow 54.1 percent, crossbow 44.8, recurve 0.7 and longbow 0.4. Those are preliminary numbers, final ones will change.

``I don’t anticipate a significant change in Illinois deer management in the near future based on the overall proportion of the harvest that was attributed to archery equipment,’’ Skinner emailed. ``We will continue to monitor harvest in each county and make adjustments to firearm quotas as needed. We will continue to keep an eye on the archery harvest, and could propose changes to administrative rule, if necessary.’’

Maybe, after only three years of general use of crossbows during archery seasons in Illinois, wondering if a season change should be considered is too quick of a reaction.

In all seasons, Illinois hunters harvested 153,048 deer in ‘19-20 seasons, up from 151,709 in ‘18-19. Total harvest was about where it has been.

``[O]ur numbers are preliminary, and will require some more cleanup to get to exact figures, but our total overall harvest ended up close to what I would have expected,’’ Skinner emailed. ``Looking at the five seasons from 2014-2018, we ranged from about 144,000 to 155,000 deer per year, with a five-year average of just under 149,000 deer.’’’

The rest of the harvest came from the youth season (up to 3,775 from 1,660), muzzleloader-only (down to 3,061 from 3,900) and late-winter seasons (down to 3,167 from 4,096).

Asked if the lower firearm harvest concerned him, Skinner emailed, ``No, wet conditions in the field in 2019 led to a situation in which we had approximately 20 percent of the statewide corn crop still standing as we entered the first firearm season. In addition to that, Thanksgiving was on November 28th, meaning the firearms seasons started as late as possible, pushing harvest farther from peak rutting activities.’’

Both of those things are true, but I suspect they only accented the shift in harvest numbers.

I checked with Tim Walmsley, who measured many of the biggest bucks in Illinois history and who started Illinois’ original deer show. He is a staunch traditional bowhunter and disparages crossbows as cross-guns.

``The cross-guns killed so many more deer/bucks than what’s been harvested in the past, that in a few years, you’ll start seeing ANOTHER downfall of trophy bucks coming out of the field,’’ he emailed. ``It’s inevitable. The archery harvest will exceed the gun harvest at some point.’’

As to what taxidermists are seeing (one sign of herd status), Williams said, ``My taxidermy numbers are stable, but mine usually are. As a whole, across the state, the numbers are up. Sometimes I wonder if people are becoming more educated and selective [shooting mature bucks].’’

Walmsley thinks the first deer show in several years—Illinois Deer Classic (illinoisdeerclassic.com) at the Peoria Civic Center on March 27-29—will be instructive.

``It will be damn interesting to see what comes into the Illinois Deer Classic and whether it’s enough bucks to warrant the show!’’ Walmsley emailed. ``I think it will be due to the cross-gun season.’’

Immediate change seems unlikely.

``In Illinois, our deer hunting seasons are established by the Wildlife Code,’’ Skinner emailed. ``Significant changes to season structures or addition of new seasons altogether would require changes to state law by the General Assembly. With that said, if the Department ever determines changes are necessary to limit or otherwise manipulate deer harvest due to crossbows, we could likely make some changes through administrative rule.’’

As of now, no public deer meetings are planned.

Resized/Sun-Times
A winter deer herd on Jan. 20, the day after all deer hunting seasons ended.
Dale Bowman