Last year, 156,386 hunters each purchased at least one archery deer license in the Land of Lincoln, and 24,468 antlered bucks were tagged. A short firearm season, ample tags and a wealth of quality whitetail habitat make Illinois one of the most popular bowhunting destinations in the country. For decades hunters have flocked to the Golden Triangle region (Pike, Brown and Adams counties in hopes of bagging trophy deer. And many have succeeded.
Since Pope & Young (P&Y) records began, archers just in this small corner of the state have recorded well over 1,000 qualifying bucks, with hunters in Pike County alone accounting for almost 600. That puts Pike second only to Wisconsin's Buffalo County in terms of all-time P&Y whitetails.
If you talk to residents who live in the Golden Triangle, they'll tell you that the deer hunting isn't what it used to be. Its reputation as a perennial trophy buck producer has drawn hunters like moths to a flame, resulting in high hunter densities and heavy competition for trophy deer. In fact, many hunters "in the know" suggest looking beyond the Golden Triangle for the next record-breaking buck.
"Some of the least hunted counties in the state will be producing the biggest bucks," predicts Dan Perez, noted bowhunter and co-owner of Whitetail Properties (whitetailproperties.com). "For example, Fulton County is more likely to produce a world-class animal than Pike County."
A peak at recent P&Y records supports this stance. Since 2010, only bowhunters in Pike County (46 entries) have registered more trophies than hunters in Fulton or Jo Daviess (27 each). Then come Will (24), Adams 22), Peoria (21), Calhoun (20), Carroll and McHenry (16) and Hancock (15).
Dan also has other helpful advice for those seeking to arrow trophy whitetails in Illinois.
"Look for an area that has a good mix of deep, dark timber, tillable ground for growing food and the topography that helps deer evade hunters," he suggests. "An area with a lot of hollows, ridges and thick cover makes it difficult for hunters to push deer out, while nearby crops and hardwoods give deer plenty to eat."
Mel Johnson's 1965 Peoria County buck sets atop the P&Y record book as the world's largest typical ever taken by a bowhunter, with a net score of 204 4/8. David Jones's non-typical harvested in Mason County is good for fourth place in P&Y, at 267 1/8. For Jones, the old saying "the third time's the charm" rang true. He had the buck within 25 yards in 2002 but never got a shot. On the morning of Nov. 5, 2003, Jones saw the buck again. However, the brute didn't respond to his rattling.
"When he left, I just kept rattling as hard as I could," David points out. "I practically fell out of my stand. After about 10 minutes, here he came back. He wanted to kick some butt." Instead, the archer got the last laugh.
Again this season, successful hunters must report their harvest by 10 p.m. on the day of harvest. It can be done either by phone or online. For more information on bowhunting in Illinois, visit: dnr.state.il.us.