Illinois Deer Outlook Part 2: Finding Trophy Bucks

Our state has been known to produce its fair share of big bucks each year. Read on for a statewide look at where some of these trophy deer came from in recent seasons. (November 2009)

Prairie State whitetails are known throughout the country for their trophy qualities, such as excellent antler spread and mass. Such measurements result in high scores for bucks that are measured by official scorers for possible inclusion in the record books. Finding those trophy bucks takes study, effort and plenty of luck.

The record books are full of fine deer taken from Illinois. A browsing of the Boone and Crocket (B&C) record book finds that in the non-typical class, the top three entries are from Illinois. In the Pope and Young (P&Y) records, the No. 1 typical deer is Mel Johnson's 1965 buck, which was shot in a bean field near Peoria.

The record book from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is called the Big Buck Recognition Program. In 2007, there were 224 entries. The top three zones and the number of entries were: Zone 5 (52), Zone 4 (42) and Zone 6 (36).

To qualify for entry in the Illinois Big Bucks Recognition Program (BBRP), a rack must dry for 60 days before scoring under B&C's scoring system by a certified measurer. Deer taken by firearms must have a minimum score of 140 for a typical rack and 160 for a non-typical rack. For archery and crossbow harvested animals, the minimum score is 115 for typicals and 130 for non-typicals.

Figures for entries from the 2008 season were still incomplete at press time. Some antidotal and newspaper reports from the 2008 season indicate that big deer were taken. Some of that information is included in this report.

BBRP entries must score certain minimums of mass as measured under the B&C system. For information on scoring and a list of official scorers, go to www.dnr.state.il.us/events; or call (217) 785-5091.

There is no sure way to know just how many trophy bucks taken each year actually are reported to record-keeping organizations. But such reports are a tool to identify sections of the state that produce numbers of large deer. If numbers of trophy animals have been produced in the region, then the genetics are there for similar animals be there in the future.

John Shelton, manager of the Illinois Wildlife Program, points out that conditions remain favorable for exceptional hunting. He is quick to say that deer numbers are not the only factor. Inclement weather and unharvested crops can influence hunting conditions. The wet spring of 2009 caused farmers to plant crops late and may mean more unharvested corn and soybeans than would usually be the case. Archery hunters may be the most affected with their early season.

Hunters who are willing to do their homework and spend time in the field may have a greater chance at a true trophy buck. Here are some tips that may help you this year.

Begin by a study of records to identify that portion of the state you desire to hunt. Then do a study of the area to see where feed and cover habitat is located. Follow up with familiarization trips to the area. Seek permission to hunt given areas. Ads placed in local papers seeking hunting permission or leases often result in contact with landowners.

Once a piece of land has been secured for the season, it is time to really bear down and get to know the land and the animals on it. Scout the area for signs of deer activity. Map out a game plan where you end up placing stands strategically to cover, bedding and feeding areas and travel areas used by deer. Take advantage of agricultural crops early in the season and mast crops and browse later.

One of the most recent aids in getting to know a hunting area is the trail camera. There are a number of them on the market. Some of these cameras take still photos, while others actually provide a video of wildlife activity. They record the time and date an animal passes. They do not spook the deer with the flash.

Murphysboro resident Shawn Hirst used one last fall to take his biggest buck ever with bow and arrow. With a trail camera photo he knew the buck was in the area. Despite numerous opportunities at lesser bucks, he held out. At the last possible opportunity on his last day in the field, the deer appeared. Hirst's buck has not been scored yet, but it has long beams and 10 great points.

Biologists tell us that there are three factors that go into growing a big deer: genetics, food and age. Most of Illinois has all three of these factors in play to varying degrees.

In 2007, the most recent year statistics are available, the total deer harvest for all seasons was about 50 percent bucks and 50 percent does. Of the bucks, 40 percent were yearlings, and 60 percent were older bucks. Trophy bucks come from this latter group.

Recent literature theorizes that big racks come from deer getting to live longer and from eating high-protein foods. Many landowners and lessees are planting plots of high-protein foods. And they limit the number of hunters and harvests on the land. These steps help deer develop racks with more mass, which translates to higher scores in the record books.

With a concentrated effort in recent years by the Illinois DNR to increase the doe harvest, it appears that perhaps the harvest of trophy deer will increase because of the increased age factor.

Deer are a public resource residing on private land, and hunting is the most effective population control tool. The statewide management goal is to reduce damage from an overpopulation of deer. Too many deer leads to deer-auto collisions, damage to agricultural crops, orchard damage, landscaping and native plant life.

Trophy hunting is not as effective as doe hunting in controlling deer herd numbers. As a result, the DNR places less emphasis on identifying trophy animals than they do on numbers of deer killed in a season.

Licensed hunting outfitter numbers have increased in recent years. Landowners, who formerly allowed unrestricted access to their property, now often lease it to outfitters or others in an effort to increase trophy-hunting opportunities.

Recently confirmed director of the DNR, Mark Miller, has indicated that he is well aware of the need to work for more hunter access if deer management is to succeed. He has proposed that the increase in hunter license fees be dedicated to that goal. The final decision is, however, in the hands of a deeply divided legislature.

Being an agricultural state, Illinois has 95 percent of its land in private ownership. Most is used for either urban development or farming. The latter

lands provide excellent food sources to grow big deer.

Most of the popular deer-hunting counties can be found along major rivers in the wooded bottomlands that are adjacent to grain farms. A quick view of a map with the top harvest counties shows that those counties seem to be shifting southward. In 2006, the best counties seemed to be in the upper middle of the state. The 2007 harvest finds that the best areas are in the lower middle of the state. The following is a quick analysis of the record-book entries by zone from the 2007 hunting season.

