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Shooting for the moon: And some realities on opening day for Illinois’ firearm deer season

A take on opening day for Illinois’ firearm deer season, made extra special by the partial lunar eclipse in the hours before, with a new hunter at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area.

A hunter with his green tag on his orange vest, and others, awaits the opening speech by site super Jeff Wepprecht at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season. Credit: Dale Bowman
A hunter with his green tag on his orange vest, and others, awaits the opening speech by site super Jeff Wepprecht at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season.
Dale Bowman

From Edwards County, Gary Bloom messaged Thursday, “Hope you’re going deer hunting. I’m there now, scouted last night, some today. Rut is on. Saw four bucks chasing one doe; then one with three does. Buck ratio is higher then doe. [Friday] will tell. Gonna be a cold morning 24 down here. Full moon may make it tough, deer may feed all night.”

Of course, I went deer hunting.

But, it was the strangest opening day of deer hunting I remember in 50-plus years. Friday was opening day for Illinois’ first firearm deer season, which ends Sunday. Second season is Dec. 2-5.

What made Friday unique was packing, then driving, in a partial lunar eclipse. It added an other-worldly feel.

The partial lunar eclipse just passed as hunters ventured into the field at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season. Credit: Dale Bowman
The partial lunar eclipse just passed as hunters ventured into the field at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season.
Dale Bowman

But then first day of deer season is when I trip out of life.

This year was different, too, because I took John Vukmirovich deer hunting for his first time. Vukmirovich and I regularly roam the outdoors together: Jackson Park to Eggers Grove to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area.

We drew permits for Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area near Wilmington. That was a first for me. I’ve dove and pheasant hunted there, but never deer.

There were 35 permits allotted. On Friday, 26 permit-holders showed up, so all seven stand-by hunters paid $5 to hunt for the day. Hunters selected an open parking area, placed a parking card inside their windshield, and pinned green numbered patches on the back of their florescent orange outer garment.

Site superintendent Jeff Wepprecht kept things moving. By 5:08 a.m., he gave the opening speech of dos and don’ts. Then, he sent us off, “Beautiful day to hunt. There’s lots of deer out here. Go and hunt.”

My favorite hour of the year is before shooting time (half an hour before sunrise), when the deer season feels like an eternal possibility.

In the woods while still dark, I heard Canada geese honking incessantly. Wood ducks buzzed past just before dawn. At least once, I heard a deer rustle past, out of sight.

As light swelled, crows cawed en masse, gray squirrels scurried in the leaves, making my nerves jump thinking a deer was coming. I sat so still that a gray squirrel came within grabbing range. Trying to curb my enthusiasm, I twitched and scared the bejesus out of it.

Then those late-risers, fox squirrels, began their own running around and tree climbing. I heard a pileated woodpecker, but didn’t see it.

After the winds of Thursday, it was remarkably calm Friday morning, so calm falling mulberry leaves landed loudly in the forest litter.

“People are coming in steadily, that is the general consensus,” Dan Skinner said at noon. “Everybody’s in a pretty good mood. It was a crisp morning. There’s light winds. Bucks are chasing does and [hunters] are seeing deer.”

Skinner, forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, was working the Ogle County check station.

“So much of the firearm season, with only seven days, is weather dependent,” Skinner said.

Other than some weekend rain in spots, first season looks like reasonable fall weather.

On my way back to meet Vukmirovich at lunch, I flushed a pheasant.

It was time.

He needed to be home early and I wanted to hunt to the end.

In counties with chronic wasting disease—there are 20 with 14 check stations—hunters must check in harvested deer at a check station between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. during the both firearm deer seasons. Skinner reminded that Carroll County is a new check station this year.

Sunrise at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday slowly revealed the cover on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season. Credit: Dale Bowman
Sunrise at Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area Friday slowly revealed the cover on opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season.
Dale Bowman