Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

May 1, 2024

Adventure Awaits in All Corners of the State

Technically, the middle of the country (48 contiguous states at least) is near Lebanon, Kansas, but in Illinois, it can seem like we are in the middle of nowhere. Illinois is located squarely in the Midwest, the area known as “flyover states” by coastal Americans. No mountains, no oceans, and on some commutes, only agriculture as far as the eye can see.

A hunter wearing camouflage gear sits in a tree-stand during autumn. In the background is a canopy of yellow green leaves.
Photo by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

While the vastness of these ecological deserts can be disheartening, that is not all Illinois has to offer. We may not have ocean beaches but what we do have is access to one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, Lake Michigan. We may not have mountains, but the rugged hills of the Shawnee National Forest are not too shabby for a day trip. The prairies and mixed deciduous woodlands of Illinois rarely show up as your screensaver, but pictures don’t really do them justice anyway.

With the Illinois Learn to Hunt program we get to see public land sites all around the state. Sometimes we find “hidden gems” of habitat amongst the cornfields and wind turbines that stand out to us for one reason or another. The best ways to experience these places are to immerse yourself in them. Smell the freshly burned prairie, see the diversity of birds that use the native habitat and hear the frogs wake up and get sassy. It’s tough to figure how many pretty pictures of crystal-clear Caribbean lagoons or snow-capped mountains an experience like that is worth but it’s more than a few.

I selected a site from each region that highlights the diversity of public land sites we visit either for workshops or for hunting. This list is meant to show that no matter where you reside in the state, there are adventures to be found on nearby public land. If your purpose is hunting, scouting or simply hiking it’s always fun to try out a new spot. I like mountains and oceans as much as the next person but if you limit your adventures to only far away destinations, they won’t occur with the desired regularity.

A map of Illinois to the left indicates the location of the Chain O' Lakes State Park in northeastern Illinois. To the right is a chart with the years to the left and the type of harvested game across the top.

Chain O’ Lakes State Park

Step out of the concrete jungle and into what seems like a real-world version of the third level of Super Mario Bros. 3 (Waterland Level). Along the Fox River in northern Illinois are a number of lakes, including Grass, Marie and Nippersink, which border McHenry County’s Chain O’ Lakes State Park. Consisting of just over 6,000 acres, about half of the area is huntable. A boat, waders or Mario style frog suit may help you there.

We have been holding Learn to Hunt workshops out at the Chain for several seasons now and it’s one of our go-to places. Access and facilities are nice and well kept. We can always find deer and other wildlife sign, and as a bonus, there seems to be decent cell reception in most areas. It is always nice to have water features around, along with the enhanced biotic diversity they provide.

As one might expect with the amount of water around, fishing and waterfowl hunting are two of the site’s most popular activities. The area is also popular for hunting controlled or “put and take” pheasants. For those looking to firearm deer hunt or spring turkey hunt, you will need to draw one of the area specific tags for this area. There are only a small number available but if you are successful in the drawing, you have a pretty good spot that is not too far from the city.

Note: It is highly suggested that deer hunters get any deer harvested from this area tested for Chronic Wasting Disease.

A map of Illinois to the left indicates the location of the Jubilee College State Park in northwestern Illinois. To the right is a chart with the years to the left and the type of harvested game across the top.

Jubilee College State Park

With nearly 3,000 huntable acres in the Jubilee Creek area and not too far from Peoria, Jubilee College State Park is a great place to get deep in the woods. With mature timber, old fallow fields and brushy edges, this Peoria County site offers excellent habitat for deer and squirrels. Dove hunters have seen some nice success here as well, although they only hunt doves on certain days in certain zones.

Jubilee College requires hunters to sign in and sign out for each trip. Firearm deer and spring turkey hunting requires drawing a site-specific permit. The area is divided into different hunting zones. Read through the area specific hunting information available on Hunt Illinois to learn which zones are open to which kinds of hunting.

We just recently discovered this location and put it on our radar after a tour of the park. With good access and facilities coupled with some of the best mature timber habitat you can find, Jubilee College State Park jumped out as one of our new favorites.

A map of Illinois to the left indicates the location of the Copperhead Hollow State Wildlife Area in west central Illinois. To the right is a chart with the years to the left and the type of harvested game across the top.

Copperhead Hollow State Fish and Wildlife Area

In general, Illinois is known for big bucks but it may be the west-central region that is the most popular and for good reason. With close to 1,400 huntable acres right in big buck central, Copperhead Hollow State Fish and Wildlife Area is worth checking out. This Jersey County site is dominated by mixed oak-hickory forests and more topography than most Illinois residents are used to.

Firearm deer hunting requires a site-specific permit, but many other types of hunting are open under statewide regulations or with only slight restrictions. There is a road with a couple of nice parking areas running through the center of the property, opening up a lot of potential for hunters who don’t mind hiking a bit from the parking lots.

