2008 Prairie State Deer Outlook -- Part 1: Finding Trophy Bucks

Illinois is nationally known as a top destination for trophy whitetails. Why? The reason is simple: The Prairie State is a food factory for big bucks.

It comes without much surprise that Illinois, in a number of nationally recognized hunting polls, is a top destination for trophy buck hunters. Super-sized whitetails are harvested throughout the state, fulfilling the dreams of many hunters each season.

According to our biologists, the reason is simple: The Prairie State is a large food factory.

"Illinois' reputation for growing trophy bucks results from its complement of food and cover," deer program manager Tom Micetich said. "Corn and grain fields yield plenty of high-protein and high-energy food in addition to other mast, such as acorns and browse from intermittent forest and woodland."

That poses something of a problem to isolate the best areas of the state to hunt. Each county has the potential to grow big deer, and each one annually chalks up a few super-sized racks. Regardless of where you choose to hunt, the potential to connect with a trophy is good. To narrow your search, however, we've taken a look at recent harvest data and entries into different trophy recognition programs to arrive at a projection of the hottest areas of the state to hunt.

To determine where most of our trophy bucks are harvested, we've examined the figures from six distinctive areas. The first is data from the overall history of the Illinois Big Buck Recognition Program. The 25 counties with most entries statewide received a mark. The second area is trend data into the BBRP from 2006 and 2007 in which the top 25 counties were considered. The third area focused on the top 25 counties for new entries into the BBRP for 2007. The fourth descriptor is historic data into the Boone and Crockett Club. Because of lower levels of data, we considered only the top 15 counties in the state. The fifth area for data collection is 10-year trend data for B&C. Here, we considered the top 10 counties for both typical and non-typical bucks statewide. And the final descriptor of trophy buck analysis is harvest density. We gave a score to the top 25 counties statewide.

To date, Pike County leads all counties in the state for entries into the BBRP with 333. Adams County is not far behind with 326. Fulton County has an impressive 244; Vermillion has notched 236; and Peoria County has a respectable 225.

Creeping up into the 200-entry-plus club this year are LaSalle, Knox, McLean and Brown counties, and rounding out the top 10 are Randolph and Montgomery counties, each with 187 cumulative entries.

Closer to the present, Richland and McLean counties have led the state with 24 respective entries taken together in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. Knox County is one to watch with 22. Bureau has come alive recently with 20 entries, including some top 10 bucks. Champaign County also has 20 entries. Both Woodford and LaSalle chalked 19. Macoupin County charted 18 entries. Fulton had 17 and Randolph, Sangamon and Menard rounded out the top 10 with 15 respective entries.

McLean County led all counties last year with 16 new entries. Not far behind, Woodford, Champaign and Fulton notched 15 new entries. Bureau put up a respectable 13 new bucks. Richland and Knox tabbed 12, and Macoupin, Marshall and Sangamon rounded out the top 10 with 11 entries in 2007.

If you're after a nice typical rack, Jo Daviess County leads all counties in Illinois and is ranked in the top five counties nationally for historic entries into B&C. It boasts 29 qualifying deer since the inception of the program. Not far behind in the typical category, Adams and McHenry counties have 22 entries. Pike County boasts 21 and to round out the top five, Brown and Fulton each have 15 historic entries.

On the non-typical side, Pike County leads the state with 25 overall entries, followed closely by Adams County with 23. Fulton County has 22 entries. Schuyler boasts 11 entries, and the counties of Clark, Greene, Macoupin and Peoria round out the top five with 10 entries.

Jo Daviess since 1998 has booked an impressive 18 typical bucks to the program. Adams has tabbed 11 entries. Both Fulton and Pike compiled 10, and Greene County has notched nine typical B&C whitetails in the last decade.

For non-typical racks, Pike County boasts an impressive 17 registered whitetails. Adams is slightly behind with 13. Fulton has 12, and both Greene and Schuyler round out the top five counties with seven each.

Atop the all-time list is Pike County with 46 overall entries. Nearby Adams County is second with 45. Fulton is in third place with 37, and Jo Daviess is fourth with 36. Schuyler has 24, and McHenry, Hancock and Green round out the top with 22 total entries.

Although records from the Illinois Big Buck Recognition Program and the Boone and Crockett Club give a good idea of where trophy bucks are popping up, the data only paints half the picture. Although no statistics are available to determine what percentage of hunters report their bucks to these programs, totals vary from county to county. Harvest density is calculated as deer killed per square mile and it gives a very good snapshot of areas where big bucks are likely to turn up. Simply put, the more deer in an area, the greater the chance of connecting with a trophy.

