By P.J. Reilly
Why Indiana is the Midwest’s most overlooked hotspot.
When it comes to premiere whitetail destinations, the Midwest is at the top of the heap. Every year, scores of hunters flock there in search of big bucks; and every year, those hunters take home more than a few bragging-size whitetails.
Most often, the states these hunters head to are Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin. Ever look at a map of the U.S. to inspect the layout of these states? Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Kentucky form a perfect box around one state you almost never hear mentioned in discussions about hunting big bucks in the Midwest —Indiana. Well don’t look now, but Indiana just might be the hottest big-buck state in the nation that no one is talking about.
Mars Harlan’s family has been tilling the soil of Vigo County, just south of Terre Haute in western Indiana, for generations. In the 1960s and 1970s, spotting a whitetail on the Harlan family’s farm was about as rare as finding a five-leaf clover.
“Thirty years ago, there were no deer around here,” Harlan said. “It’s only been within the past 15 or so that they’ve really taken off.”
Consider this: The first deer season in Indiana was held in only a handful of counties in 1951. Just two decades ago in 1987, Indiana’s total, statewide deer harvest was a shade over 51,000. In 2006 — the last year for which figures were available —the statewide deer harvest was nearly 126,000.
That’s a history shared by most midwestern states. Once the whitetail got a foothold in the U.S. heartland, it found plenty of food and lots of minerals in the rich soil — a winning combination for producing large-bodied, large-racked deer.
The soil and the food that exist in Illinois and Ohio are exactly the same as can be found in the state that separates them. That’s why nothing irritates Harlan, a dyed-in-the-wool Hoosier, more than picking up a magazine and reading about the fabulous bucks that can be found in Illinois and Ohio, with no mention of his native Indiana.
“We get no respect,” he said. “That really ticks me off.”
Indiana deserves respect. True, Ohio and Illinois cough up more record-book bucks than any other states or Canadian provinces. But Indiana ranks a solid No. 3 behind its neighbors (among the 10,363 bucks listed in “Buckmasters Whitetail Trophy Records”). Kentucky, Indiana’s Southern neighbor, ranks fourth.
Perhaps one of the reasons Indiana hasn’t achieved the fame and popularity of its neighboring states is the apparent lack of outfitters operating there. Type “Illinois deer hunting” into any Internet search engine, and you’ll be deluged with links to Land of Lincoln guides. Try the same search for Indiana, and you’ll be underwhelmed. I found fewer than 10 outfitters, many of whom I couldn’t contact because the phone numbers and/or e-mail addresses were no longer valid.
Midwest Bucks, owned and operated by Rick Davidson, was an exception. After talking to Davidson for more than a year, I decided to hunt with his outfit for the first few days of Indiana’s 2007 firearms season. Davidson lives just a few miles across the Indiana border in Illinois and has been hunting deer in the two states all his life. Midwest Bucks offers hunts on thousands of acres of private land in Vigo County.
As he led me through a cornfield on Nov. 17, 2007, toward a ladder stand perched in a thin strip of woods on the back end of one of his farms, Harlan, one of Davidson’s guides, assured me that Indiana has plenty of big bucks. It was opening day of the Hoosier State’s firearms deer season, and I couldn’t wait for daylight.
My stand overlooked an overgrown field that Harlan enrolled in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). It borders the Wabash River, which separates Illinois from Indiana. Harlan used to till this field and plant it with soybeans and corn. But it often flooded, and he lost several crops over the years to high water. So, a few years back, he decided to give the field back to the deer, turkeys and songbirds, and he planted trees instead of crops. Other than that, he simply left the field alone and let Mother Nature take over.
The tall, native grasses that quickly sprouted provide deer with superb escape and bedding cover, Harlan told me. And since the rut was in full swing, he felt certain I’d see a buck or two cruising through in search of a hot doe.
