Illinois 2011 Deer Forecast - Finding Trophy Bucks

Illinois 2011 Deer Forecast - Finding Trophy Bucks
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It is a generally accepted fact that in order to have big bucks, an area must contain deer with the right genetics and age. That, coupled with the right food sources, is what develops big deer. Most of the Prairie State contains these three elements that have the potential to make for some happy deer hunters. IDNR figures show that during the 2009-10 season, 65 percent of the counties in Illinois produced at least one record-book buck.

According to IDNR Deer Project Manager Tom Micetich, "Trophy deer hunting is not the department's primary goal, but rather a by-product of sound deer management practices and the state's high soil productivity." The latter produces abundant, highly nutritious deer food.

Hunters in search of big deer need to be aware of the deer's proclivity to be associated with river corridors. Illinois has two major river drainages, the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Most of the other rivers flow into one of these. A limited number of streams on the eastern side of the state flow into the Wabash and Ohio rivers. The silt deposited in the bottomlands associated with rivers is rich in nutrients, particularly phosphorus. Deer use the latter along with protein sources in the production of antler material. Bucks over 2 years of age in particular use minerals for producing big antlers.

Bucks are quite vulnerable during the rut. The short firearms seasons in Illinois do not cover the entire rut. With our short seasons, the bucks have a better survivable rate than would otherwise be the case. The lack of viable predators also contributes to the longevity of bucks. The only predator other than man is the coyote. Although they prey upon deer, so far they are not a major problem for the herd.

The Illinois food supply is a major factor affecting antler development. During late winter, as they are recovering from rutting activity, deer eat grass to supplement the browse. The rest of the year grass is too high in fiber to digest very well. It is then that they switch to wheat and oats as well as soft mast such as fruit and mushrooms. All of these foods are high in phosphorus. Mast in particular is high in protein. Agricultural practices often include the addition of phosphorus to the soil and subsequently into the food chain.

Crunching numbers is no substitute for scouting. These numbers are an indication of where big deer have been found but, for a variety of reasons, they are not absolutes. One of the main reasons is that there is a time lag between when deer are harvested and when they get put into the records. Procrastination and the compulsory drying period are two of the main reasons.

In Illinois we have the Big Buck Recognition Program of the IDNR. The most recent records do no reflect big deer taken in the most recent season. The 2009-10 season entries appear to be the most complete. Deer shot during the 2010-11 season do not usually appear for another year. The reasons range from not getting the animal scored to not having the animal at hand due to it still being with the taxidermist when the records are compiled in late February or early March. Other deer are not scored or entered because the owner does not wish to do so. Some deer are taken by non-residents and they are taken out of the state without scoring. Still others do not get scored and entered for years after they are harvested.

One example taken from last fall's news reports is the case of the buck called Double Trouble killed in northern Peoria County during the second shotgun season of 2010-11. This deer scored 211 points green. The thirteen point buck was non-typical with one 12-inch drop tine and another 8-inch drop tine. Yet, as of the release of the Big Buck Recognition Program records this spring, it does not appear in the records.

The same is true of entries in the Pope & Young or Boone & Crockett records. One interesting fact that does come from those record books is that in 2009-10 Illinois had a density of trophy deer entered in Pope & Young of 3.47 per thousand square miles. For the Boone & Crockett records, the density per thousand square miles is 0.85.

The Illinois Big Buck Recognition Program ( honors deer hunters who take deer by firearm and/or archery with standards set by the Boone& Crockett Club. The deer taken by firearms must have a minimum score of 140 typical and 160 non-typical after a 60-day drying period. For archery and crossbow hunters, the minimum score is 115 for typical and 130 for non-typical antlers. A list of official scorers is maintained by the Big Buck Recognition Program at the above-listed Web site.

With the figures from the 2009-10 season it is interesting to see that entries were up that year over the previous one. Some areas of the state produced more record-class deer than others, but most were proportionately similar when compared year to year. The top-producing area is in Zone 4 with 42 entries, nearly twice as many entries as each of the next three zones.

According to the regional wildlife biologist for the area, the reason is habitat and the lack of human population. Deck Major describes the land near the Illinois and Mississippi river confluence as being perfect as you can get for deer. The land is extremely fertile and human density is low. Good, black soil is great for plant growth, contrary to other areas of the state where the soil contains more clay. Agricultural development is good for providing a supplemental food to the natural food preferred by deer.

The one drawback to hunting in this area is the lack of hunting land available to the average hunter. If you do not own land or have relatives who own land, then you need a big checkbook.

Beginning in the 1990s, word got out about the great deer hunting in Pike County and those counties adjoining it. Outfitters, guides and others began to lease the hunting rights and prices began to climb. Today much of the land is tied up by outfitters who lease it out to residents and non-residents on a weekly basis.