Calhoun County, at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, rivals the best in the nation with an amazing 11.4 deer harvested per square mile. Pike County wasn't far behind with 10.1 deer per square mile. Brown County bagged 9.4 deer per square mile, giving credence to the historic Golden Triangle of western Illinois.

Moving south, Region 5 traditionally boasts the highest densities in the state, and this year was no different. Of the top 25 counties, 12 are located in Region 5. Among the best, Hardin County boasts almost nine deer per square mile. Johnson had 8.2 and Pope County rounded out the top five with 7.9.

Plugging in all the numbers, here's a quick breakdown of the top areas in each region of the state.

Region 1
Fulton County received the highest score for any county in Region 1. As one of the only three counties statewide to receive a

score in all six of the descriptors of trophy buck harvest, potential for success is very high. In second place, Peoria County scored in four of the six categories, with a density score that just missed being in the top 20 for the state. A number of counties scored in three of the five descriptive categories.

Jo Daviess scored high with tabulation in harvest density, two-year BBRP trends and all-time Boone and Crockett entries. Bureau County has been putting up the numbers of bucks in BBRP trends recently. Knox County has tabulation in all descriptors of the BBRP. LaSalle County is on the all-time BBRP list and had marks in both recent and two-year entries. And both Woodford and Tazewell counties found numeration in all areas of BBRP analysis.

Other noteworthy areas in Region 1 include Putnam County. This is the smallest district in the state, but it has one of the highest deer densities and has been putting up some numbers to the BBRP recently. Both Marshall and Henry counties have been leaders for recent BBRP entries.

Region 2
Urban sprawl around Chicagoland reduces areas to pursue trophy bucks, but McHenry County enjoys status as one of the top 10 counties in the nation for trophy buck entries to the B&C and BBRP. Although recent numbers have been somewhat low, this is still a primo area for trophy backyard buck enthusiasts. Will County scored in both recent entries and two-year trend data to the BBRP. There's plenty of public access as well. And Grundy County has had entries in both typical and non-typical categories in 2006 and 2007. In 2006, it had the largest non-typical submitted to the BBRP, and there's quite a bit of public access.

Region 3
Two counties in Region 3 scored in four out of the six descriptive categories. Vermilion County had representation in all areas of BBRP analysis, as well as representation as a top Boone and Crockett county. McLean County is on the BBRP and B&C all-time lists and received a score for recent BBRP entries.

1. Pike335
2. Adams326
3. Fulton244
4. Vermillion235
5. Peoria225
6. LaSalle208
7. Knox203
7. McLean203
9. Clark201
10. Brown200
11. Randolph187
11. Montgomery187
13. Schuyler186
14. McHenry179
15. Sangamon178
16. Macoupin177
17. Bureau165
18. Fayette144
19. Union137
20. Tazewell134
21. Iroquois131
22. Woodford130
23. Mason129
24. Hancock125
25. Richland124

Other areas that scored in one or two areas of the analysis are Champaign County and Macon County, which has representation in both areas of recent entries to the BBRP. Livingston County was on top for two-year trend data. De Witt was a leader for entries in 2007. And Clark County is one of the top areas for all-time entries to both the BBRP and B&C.

Region 4
When looking at Region 4, top honors go to the counties of the Golden Triangle and the periphery of Adams, Pike, Brown, Schuyler, Calhoun and Hancock counties. Pike County was one of three counties statewide to score in all areas of the analysis and constitutes perhaps the best potential to connect with a big buck. In Pike and Adams counties, hills, ravines, bluffs and intermittent fields scattered throughout make prime habitat. Calhoun County has a bumper sticker that says "Calhoun County: Where the Big Bucks Play," adequately summarizing its potential. With the absolute highest densities in the state, this is an area that should be considered by any serious buck hunter. There's plenty of public ground too. Brown County looks much like Pike in topography. Potential is high with little public ground. Schuyler is much the same, giving anybody who can find a place to hunt a good shot at a nice rack.

Biologist Deck Major offered some advice for anybody wanting to access the hotbed of western Illinois.

"I tell most everybody who asks about access to private ground to come down and spend some time driving around. Get a plat book and knock on some doors. It's tough, but there are hunters that get on some of the best ground."

As for private ground, Major gives similar advice.

