Historically, Illinois ranks right near the top in regard to most measurable statistics for big-racked whitetail deer. It has a nationwide reputation for being a bucket-list state for hunters. When you examine the record book entries, that notoriety is well deserved.
In 2011, Illinois ranked at the top for producing the most deer when looking at the top 50 whitetails entered into the Boone and Crockett Club, with eight typical racks and seven non-typical racks. Between 2009 and 2011, Illinois registered 136 total Boone and Crockett entries. During that time, only the states of Wisconsin and Ohio registered more.
Comparatively, 299 entries were submitted between 2005 and 2010, which would have ranked second among all states during that time period. Flash back to 1980-1985, and 30 deer were entered into this exclusive club.
To qualify for the Boone and Crockett Club, a typical whitetail rack must measure 160 inches, while a non-typical rack must measure 185 inches. Boone and Crockett entries are often dated, as most of this past season's 2014 entries, for example, have not been registered yet. A lag time is often present from when the animal has been harvested and when the animal has been scored and registered.
There is also the reality that only a percentage of animals are ever officially scored or registered. Some hunters speculate that only a third of qualifying animals are ever logged. Reasons might include the hunters not wanting to draw attention to themselves or where they hunt.
Last month, we broke Illinois down by county and reviewed overall deer harvest data. Counties with some of the highest deer harvest numbers were highlighted, giving a strong indication to where the Prairie State's highest deer densities can be found.
This month, we are taking a closer look at trophy buck potential and the areas those bucks come from.
What constitutes a "trophy" whitetail buck is very subjective. For many hunters, a mature trophy deer that is at least 3 years old constitutes a trophy. But again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Without a doubt, there is a direct correlation between deer numbers and trophy deer potential. When there are more deer, there are more big bucks. Deer harvests across Illinois have continued to dip. As deer harvests drop, so do the harvest numbers for big bucks.
"We seem to be in a rebuilding mode across many parts of Illinois right now," explained Chase Burns, chapter president of the Quality Deer Management Association. EHD sent a shock wave through Illinois between two and four years ago with ongoing sporadic outbreaks, but the effect of this deadly disease is sporadic.
"The effects of EHD are really patchy, with isolated areas being decimated while healthy deer herds remain a short distance away," Burns said. Burns has noticed some recovery across the board and also cites Mercer, Knox and Warren counties as having healthy deer populations without a lot of die-off.
Nate Herman, who operates Herman Brothers Pond and Land Management, echoes Chase Burns' observations.
"There were some isolated areas where EHD took a really big toll, with some areas reporting a 50 percent die off a few years back. The EHD combined with an aggressive harvest knocked deer numbers below what many hunters would like to see," explained Herman.
"Don't let the lower deer numbers, however, discourage you from hunting. There are still many great opportunities for big bucks, and I think we are going to see a big rebound in the next two or three years in Illinois. It will be as good as it ever was."
On many properties that Herman manages, there are strong numbers of 2- to 4-year-old deer, and these deer should continue to mature over the next few years.
Even though we are seeing lower deer numbers, there has been a noticeable uptick in how hunters self regulate and manage their own land, according to Burns.
"As hunters, we all make a difference and make a decision when we pull the trigger. We are seeing hunters becoming more selective and also beginning to realize that they can make a difference in their own way where they hunt," added Burns.
One of the most notable whitetail-producing regions in Illinois is referred to as the "Golden Triangle." The area includes the famed Pike County, along with Brown and Adams counties.
Between 1991 and 2006, this region produced a staggering 102 whitetail deer that met the minimum score requirements for Boone and Crockett registration. Between 1991 and 2010, Pike County alone accounted for 41 Boone and Crockett bucks.
Between 2006 and 2010, Fulton County emerged as one of the top counties in the Prairie State for producing monster bucks. During this time, Fulton County claimed nine Boone and Crockett whitetails.
In the same timeframe, Hancock, Iroquois and Randolph counties produced eight record book bucks. Adams, Bureau, Morgan and Schuyler counties boasted seven. Knox County racked up six while Clark, Pike and White counties were responsible for five Boone and Crockett bucks each.
From a historical perspective, Jo Daviess County, located in the northwestern corner of the state, is one of the premier regions for producing enormous racked deer. This small county has more than 30 Boone and Crockett registered deer.