I scouted this area for archery deer hunting this past fall and was impressed by the habitat and the deer numbers. This area also draws its fair share of hunters looking for wall hangers. During the middle of the week and away from the most popular time of late-October through firearms season are probably the best times to check the popular Copperhead Hollow out.

A map of Illinois to the left indicates the location of the Shelbyville State Fish and Wildlife Area in east central Illinois. To the right is a chart with the years to the left and the type of harvested game across the top.

Shelbyville State Fish and Wildlife Area

With two units totaling more than 6,000 acres, Shelbyville State Fish and Wildlife Area is one the larger public land sites that we visit. This Moultrie County site is perhaps the most diverse on this list with about every habitat type you can imagine. The Kaskaskia Unit and the Okaw Unit around Lake Shelbyville offer hunting opportunities for just about everything in Illinois.

While the area might be most known for waterfowl, deer, squirrels, rabbits and doves are all taken there, and the hunting can be pretty good. Waterfowl hunters have a morning draw the first couple days of the season to try and get a staked hunting location for their hunting party. Starting on the third day of the season the morning draw no longer takes place and hunting spots are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. They don’t hunt a ton of parties, but hunters do end up getting their fair share of ducks and geese in most seasons.

As per usual, firearm deer hunters and spring turkey hunters must draw a site-specific permit in order to do those activities. Most other types of hunting are more open and with a lot of diverse habitat types to hunt. Most hunters can find what they are looking for. Check through the area specific hunting regulations on Hunt Illinois before heading out.

A map of Illinois to the left indicates the location of the Pyramid State Recreation Area in southwestern Illinois. To the right is a chart with the years to the left and the type of harvested game across the top.

Pyramid State Recreation Area

While Shelbyville is on the larger side for public properties, Pyramid State Recreation Area sets the curve on this list with more than 18,500 huntable acres. The Perry County site consists of five management units, including the Park, Captain, Denmark, East Conant and Galum units. Each unit has its own set of area specific regulations that must be followed. With waterbodies from several retired surface mines on the property, waterfowl hunting is popular and can be pretty good. In the unmined portions of the park you will find a good mix of hardwood forests and open areas leading to good hunting for pretty much everything.

A small brown, tan, and black bird pauses in grassy area.
Photo by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

One species that helps Pyramid stand out from the crowd in Illinois is quail. While it is not easy to find bobwhites in most parts of the Midwest anymore, decent numbers have been taken at the site in each of the past five seasons. If you are looking for a mixed bag, it’s better to look for rabbits or squirrels than pheasants as they don’t get many roosters down there.

This is one area where you can deer hunt with a county permit. Archery hunters still take more deer with the much longer season but it’s nice to have the chance at redemption if you strike out with the old stick and string. Pyramid does require site-specific spring turkey permits. There is a daily drawing for waterfowl hunters at the Denmark Unit’s multi-purpose building each morning to allocate spots.

Whether you are a hunter, a wildlife watcher or just someone who appreciates healthy ecosystems, Illinois’ public lands are places you will want to check out. Always look through the area specific hunting regulations and get access to digital and printable maps for all the state-owned public lands at All the areas mentioned here require that a printed windshield card be displayed on your vehicle while hunting.

If you are just getting started on your hunting journey, Illinois Learn to Hunt is here to help. We know that it can be intimidating to get into the highly regulated field of hunting and/or trapping these days. It helps immensely to have a network of friends and mentors to help you answer questions, talk through plans or even to share your success with. We strive to be that network for all those Illinois adults needing assistance.

Check out Illinois Learn to Hunt to look for upcoming workshops near you, listen to the Hunting Illinois Podcast, or scroll through our ever-growing video library of Illinois specific hunting and trapping content.

At an outdoor pavilion a group of individuals sit and listen to an individual speak about hunting. In the background is an edge of a woodland against a bright blue sky.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Learn to Hunt.

Whether you are a new hunter or have been doing it your entire life, it’s always fun to try to learn a new area. Before you have done any scouting or placed any cameras, everything is still a mystery. Public land sites often give you the freedom to cover some distance and adequately scout critters over their home range without encountering many unpassable fences or boundaries.

That sure sounds like an adventure to me and it’s a lot closer than the nearest mountain or ocean that I know of. So, get out there and make your own screensaver right here in Illinois on one of our awesome public land areas. See you out there!

Curtis Twellmann has been with the Illinois Learn to Hunt program since 2020. Growing up in north-central Missouri, Twellmann hunted, fished and trapped from an early age. This led to a wildlife degree from Northwest Missouri State in 2012. From there he worked as a field biologist for the better part of a decade in Nevada, Nebraska, Texas, Alaska and California. Then he spent about three years as the Assistant Furbearer Specialist in Wisconsin before starting with the Illinois Learn to Hunt program.

The Illinois Learn to Hunt Program is funded through Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Grant W-188-R and is a collaborative effort between the University of Illinois’ Illinois Natural History Survey and Illinois Department of Natural Resources to increase Hunter Recruitment, Retention, and Reengagement (R3) efforts in Illinois.

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