ZONE 1
Located along the western border of Illinois in the upper northwest section, Zone 1 is best described as rolling hills, wooded valleys, and high bluffs along the Mississippi River.

In 2007, it produced 24 trophy entries. The top counties were Henry (6) Mercer (5) and Knox (4). Other entries came from Warren (3), Whiteside (2), Carroll (1), Rock Island (1) and Henderson (1).

ZONE 2
Just to the east of Zone 1 and some three hours from Chicago is Zone 2. This one extends from the Wisconsin border down the center of the state to near the Peoria area. The habitat here includes the southern edge of the natural range of white pine trees, a good cover for deer.

Thirty-two trophy bucks from this region were entered in the record book during 2007. Peoria County leads the list with eight entries. Tazewell and Bureau counties both had four entries. Marshall had three. Woodford, Putnam, Boone and Stephenson counties all had two each. Ogle, Lee and Stark counties each provided a single entry.

ZONE 3
As might be expected, entries from this zone were the lowest of all zones in the state with a total of nine. Zone 3 includes the city of Chicago and the collar counties around it. Most of these have limited, if any, hunting. This is not to say that there are not big deer residing in the forest preserves and parks of the zone. As the deer population in this area continues to expand, there is increasing pressure for an urban hunting season. Perhaps at some future time some real trophy bucks may come out of this zone.

The top county was Will with four trophy deer, along with McHenry, Kendall, Kankakee, Livingston and Ford producing one trophy buck each.

ZONE 4
With 42 entries, this west-central area is the second most successful trophy area in the latest survey. The area's top three counties can be found along the Illinois River watershed.

Mason County leads the field with eight entries followed by Schuyler with seven. Fulton County came in third place with five. Macoupin follows these counties with four entries, and then McDonough, Morgan and Calhoun with three, Pike with two, and Cass, Hancock, Scott, Greene, Jersey and Madison with one each.

This area of the state, with numerous river bottoms, wooded hills and agricultural fields, is known for producing big deer. However, much of this land is in private hands either to lessees or landowner outfitters. Hunting by non-Illinois residents is high in the area and it may be that many bucks taken are not entered in Illinois records. There is no way to be sure this is the case.

ZONE 5
Trophy hunters in this area were the most successful in taking record-book deer during 2007. A total of 52 entries were recorded.

A deer found in Menard County is of particular interest. Quail hunters on property owned by John Grosboll of Petersburg found a dead 24-point buck. Because coyotes had devoured much of the deer, the exact cause of death is unknown. Grosboll had the rack measured and it scored 246!

Another deer on property near Ramsey State Park in Fayette County had evaded hunters for some time. But 15-year-old Jeremy Cauble downed the 21-point buck on Nov. 21, 2008, with his muzzleloader. The buck scored 238!

This zone incorporates the central Illinois counties with its corn and soybean fields, coupled with wooded hilltops and gently sloping ridges. Agriculture is the prominent means of land use.

McLean County topped the harvest data with nine record-book bucks. Second place was taken by Bond County with eight. Third place goes to the seven entries from Logan County. Dewitt and Moultrie counties recorded four trophy entries each, with Macon, Shelby and Fayette having three each. Christian County had one entry.

ZONE 6
This east-central area has flat, expansive farm fields edged by wooded shelterbelts. Much of the area is similar to that of Zone 5. Zone 6 was the third most successful area for trophy deer hunters with 36 entries recorded in 2007.

Vermillion County had nine entries, followed closely by Champaign County with eight. Third place was Edgar County with five entries. Coles and Jasper counties recorded three each, and Richland had two. Douglas, Cumberland, Crawford and Clay had one each.

ZONE 7
This area is on the southwest part of Illinois in the western half of the Shawnee National Forest. Owned by the U.S. Forest Service, much of the land is open for public use and hunting. The 270,000 acres of forest, woods and bluffs are home to a sizeable number of whitetails. The forest contains five different ecosystems and provides a variety of habitats.

Here in the west, woods and sandstone are the most prominent features. Some areas contain narrow ridgetops, steep slopes and narrow creek bottoms. In the western part of this zone, there are fertile bottomland farms that provide plenty of grain upon which deer feed.

The 2007 season produced some 18 record-book bucks taken in Zone 7. Perry, Randolph and St. Clair counties each had four entries each. Other counties with entries include Washington with three entries and Alexander, Pulaski and Monroe with one trophy entry apiece.

ZONE 8
This area includes much of the densely forested portions of the Shawnee National Forest. Although the U.S. Forest Service and various other governmental agencies own much of the land, there are still small farms scattered through the counties. Hunters need to take care not to trespass on private property.

Much of the area consists of deep canyons and high bluffs. There is a good deal of flat land, too. Not heavily populated, Zone 8 is not overcrowded with hunters, except on opening weekend of the firearms deer season.

In 2007, there were 11 trophy-class bucks taken in Zone 8. Hamilton and Gallatin counties reported two entries each. The counties of Marion, Wayne, Edwards, Wabash, White, Pope and Hardin all reported one each.

Although record books and reports of hunter success do not provide exact information about the whereabouts of that big buck, they do give an indication of possibly places to consider. Virtually every county in the state has the potential of producing great deer. Just where to hunt this fall is up to the hunter.

The emphasis on doe harvesting

has allowed more bucks to reach into their 4th or 5th years where they develop larger bodies and antlers. The term "trophy" means different things to different hunters. But a big rack on a big deer is a trophy in anyone's book. Good luck and skill finding yours this season!

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