As discussed above, because Boone and Crockett regulations require the rack to dry, many entries into the record book are delayed. Another factor that can delay entry is the fact that many of the largest deer are displayed at sport shows the following winter after the harvest. As a result, many registered deer were actually harvested the year or two prior.
Even in a monster buck wonderland such as Illinois, a Boone and Crockett buck is a rare and special animal. 2005 was a record year for Illinois deer hunters, with 201,209 deer harvested. Though more than 200,000 deer were harvested that particular year, only 71 of those deer were eligible for Boone and Crockett.
Recent Pope and Young entries for the 2013-2014 season indicate that 149 deer across the state were added to the record books. The top counties were Will, Rock Island and Calhoun, with eight, six and six entries, respectively, as of press time. Hancock, Joe Daviess, Pike and Schuyler had each logged five P&Y bucks.
DECLINING DEER HARVESTS
From the record harvest of 2005, Illinois deer numbers have slipped. Two seasons ago during the 2013-14 season, Illinois deer hunters harvested 148,569 deer. Of that total, bucks comprised 49 percent of the overall harvest.
This past 2014-15 season saw a harvest similar to the 2013-14 season, with another 2-percent dip. But with the reduction of late season doe harvest opportunities, the past two seasons have been close to identical. Illinois has seen a steady decrease in overall deer harvest over the past four years.
The EHD outbreaks that have had a significant impact in some areas of Illinois can be particularly lethal on mature bucks.
"When EHD does take out the most mature bucks on a specific piece of property, this loss almost creates a vacuum," Burns explained. "But if the habitat is good, what we often see is either displaced deer moving into the habitat or a new generation of deer stepping in to fill that void."
Both Burns and Herman believe the effects of EHD will be short lived.
"We have definitely seen a shift where big buck opportunities have become more widespread," noted Herman. "While the traditional big buck powerhouse counties like Pike, Fulton and Adams will still produce big deer, we are truly seeing great buck potential across Illinois spread out in more counties."
The dispersion of big buck potential has been good for Illinois hunters. With lower deer numbers, hunters have further embraced good land management and better deer management. Some hunters have had to find new leases for the short term, but if you own property, big buck potential can rebound quickly if the habitat is good.
"In no way would I say that Illinois deer hunting is all doom and gloom," noted Burns. "I would have to say that most of Illinois is capable of producing big deer, especially where there is good soil for agriculture. Regions interspersed with the best farmland often produce some of the best racks.
Some specific regions in southern Illinois, like Gallatin County, don't have as good of soil. And while this region is excellent for producing great deer, the odds are not as good for producing a rack that nets over 170 inches by Boone and Crockett scoring."
Herman noted that areas with abundant water sources often escaped the devastation of EHD outbreaks. He likes Knox County and Cass County for this season's under the radar "sleeper" picks.
"Knox County has many strip mine lakes that buffered some of the EHD outbreaks, and much of the vegetation on strip mine spoils are getting heavier and thicker each season, creating great big buck habitat," he noted. Another good pick would be the Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish and Wildlife Area in Cass County, Herman advised. This location offers prairie grassland habitat that is producing great bucks, he said.
Burns believes Mercer County is an overlooked area for producing big deer. "This area has a lot of open farm ground interspersed with drainages and can produce some really nice deer that many hunters overlook," he noted.
As a general rule of thumb, the counties that historically have the highest deer densities and highest deer harvest also produce many of the biggest racked deer. What many avid Illinois deer hunters have discovered however is that a big-racked monster can show up almost anywhere in Illinois.
The Golden Triangle is still one of the best bets in the country. But for some of the biggest racks in Illinois, recent history suggests that other counties have the right ingredients to produce the next giant. Also remember as well that record book deer are never common anywhere and all of these bucks on paper are now dead.
Even in a state such as Illinois, where there is serious big rack potential, big bucks are noteworthy and outliers. On a landscape where the odds are much better than the national average for connecting with a trophy, a deer hunter has to expect that they will still have to hunt good property and scout thoroughly to have a chance.
Deer hunters and biologists across much of the country have been facing lower deer populations, and Illinois has been no exception. Fewer deer typically means fewer trophy bucks. Recent big buck harvests, however, confirm the fact that Illinois is still one of the best places to bag that spectacular whitetail you've been looking for.