Deer Hunting in Southern Illinois
You have to love the deer rut. At what other time of year would a 140-inch whitetail buck pay absolutely no attention to a gun blast 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 deer rut.
Fortunately, that single-mindedness afforded a deer hunter the opportunity to reload his in-line muzzleloader for a second shot on opening day of the Illinois firearms season Nov. 17, 2006. Shaken by his errant first shot, and the sight of the huge 9-point buck that was still standing out in the soybean field in front of him, he struggled to regain his composure and shoot again. He knew poor shooting form was responsible for his miss and he 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 Westcentral Region (Region 4) of the state. This is where the bulk of the commercial hunting is done in the Land of Lincoln, and so, this is the area that receives the greatest publicity.
Ever hear counties such as Saline, Hardin, Gallatin, Pope or White kicked around when hunters talk about Illinois? Probably not.
But guess what? These and other southern Illinois counties have some bragging-size whitetails of their own. A total of 55 whitetails – 32 typicals and 23 nontypicals – 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 the state of Pennsylvania.
Sure, a lot of the deer hunting in the South Region is done on private property, but public hunting opportunities are not scarce. There’s a load of public land here 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.
Illinois Whitetail Services LLC hunts several counties that sit along the Ohio River, on the Illinois border with Indiana and Kentucky. The terrain here is a mix of farmland and woods. Unlike the northern half of Illinois, which is very 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 in southern Illinois 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.
Big woods. Lots of farms. Few people. This is a winning combination for growing giant whitetails anywhere. 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 Illinois Whitetail Services co-founder and a deer hunter drove north from camp into Saline County on opening day. This deer hunter would be perched in a hanging tree 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. And with the deer rut in full swing, the bucks were sure to be on the move, trolling for hot does.
“We’ve seen some real whoppers in that woods,” the hunting outfitter said as he dropped the deer hunter off where the soybean field met a hard road. “Good luck.”
The deer hunter stood there in the cool, mid-November morning darkness and strapped his jacket to his backpack for the walk to his tree stand. He 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, the hunting outfitter had told him, 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,” The hunting outfitter said. “That’s where they like to bed.”
The deer hunter reached his tree stand about a half-hour before daylight, climbed in and got himself situated. By dawn, he was settled and eagerly trying to see through the pale morning light.