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Illinois’s Big Secret: Don’t overlook the south

By P.J. Reilly

Whitetail Deer
The writer poses with his Saline County Ill., trophy 9-pointer taken on opening day of the 2006 firearms season.

You have to love the rut.

At what other time of year would a 140-inch white-tailed buck pay absolutely no attention to a gun blast just 70 yards away? If he’s focused on a hot doe, there’s very little that will distract a buck during the peak of the rut.

Fortunately, that single-mindedness afforded me the opportunity to reload my inline muzzleloader for a second shot on opening day of the Illinois firearms season, Nov. 17, 2006. Shaken by my errant first shot and the sight of the huge 9-point buck that was still standing out in the soybean field in front of me, I struggled to regain my composure and shoot again. I knew poor shooting form was responsible for my miss, and I was determined not to repeat my mistake.

For decades, serious whitetail hunters have been traveling to Illinois in pursuit of the state’s legendary big bucks. Primarily, however, those hunters head to counties such as Pike, Adams, Calhoun and Brown in the West-Central Region (Region 4) of the state. This is where the bulk of the commercial hunting is done in the Land of Lincoln, and it’s the area that gets most of the publicity.

Have you ever heard of Saline, Hardin, Gallatin, Pope or White counties when hunters talk about Illinois? Probably not.

Whitetail Deer
Mitch Banks poses with the public-land trophy he shot in Gallatin County in the Shawnee National Forest.

But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: These and other southern Illinois counties have some bragging-size whitetails. A total of 55 bucks - 32 typicals and 23 non-typicals - harvested in Illinois’ 27-county South Region (Region 5) were entered into the Boone & Crockett Club’s record books from 2000 through 2006. That’s more than twice the number entered during the same period from all 67 counties in my home state of Pennsylvania.

Sure, a lot of the deer hunting in the South Region is done on private property. But there’s a load of public land available to deer hunters, not the least of which is the 268,400-acre Shawnee National Forest, which spans the extreme southern tip of Illinois.

My host in 2006 was Illinois Whitetail Services, which offers guided hunts in several counties along the Ohio River on the borders with Indiana and Kentucky. The terrain is a mix of farmland and woods. Unlike the northern half of the state, which is flat with large farms interspersed by woodlots, the countryside in the south rolls and has huge blocks of timber.

One thing you won’t find is a lot of people. Pope County, for example, has a population of 4,413, according to the 2000 U.S. census, and the county covers 371 square miles.

Whitetail Deer
Dream Woods Adventures had a strong 2006 firearms season. The writer and his opening morning buck are on the left.

Big woods. Lots of farms. Few people. This is a winning combination for growing giant whitetails. Throw into the mix Illinois’ legendary big-buck genetics and a statewide ban on using centerfire rifles for deer hunting, and the cake only gets sweeter.

Dawn was a good two hours away as Joe Doty and I drove north from camp into Saline County on opening day. Doty told me I’d be perched in a hanging stand situated on the edge of a large woodlot next to a standing soybean field.

The woodlot was a long, relatively narrow strip that ran for more than a mile between several fields. It’s the primary travel corridor for all the deer in the area, Doty said. And with the rut in full swing, the bucks were sure to be on the move, trolling for hot does.

“We’ve seen some real whoppers in those woods,” Doty said as he dropped me off where the soybean field met a hard road. “Good luck.”

I stood there in the cool, mid-November morning darkness and strapped my jacket to my backpack for the walk to my stand. I followed a long trail, separating two fields of soybeans that extended for about a quarter-mile from the road back to the woodlot.

The field of standing beans had been flooded by weeks of torrential rains, and the farmer missed his window to get his crop out. That made it a preferred bedding area for the local deer.

“Keep your eye out for deer leaving the woods and heading way out to the middle of the field,” Doty said. “That’s where they like to bed.”

I reached my stand about a half-hour before daylight, climbed in and got situated. By dawn, I was settled and eagerly trying to see through the pale morning light.