Landowners find that planting of food plots to attract and hold deer helps to develop deer trophy potential and subsequent leasing profits. Many practice quality deer management. Still there is some public hunting land available.

The following information is a breakdown, zone by zone, of what we have gleaned from the Big Buck Recognition Program records.


This glacial area of deep ravines and high bluffs in the northwest part of the state produced nine record-book entries. This was next-to-last of the eight zones. Last year there were six record-book entries from this zone .

The three top counties within the zone each had two entries. They were Jo Daviess, Carroll and Henderson counties. Rock Island, Mercer and Knox counties each had one entry.


Moving to the east, the land becomes more agricultural in nature, with some river bottomland in the south. Many of the counties contain streams that flow into the Illinois River or the river itself. Vegetation and cover are good as is annual rainfall. Hardwood forests on the ridges provide shelter from summer heat and winter snowfall.

The fourteen counties in the zone gave up 18 record-book deer to place it in fourth place. Last year there were 11.

Bureau County had the most entries, with five. The counties of Winnebago, Ogle, LaSalle and Marshall each had two entries.


The lowest number of record book entries comes from the largely urban and suburban Chicago area in the northeast section of the state. The entries come from the semi-rural counties of Will, Kankakee, Livingston and Iroquois. Iroquois had two entries and the others one each. Public hunting is very limited in the zone. There are some larger tracts of land available for public hunting.

The big buck harvest from these counties decreased from 11 to five this year.

The Kankakee and Des Plaines rivers meet to form the Illinois River, which flows to the west to meet the Mississippi River. The southern counties mentioned above have varying degrees of involvement with these rivers and most of the hunting is along their shores, between the water and agricultural fields.


As mentioned previously, this zone produced some big deer in the 2009-10 season. There were forty-two deer, to be exact. This is twice the next closest. The 42 entries were also a spectacular increase from the 16 the previous year.

Although this big-buck factory is largely private land and often leased early for the entire season, there are still some public land hunting opportunities. The prime habitat of the private land also produces big bucks for the public land. Attention to site-specific regulations and some advance scouting can produce big deer from the public areas.

The most famous deer-producing county in this zone is Pike. Any county that borders it can also be considered good big deer territory. This area along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers is nationally known for its large-racked deer. The three top counties are Madison (nine entries), Macoupin (six entries) and Jersey (six entries).


Zone 5 in the center of the state yielded 18 big bucks last year. The top three counties each had three entries. The counties were Menard, Montgomery and Fayette. The last two are new to the top county list, as only Menard made it into the top four last year. The area contains large hardwood forests and much land used for agricultural purposes.


This east central part of Illinois produced four entries in Edgar County and three in Crawford County. Champaign, Coles, Effingham, Jasper and Richland counties had one entry each for a total of 12 in the zone. The land is relatively flat and most is used for agriculture.


Moving back over to the rich bottomlands and high ridges of southwestern Illinois we come upon the second-best place for a record buck in 2009-10. The zone produced 20 record-class deer for the Big Buck Recognition Program.

Union County was tops with five bucks. St. Clair and Randolph counties each had three entries. It must be noted that this zone has substantial public hunting land available, including the state's largest state park at Pinckneyville.


While on the subject of public land, one cannot ignore the vast reaches of Shawnee National Forest, which is found mostly in zones 7 and 8. Here in the southeastern part of the forest are found large stands of hardwoods as well as deep ravines with rich soil and heavy vegetation. The ridges with their hardwoods provide hard mast in the fall. The ravines and farmland produce the soft mast that deer need the rest of the year. And the large amount of public land available makes them very popular with hunters.

Jefferson County produced five big deer entries while Franklin came in with three. Gallatin on the Ohio River and Franklin County further north each produced two big bucks. A total of 19 deer harvested in this area made the records.

Contained in all of these zones are some public hunting areas. Often they are overlooked by hunters who think they will be over-hunted. A complete list of all public hunting areas is found in the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations, 2011-2012. It is available from license venders and any office of the IDNR. It is also available on line at the IDNR Web site;

Each of the public hunting areas may also have site-specific regulations, such as antler restriction. They will have a Hunter Fact Sheet available at the site or online at By clicking on the map you can limit your search to one of five regions in the state. Each region will then have a list of the public hunting areas. Click on the name of the property in which you are interested. The Hunter Fact Sheet can be obtained by clicking on that section of the site description.

These days more hunters appear to be passing on young bucks, planting food plots and enjoying the deer for more than just the size of the animals' antlers. The increasing interest in habitat management among land owners is no longer limited to just a few areas. Your chances of catching a big buck are on the increase in the Prairie State.

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