"Off the beaten path" isn't a cliché for those with grit, determination and a 14-foot johnboat.
By Mike Handley
Photos Courtesy of Billy Gearen
The transition from railroad engineer to skipper was easy for Billy Gearen.
Although the 36-year-old might've preferred rails and crossties to the Kaskaskia River's swift current, there was little choice in the matter of reaching his deer stand. So with the throttle of a 9-horsepower outboard in one hand a spotlight in the other, he struck out in the dark each morning for the cautious five-mile ride.
If there was a next time, he vowed, he'd have a vessel bigger than the 14-foot, flat-bottomed aluminum boat.
Eager to try greener pastures in 2008, Billy and some friends had chosen this long strip of public ground after surfing the web. There are numerous other state- and federal-owned tracts in Illinois that would've been far easier to access - like the Shawnee National Forest another pal hunts - but they wanted to avoid crowds.
"If it meant being able to hunt in an out-of-the-way spot, we didn't mind putting in the work," Billy said.
When they stumbled upon the 14,000 acres of riverbank, reminiscent of the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge they hunt back home in Louisiana, the guys stopped looking and contacted the area manager. He told them the property was accessible only by water, so they'd need to have a boat.
That meant anyone who wanted to hunt the place would have to do more than park and walk, which sounded great to Billy's gang.
Billy pulled a camper behind his truck, while another guy pulled two flat-bottomed aluminum boats during the 14-hour drive. They arrived in Illinois on Thursday, Oct. 30, with plans of hunting at least one, if not two weeks.
"We usually hunt hard and run out of steam after about 10 days," Billy said. "We just hunt 'til we're tired of hunting."
The guys saw several young bucks as the unseasonably warm week unfolded, but their goal was to arrow something larger than they would shoot back home. Billy's buddies were hunting about a mile upriver of their camp, but Billy's boat ride was more like five miles.
By Sunday, they were debating over whether to pull out and hunt someplace else, but they decided to remain.
On Tuesday, Billy found a good-looking spot between a couple of duck lakes.
It resembled the Tensas (NWR), only without the palmetto," he said.
The deer were traveling the dry ground between them. And there were several little mast-bearing trees.
"The nut resembled a thin-shelled walnut, but more the size of a pecan," he said. "I don't know what it was, but the squirrels and deer were really getting after it."
Climbable trees were hard to find, but he managed to scale a crooked one. He saw three bucks skirting the ridge on the backside of one of the lakes that day, and he saw some does, which picked up the scent of his buck lure and refused to come closer.
Billy returned to the same spot the next morning, though his partner for the boat ride wanted a change of scenery and chose to go with the others. There was just too much sign where Billy was hunting to abandon it. Besides, he was hoping to get a crack at a 135-incher he'd seen earlier.
Remembering the does' reaction to the buck lure, he moved his scent about 60 or 70 yards farther before climbing the tree.
At daybreak, a 6-pointer passed within 10 yards.
At 8:10, Billy had just sat down from stretching when he heard another deer approaching quickly. He thought it was the 6-pointer coming back, but then he saw the antlers.
"I knew immediately I was going to shoot it, or try," he said.
By the time he stood and clipped his release to the bowstring (some vines helped mask the movement), the buck was underneath him. Whether it heard, saw or smelled something, the deer sensed it was in trouble and came to an abrupt halt 15 yards out.
"I'm glad I was already drawn when it stopped," Billy said.
The buck grunted as the arrow smacked it, and then it dashed about 60 yards before slowing to a walk. That's when Billy realized just how big it was.
"I honestly thought I was having a heart attack," he said. "I was trembling from the bottom of my feet to the top of my spine. My stomach was cutting flips.
"I felt great about the shot, but I wanted to give the deer some time. I lasted only 35 minutes," he added. "It was eating me up!"
About the time Billy planned to get down, an 8-pointer strolled in front of him. Having the buck to watch helped Billy wait another 45 minutes, during which he was able to clumsily text-message his buddies.
Once on the ground, he had no trouble finding the broken arrow, and the trail was easy to follow -though he decided against it. Instead, he hiked the three-quarters of a mile back to his boat and motored back to camp to collect his friends.
When they all returned, it took them half an hour to pick up the trail.
"It's funny," Billy said. "One of our guys is color-blind. He finds his own deer by picking out and following their tracks. He was the one who discovered the path my buck took."
The trail ended at a water-filled gully. Fully expecting to see the buck when he peered over the bank, Billy's heart sank when it wasn't there. He looked back up, however, and saw the antlers on the opposite side.
"I've never felt anything like that in my life," he said. "I was squalling like a baby. My buddy, Steve, has taken some really nice deer. His heaviest weighed 265 pounds. But mine blew him away. Its body looked more like a steer's."
Even with the aid of a deer cart, it took the men an hour and a half to transport the enormous buck back to the boat.
"TV shows make (Illinois) look like a zoo," he said. "It wasn't like that where we hunted, at least not the entire time."
Billy returned to the same stand the following afternoon, and that's when
"the switch was flipped." He saw lots of deer. His buddy, who was hunting nearby, arrowed the 135-incher that Billy passed up earlier in the hunt.
"We're going back this year," he said. "Only we're taking a bigger boat."
Hunter: Billy Gearen
Official Score: 174 2/8"
Composite Score: 191 3/8"
-- Reprinted from the October 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.