Illinois is famous for massive whitetail bucks, and hunters in every county have an opportunity to tag a true monster if they take a few important details into consideration.
The first is to find great habitat. Deer need quality year-round food sources. Look for areas that have a strong mix of woods, broken terrain and agriculture that provide a wide variety of foods and sanctuary from hunters.
The second step of growing a trophy buck is giving it time to grow. All deer in Illinois have the same genetic potential as the legendary bucks of the Golden Triangle. But, studies have proven most hunters drastically underestimate the age of a deer and kill them before they reach their true potential.
While location and age are keys to growing a trophy, a hunter also has to have the passion and patience to stay in the woods, no matter the weather, and to take every precaution to keep their contamination minimized. If a big buck feels the slightest pressure or disturbance, they leave for safer regions.
So, how do we find a trophy buck? That's the $64,000 question, and we went to three hunters that bagged a trophy buck last year to learn their secrets. You'll see recurring themes that are keys to success when these hunters recount the pursuit of some noteworthy bucks.
Antler Score: 191 6/8 (net) non-typical 21-point
Weather: Sunny — high 20s
Area: 250-acre picked corn field and hardwood forest
Nate Vogelsang is no stranger to the local taxidermists. While he has taken several trophy bucks, in 2016 he shot a buck that would leave him astonished.
Nate hunts an L-shaped wooded area bordering an open field that deer and turkeys gravitate to. Trail camera images had shown at least one 170-class buck entering and leaving the field. Nate decided to go with a ground blind that would provide a commanding view of the entire area while keeping all of it in range of his shotgun.
Unseasonable weather put a kink into Nate's plan. The farmer that owned the field told Nate that if he had a chance, he was going to get a head start on spring and turn the soil. So, as to not hamper the farmer, Nate moved his ground blind over to the edge. But it wasn't giving Nate the shooting range he felt comfortable with.
Resorting to his woodsmanship skills and experience, Nate decided to sit in the open among the corn stubble using an old hunting trick. Knowing deer felt comfortable with wild turkeys, Nate carried his low-slung turkey hunting chair into the stubble and propped up a turkey fan as an improvised blind. The idea worked. Nate sat opening day (Friday) in plain sight as over a dozen deer fed around him without a care, some within 50 yards.
Nate was confident his idea would continue to work, but unfavorable winds kept Nate from the field until Sunday afternoon. As he started out into the field, Nate used the rolling contour to hide his movements. But a doe spotted him. Fortunately, she trotted off without blowing or stomping an alarm. Even so, as Nate neared where he wanted to sit he spotted a dozen more deer tails bobbing away into the woods. As frustrating as that was, Nate felt sure that the deer were responding to the doe trotting away, and not because they had spotted him.
Nate carefully set up his makeshift blind and hunkered down for the hunt. He slowly scanned the edge for movement. It wasn't long before he spotted a massive buck that started his heart racing.
The buck was walking out of the woods with his nose to the ground as if following a doe. He stopped and looked right at Nate, but then he continued along. Nate painstakingly edged his shotgun into place as the monster continued to sniff the ground. As Nate got his scope on the deer, he realized what appeared to be part of a corn stalk stuck on the antlers was actually a drop tine!
Nate ranged the deer at 170 yards, well within his practice range of 200 yards. Working to contain his excitement and control his breathing, Nate bleated at the buck. The massive deer stopped broadside. Nate fired, but the deer turned and disappeared as if nothing had happened.
At first, Nate was devastated, but the more he thought about the shot, the more confident he grew. Nate gave the buck a chance to bleed out, but after 30 minutes, excitement got the better of him.
At the edge of the woods he found blood, lots of blood. A few yards farther was the buck.
The magnitude of the buck left Nate in awe. For what seemed like hours he sat and stared at the deer in wonder, giving thanks to the Almighty for such a gift, and thinking how good the buck was going to look on his living room wall.
Antler Score: 176 6/8 net typical 13-point
Weather: Warm — 50 degrees
Area: 60-acre hardwood forest
The proper preparations and planning can mean all the difference come hunting season, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to be lucky as well.
Todd Anderson uses the wind to his advantage and only goes into a stand when his scent won't contaminate a hunting area. (He uses 14 stands around his hunting area.) The stand he was using the afternoon of the hunt was on the west edge of thick woods that deer like to bed in during the day. As they moved into feeding zones, they would walk right past Todd's stand.
That afternoon Todd had taken a shot at a nice buck and missed, but being an ethical hunter, he wanted to make sure. Generally, Todd refrains from busting into the area he is hunting so that he wouldn't spook any bedded deer, but his conscience demanded that he take the risk. Painstakingly, Todd combed the woods for an hour, searching for a blood trail, but found nothing.