"Some of our biggest deer a

re taken from our public-hunting areas by hunters that do their homework," he said. "Scout out the most reclusive and out of the way, or even unassuming, places within public-hunting areas. The biggest deer are going to be where the fewest people go, and they tend to hide in the most unobvious places when the pressure is on. The guys who can think like a deer often are able to find success."

Additionally Macoupin County scored in four out of the five categories, just missing a top 20 ranking for density. Sangamon County is a top producer for BBRP with representation on the all-time list, as well as both categories of recent entries. Menard County had a score for recent entries into the BBRP.

If I could pick only one county to hunt in Region 4, however, it would be Randolph County. This area on the Mississippi River was one of three counties statewide to score in all areas of analysis. It features high, wooded bluffs on the western side, intermittent woods and strip mines throughout, dense bottoms around the Kaskaskia River and well over 20,000 acres of public access. It's a definite buck magnet.

Region 5
Only Richland County scored the highest with three of the six considerations. Hunters here have been turning up high numbers of bucks recently to the BBRP and this year landed in the top 25 counties of all time for BBRP entries. Clay and Marion counties have some of the highest whitetail densities in Illinois and constitute a high potential for hunters. Jefferson County is showing two-year trend data in the BBRP and likewise enjoys one of the state's highest densities. Hamilton County has a mark for density. Jackson County is on the all-time list for BBRP and had a notch as one of the best populations of deer in Illinois. Williamson County had a ranking for density. Union County is on the all-time BBRP list and has a supremely dense amassment of deer.

Some of the most impressive counties for deer density in Region 5 exist in the southern tip. You won't hear much from these areas as far as buck recognition programs go, but the sheer number of trophies that are harvested here annually is breathtaking and constitutes some of the absolute best potential in the nation.

Hardin County at 8.9 deer per square mile has the fourth highest density in the Prairie State. Pope County is a complement of heavy mature timber and small farm fields with some open meadows. With 7.9 deer per square mile, some of Illinois' largest bucks are taken here. Johnson County, next door, is much the same with outstanding densities, and Pulaski County made its way to the state's top density counties this year with almost six deer harvested per square mile.

1. Richland24
1. McClean24
3. Knox22
4. Bureau20
4. Champaign20
6. Woodford19
6. LaSalle19
8. Maccoupin18
9. Fulton17
10. Randolph15
10. Menard15
10. Sangamon15
13. Pike14
13. Adams14
13. Vermillion 14
16. Marshall13
17. Henry12
18. Livingston11
18. Washington11
20. JoDaviees9
20. Macon9
20. Ogle9
20. Putnam9
20. Jefferson9
20. Will9

Access to many of the counties in the southern tip of the state is unhampered in the Shawnee National Forest. Chief wildlife biologist Paul Shelton suggested hunters call ahead before venturing out to hunt.

"The Shawnee Forest is not solid public access," he said. "It looks more like a patchwork quilt. There are thousands of acres to hunt, but hunters should become familiar with boundaries and roads before venturing in."

For more information about the Shawnee National Forest, call (618) 253-7114.

It's not difficult to see why the Prairie State is the focus of the trophy whitetail hunting world. Every county holds potential, but for the absolute best there is to offer, try one of the above this year. For information on public-hunting areas in all of the respective counties mentioned, go online to http://dnr.state.il.us/lands/landmgt/hunter_fact_sheet.

For information about submitting a trophy buck to the Big Buck Recognition Program, visit

http://dnr.state.il.us/legislation/bbrp/default.htm. For information about submitting a trophy to the Boone and Crockett Club, visit www.boone-crockett.org.

Recommended for You


Baitfish for Bass: Search, Suspend or Sink Crankbaits

Jason Houser - May 21, 2019

Crankbaits mimic exactly what they eat when hungry — other fish!


State Records Reported in Maryland, Michigan

G&F Online Staff - May 23, 2019

It must be time for summer fishing because records are falling everywhere.


Upon Further Review: 70-Year-Old Catfish Record Voided

G&F Online Staff - May 22, 2019

Experts agree record channel cat caught in 1949 was actually a blue catfish.

See More Recommendations

Trending Stories

Wild Game

10 Memorial Day Recipes for Your Outdoor BBQ

OutdoorChannel.com Staff

Celebrate the start of summer with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these...


7 Best Bets For New Jersey Largemouth Bass

October 04, 2010

From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll...


Top 10 Biggest Pike World Records of All Time

Jack Vitek - August 19, 2015

While wildly popular amongst anglers around the world, the IGFA World Record book shows the...

See More Stories

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.