At daybreak, shotgun and muzzleloader blasts began to rumble in the distance. Like several other midwestern states, centerfire rifles cannot be used to hunt deer in Indiana, but in addition to shotguns and muzzleloaders, pistols also may be used during the firearms season. Around 7:30, I could see well enough to shoot, so I began my first calling sequence. I let out a few doe-in-heat bawls on my Primos can, followed by a series of short buck grunts. Then I repeated the sequence.
Within minutes, a bald deer appeared in the WRP, heading directly toward my stand. It turned out to be a button buck. That little deer climbed the hill and walked through the timber to the field edge behind my stand, where it met up with a small 6-pointer. The two bucks approached to within 10 yards before they wandered back down the hill and out across the WRP.
Just as those deer disappeared, I saw movement in the thicket across the WRP. The first thing I noticed was a gleaming white throat patch in the center of a huge, swollen neck. I knew it was a buck before I saw the rack.
The deer stepped out of the briars, and I spotted a substantial crown of antlers on its head. Like he was on a mission, the buck made a beeline across the WRP, heading directly toward my position.
My hands shook horribly as I picked up my muzzleloader and rested it on the shooting rail of my stand. Peering through the scope, I tried to judge the buck’s antlers, but the deer kept swiveling its head from side to side. The only conclusion I could make was the rack had a lot of points.
Even though I’d barely been on stand an hour on the first day of a scheduled three-day hunt, I decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. As the buck cut across the field about 60 yards out and hit a gap between two tulip poplars in front of my stand, I yelled out the traditional mouth grunt to get him to stop.
The buck hit the brakes and peered up onto the ridge where I was struggling to center the shaking crosshairs on its chest. Eventually, the thin lines settled just behind the buck’s muscular shoulder, and I squeezed the trigger.
The gun barked and spewed a blinding cloud of white smoke. I leaned to the left and ducked under the haze just in time to see the buck running low and hard across the WRP toward a ditch. His body language suggested I’d scored a good hit.
I saw the buck come up out of the ditch into a thin strip of woods, its rack gleaming white as it reflected the early-morning sun. I took my eyes off the buck for a split second to pick up my binoculars so I could watch more closely. By the time I put the glasses to my face, however, the deer had vanished. A second or two later, I saw a deer carrying a good rack sprint through a clearing about 100 yards behind the spot where I’d last seen my buck. That sight planted a tiny seed of doubt in my head.
Still, judging by the buck’s reaction to my shot, I felt pretty confident as I walked across the WRP. That little doubt began to bloom when I found absolutely no sign of a hit in the field. I walked the path I figured the buck had taken, following it out of the WRP and across the deep ditch. But I found nothing — not a drop of blood nor a bit of hair. A sickening feeling grew in my belly.
“That was probably my buck I saw running across the field,” I said to myself. “But how could I have missed that shot? It was a gimme.”
I walked back and forth through the treeline that guarded the lip of the ditch where I’d last seen the buck. Nothing. Just as I was beginning to accept the idea that I had, in fact, missed a 60-yard, broadside shot from a seated position with a solid rest, I barreled through some head-high brush and caught a glimpse of an odd-looking form on the ground ahead of me. I took a few more steps and made out the shape of a leg. I hadn’t missed after all!
When I walked up to the buck, the first thing I noticed was the deer’s mammoth body. Harlan later weighed it, and it tipped the scales at 240 pounds before being dressed.
The next thing I did was start counting points. There were 10 primary points on the main beams and two stickers protruding from the bases, making it a 12-pointer in my book. Two more points were broken off the main beams, so it had been a 14-pointer.
Davidson was the first person to show up on the scene to help haul my buck out of the field. He’s been guiding hunters in both Illinois and Indiana for the past 10 years. And although Illinois gets the lion’s share of attention from the hunting community, Davidson believes Indiana is just as productive.
“Indiana has the same deer,” he said, “same food, same minerals, same genetics.”
But still, no respect. I guess you could say Indiana is the Rodney Dangerfield of the deer-hunting world.
For information on hunting in Indiana with Midwest Bucks, contact Davidson at (217) 826-2605 or visit his website at www.midwestbucks.com Read Recent Articles:
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This article was published in the August 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.