Around 7 a.m., I let out a few doe bleats on my can-style call and then began scanning the area for deer. Because the ground was so wet, I never heard the two small bucks emerge from a thicket and enter the field about 30 yards behind me.

The 4-pointer and spike walked single file directly toward me on the well-worn deer path that skirted the woods’ edge, pausing for several minutes beneath my stand to sniff the doe-in-heat scent I’d squirted on the ground. They meandered out of sight around 7:45, and all was quiet for about 15 minutes.

I was looking in front of me, toward the area where the bucks had disappeared around 8 a.m., when an awful racket erupted behind me. It sounded like someone banging a bunch of plastic sticks together. For a split second, the noise had me stumped - and then it hit me. It was a bunch of deer running through dried soybeans.

I turned around in my stand and spotted two does and a small buck standing in the field about 130 yards behind me. They all were looking behind them toward a finger of woods that jutted out into the field from the main body of woods.

Since this was the peak of the Illinois rut, I figured they were watching another buck. Sure enough, a third doe came barreling out of the finger with a big buck right on her heels. From more than 150 yards, I could easily see the buck’s heavy rack that sported several long tines.

The big buck was working hard to corner his doe out in the field, but he was too far away for me to shoot. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my doe call again and started working it over and over.

The other does and the small buck all had their eyes glued on my position, and I could see the doe the big buck was trying to corral really wanted to get to those other deer. But the buck cut her off every time she tried to run toward them.

Slowly, the main herd started working my way, cutting the distance between us to 80 yards, 70 yards, 60 yards. As those deer came toward me, my heart really started to pound.

When the herd was about 50 yards directly out in the field to my left, the hot doe started to run away and led the buck around a corner in the woods and out of sight. My heart sank. But I barely had time to sulk before she came barreling back around the corner and headed right for the herd - with the big buck on her tail.

When the buck stopped broadside at 70 yards, I squeezed the trigger. At the same instant, I picked up my head in anticipation of seeing over the cloud of smoke I knew was coming. Not surprisingly, picking up my head caused me to miss - probably low into the ground.

Subscribe Today!When the smoke cleared, the buck was still standing. But he didn’t cast so much as a single glance in my direction. His full attention was focused on that doe. I couldn’t believe it.

With trembling hands, I reloaded, praying the deer would stay put until I was ready. The whole herd only moved about 10 yards farther away from me by the time I brought the rifle up a second time. From the looks of things, the does and small buck wanted to run into the woods right after I shot, but the big buck wouldn’t let them. And now, they were more worried about him than me.

With my muzzleloader once again at the ready, I told myself to keep my head down and not worry about the smoke. At the shot, a white cloud obscured my vision for a few seconds, but I kept my face glued to the rifle stock. When the air cleared, I saw the buck barreling away from me and then crash to the ground out in the field.

I had to sit down for a minute until my knees stopped shaking before I climbed down to walk out into the bean field to inspect my trophy. The buck was facing away from me on the ground, and the closer I got to him, the heavier his rack got and the longer his tines looked. It was a fine buck.

Meanwhile, not too far away in Gallatin County, Bob Banks and his son, Mitch - the owners of hunting blind maker Banks Outdoors - were hunting a section of the Shawnee National Forest. Mitch hunted two days before taking a wide, main-frame 9-pointer with three extra sticker points.

Bob hunted all three days without firing a shot, although he had several opportunities at small bucks. Both saw several good bucks.

I hiked in to help Mitch haul out his buck on the second day of the hunt, which was a Saturday, and I didn’t see another hunter on our half-mile, one-way trek. He and his dad had this whole section of public land to themselves.

Low hunting pressure and big bucks make for a great combination. While it might not be the “in” thing to do in the hunting world, I’m planning to make southern Illinois an annual destination.

For information on Illinois Whitetail Services, check out http://illinoiswhitetailservicesllc.com. For information on hunting public land in Illinois, visit the Illinois Department of Natural Resources site at www.dnr.state.il.us or call them at (217) 782-6302. For more information on the Shawnee National Forrest, visit http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/shawnee

-- Reprinted from the August 2007 issue of Buckmasters Magazine

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