llinois has long been synonymous with Boone-&-Crockett-caliber whitetails. A prime destination for big-buck hunting, the Land of Lincoln has garnered much attention from resident and non-resident hunters with goals for tagging a trophy whitetail. The Golden Triangle of Illinois — Pike, Brown, and Adams county, collectively nestled between the Mississippi and Illinois River — has long been the primary destination for this caliber of whitetail bucks. However, new data shows a different area might be key to harvesting a record book whitetail.
The editors at Illinois Game & Fish magazine recently collaborated to unveil top locations in Illinois for record-book bucks. The results discussed are an accumulation of data from 2013-2017. During that time, Illinois deer hunters recorded 85 new B&C whitetails — 22 were from the north-central counties, including Fulton, Knox, Peoria, Tazewell, Stark, Marshall, La Salle, Livingston, Mclean, Woodford and Putnam. The results deviate from the traditional counties that have historically shown strong success for holding some of the biggest bucks in the state.
Without doubt, a few common themes twist around this list of counties. The most impactful factor would be the lack of commercialization and competition of buck hunting, in comparison to the Golden Triangle. The region holds few outfitters and leasing agents, and out-of-state hunting pressure is light. This is good news for the do-it-yourself style hunters who like to put in the legwork of gaining access or locating prime parcel destinations.
But let’s not discount the trophy hunting opportunities supported by qualified, professional outfitters.
ACCESS PRIVATE GROUND
It’s no secret: Accessing new private ground for deer hunting grows more challenging every year, but it remains one of the most realistic avenues toward taking down a B&C buck in Illinois. Living in Marshall County my entire life, and hunting the tri-county area, I’ve learned it’s the most realistic way to hunt big deer.
If you currently reside in any of Illinois north-central counties, it’s worthwhile developing a plan to gain private access to farms. Working your sphere of influence is essential to creating a shortlist of potential ground to hunt. With more hunting competition, those landowners often expect compensation for hunting rights, as they should. Although the price per acre depends upon the quality of farm land and competition from other hunters, it’s fair to expect to pay from $10 to $30 an acre. Exploring the private ground avenue allows more control of your fate to tag a B&C buck. Top-tier ground for trophy whitetails tends to follow a theme of little hunting pressure and rolling hills that meet agriculture.
It’s important to note, good parcels of land are almost already accounted for by other hunters. Look for connecting pieces between large parcels of timber that produce big bucks. Although the timeframe for tagging a big buck is often more limited and dependent upon hunting pressure of neighboring properties, the competition for gaining hunting access is substantially less. It does take more homework to locate these pieces, but they are typically easier and cheaper to lease.
To shoot a trophy whitetail, a trophy whitetail must live in the area where you hunt. Some could argue the hardest part is to locate that caliber of deer. It’s likely going to be found on property in the vicinity of other land tracts/farms where light hunting pressure makes a buck feel safe and where those hunters share the idea of letting young bucks walk. Of course, trail cams can help locate the buck before you simply strike out hunting blindly.
To find these specific parcels, use a tool like OnX Maps, web-based application that hosts detailed information about landowners and property lines. This will cut the legwork immensely and allow for more time to gain access to specific tracts and, hopefully, locate a potential record-book buck.
THE OUTFITTER SOLUTION
Another avenue for tagging a world-class whitetail in Illinois is through local, qualified outfitters. Search the internet, and you’ll find many such outfitters, but I found one that’s as solid a hunting outfitter as any that can lead you to flirt with a Boone and Crockett whitetail in north-central Illinois.
The core property hunted by Whitetail Action Outfitters, located in St. Augustine in Knox County, stretches across 7,400 acres of farms in Knox and Fulton counties, two of the hottest B&C book-buck counties over the last five years. Its team of guides currently runs about 60 hunters a year during the season on a total land area of more than 12,000 acres.
Hunters who are pressed for time will find going through an outfitter is a surefire way to give themselves a fighting chance of tagging a trophy whitetail. Outfitters are constantly improving their ground and doing their best to manage land and wildlife under their thumb for growing whitetails that can make the record books. Whitetail Action Outfitters is newer at trophy deer hunts than many outfitters, but they’ve proven adept in their ability to place many clients on 170-inch-class bucks. More proof lies in their team’s trail-cam photos of bucks not yet pressured under gun. Just providing the opportunity for tagging a B&C buck is a feat in itself for many outfitters. This team will put you in the game instantly.
Given the price, accommodations and the range of their access, Whitetail Action Outfitters is a real value for anyone after a record-book buck. Their service includes reconnaissance of the properties and prepared stands/blinds. A five-day trophy hunt prices at $2,400, including those scheduled for “prime time” during peak rut. Combined gun and archery hunts are also available. Prices do not include all licensing/permit requirements.
PUBLIC GROUND AT GROUND ZERO
Deer hunting on public land in Illinois doesn’t get a lot of attention when hunters think of chasing record-book bucks. Illinois may hold less public-land hunting options for the trophy hunters, but the quality of the terrain and the whitetails on that land is worth taking into consideration. After digging deep and researching various options in the highlighted region, I found one area that any do-it-yourself, public-land deer hunter should consider when tagging a big buck is a priority.
Look no farther than Jubilee College State Park near Kickapoo in Peoria County. Although it’s one of the more trafficked parks, more than 3,200 acres of hunting land provides for many different hunting options, and camping allows hunters to stay on site several days for getting to know the land. The park’s deer habitat is comprised of mature timber, brush land, predominant grassland and old fields and croplands.
Tim Madden of Springfield has successfully hunted many sites among Illinois’ public hunting lands and carries a few trophy whitetails under his belt — Sangamon County bucks, killed three years in a row (2014-16), that measure/score 133, 147 and 149 inches. His best advice challenges what most deer hunters believe, but when his information is processed, it makes clear sense.
First, Madden suggests deer hunters on public land should focus their effort on late-season deer activity rather than the action surrounding the peak rut period. Madden says hunting traffic will dramatically decline after the rut, providing hunters with far more elbow room for their hunt, which will follow more natural deer movement keyed on the local food sources. Post-rut bucks are slave to their stomach and need to rebuild their body form, functions, strength and stamina. If you’re willing to bear the deep-winter weather elements of Illinois, he says, this proves to be a fantastic time to tag a trophy public whitetail.
Second, Madden says, deer hunters on Illinois public lands should always consider who else is hunting nearby. Many state-managed hunting tracts are open to many different kinds of hunters, not only deer hunters. Think about the pressure a bird hunter might put upon deer, he says. What about small game hunters? From the grasslands to the woodlands, hunters of all kinds can be afield on any given day during the Illinois wintertime. Mature bucks can — and will — seek safety from anyone who enters their domain. Plan your deer hunt on public land around the hunting pressure exerted by those around you, no matter what animal they are hunting, and you may quickly find yourself on the fast track laying your sights on one more Illinois record-book buck.