Todd got back in his stand, but the thought of a wounded animal ate at him. He started thinking of where a wounded buck might go. At 3:30 p.m. he got back down out of his stand and continued looking for blood along the brushy transition from woods to field, but found nothing.
But then something caught Todd's eye across the field. It was a buck. A giant 13-point buck. It wasn't the buck he had seen earlier, and in fact, he had never seen this buck before. The adage "Big bucks hide in little places" went through Todd's mind.
Lady Luck was smiling on Todd at that moment. The buck was in a thin strip of cover along a fence line, a place Todd wouldn't normally look for deer. And the wind was in his favor. Provided he didn't make any sudden moves, the buck would never know he was there.
Todd quickly ranged the giant buck at 220 yards, farther than he felt comfortable shooting. To make matters even more problematic, there were two does and a smaller buck in the same field that might spook if Todd wasn't careful. So as not to worry the deer, Todd sat down where he was at and waited for the buck to move closer, but the buck seemed to have other ideas.
As Todd watched in frustration, the giant buck edged his way into a patch of tall grass and disappeared. Luckily, Todd waited just a bit longer. Five minutes later, it reappeared and started working its way toward the other deer.
Todd had already ranged a small tree in the field and knew it was 160 yards away. Where the buck had been previously was a distance of 220 yards. Seeing that the buck was walking in between the two spots, Todd estimated the range to be 180 yards. Bracing himself against a tree, he fired.
The buck turned, ran across the bean field with his tail spinning, and was gone over a small rise. Todd felt sure of his shot, but at the same time was apprehensive after missing the earlier buck. The walk seemed like forever, but as Todd topped the rise, there was the buck, dead. Sighting his gun in at 200 yards and practicing had paid off. The bullet had gone through both lungs and the heart.
While Todd is an experienced hunter and has taken numerous trophy deer, he chalks this trophy up to luck. We are reminded of another adage: The harder you work, the luckier you are.
Antler Score: 134 (green) 10-point
Weather: Mild — upper 40s
Area: Picked fields adjoining woodlots and wetlands
A trophy can mean different things to different hunters: large antlers, unique features, or a memorable hunt. To Parker Simes it means all of that and more.
The land that Parker hunts is managed for deer hunting. Going into archery season Parker knew two large bucks were active in the area, and he chose his stand location to capitalize on their movement.
Parker got into his stand in the afternoon of Nov. 11, 2016. He didn't have long to wait before he spotted movement to the west. It was one of the large bucks that had been seen on the cameras.
Parker ranged the deer at 25 yards. As the deer started quartering away, Parker drew and aimed at the buck's lungs, hoping to catch the heart as well. Parker released his arrow and the shot went true. The bucked lunged back down the trail and into the woods. As the buck turned, Parker could see a growing red spot where his arrow had exited.
Parker called his hunting buddies and told them of his shot. All agreed he should wait and let the deer bleed out and not push it.
About 45 minutes before the end of shooting light, Parker climbed down and started looking for blood sign at the point of the shot. Parker assumed that the area would be covered with blood. He was wrong. He found the busted front half of the arrow and a little blood. But as he tracked, the blood drops became smaller, then vanished.
As the sun set, Parker's mind started racing with the possibilities of why he wasn't finding a blood trail or the buck. As darkness fell, Parker's friends showed up to help look. They tried putting themselves in the mind of the buck to determine which way he might have traveled. They searched fence crossings, thickets, and any other place a buck might rest to lick its wounds. No luck.
It was hard decision to back out of the area that night. If the buck was dead, he would keep until morning. If he wasn't dead, jumping him up in the darkness would only worsen a bad situation.
Parker didn't sleep well that night. The next morning, he and his friends were looking again, checking cameras and starting a grid pattern search.
One of the searchers decided to go back to the point of "last blood" and renew the search. Within a few minutes, Parker heard someone yell out that the deer had been located.
Parker's heart soared as he ran over to the site. There was his buck, hidden in plain sight. The buck had shoved itself up under a large bush with its head and antlers hidden under tall grass. It was a stroke of luck to find, as looking at it from any other angle, the buck was completely hidden.
As they field-dressed the deer, it was clear that Parker had done everything right. The heart was cut to ribbons from the broadhead, but the exit wound, for some reason, resealed and the chest cavity filled with blood.
Since that night, Parker has gone over many theories why the wound resealed, but found nothing conclusive. He has, however, decided to change back from a two-blade to a three-blade broadhead. Confidence in your equipment is key to hunter success.