Hunting Illinois's Monster Deer

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By John B. Snow, Executive Editor
Photos by Jason Lindsey It was already late in the afternoon by the time we got from the airport to camp. Base camp was an old church that had found a second life answering the prayers of hunters in the midst of some of the country's most hallowed whitetail ground. Our hosts, brothers Tim and Jeff Richardson, asked whether we wanted to relax for the evening or head right out to hunt. So less than a minute after arriving I was already scrambling to put on base layers and camo.
Outdoor Life Online Editor
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Having so many stands gave us plenty of options during the hunt. No matter which way the wind was blowing, no matter which pattern we thought the deer were going to follow, we had a slew of spots to hunt from""and fresh, undisturbed spots at that. I hadn't so much as nocked an arrow and my confidence was soaring. During the drive in Tim's pickup to the stand I began a familiar pre-hunt ritual. I went through a mental checklist of my gear, hoping I hadn't forgotten something critical: bow, arrows, release, harness, license, headlamp, compassÂ…. I set down the rules for what size whitetail I would shoot and what I would pass up. I pictured a buck with a riot of horn above his ears positioned 25 yards away, standing broadside.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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My spot was just as Tim described it: A combination of a creek bottom, an old fence and a large patch of hardwoods between two agricultural fields. It screamed deer funnel. Twenty feet above the ground in a tree at the top of a ridge, my stand commanded excellent shooting lanes. Less than 15 minutes after I settled in, a doe approached through the laurel on the ridge opposite me. A light snow fell, slanting from the deer to me. The wind was perfect. About 60 feet behind the doe a buck emerged, bird-dogging her steps. He was big, sleek and handsome, but his antlers were those of a young deer, probably 21?2 years old. The deer walked by, getting as close as 30 yards, right in my kill zone. If the buck managed to survive another couple of seasons, he would certainly sport a rack that could induce cardiac arrest. As it was, his eight points showed plenty of potential, but he wasn't the one I was hunting for. A similar buck passed underneath me not long after. Stumbling through the woods in the dark back to the spot where I was to be picked up, I was happy for the warmth the walking brought to my feet and for the sight of those deer. If nothing else, I felt certain that the big boys were on the move, too. Little did I know that those were going to be the biggest antlers on a live animal I would see this trip.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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Life quickly settled into a predictable deer-camp pattern. We got up at ungodly hours, downed cups of bad coffee and ate microwaved oatmeal and sticky buns before shuffling outside to the trucks. Invariably, we gazed up at the dark black sky, shivered against the cold and nodded in agreement as someone proclaimed "pretty morning," as though we had morphed into nocturnal creatures for whom the depth of night was our preferred time to be out. We hunted hard. We were in our trees well before dawn. We came out at lunch for less than an hour to compare notes, grab a quick bite, thaw out and plan the afternoon hunt. We got back on stand as soon as possible and stayed in the woods until after dark. We all saw bucks""but only young ones. What happened to our paradise?Outdoor Life Online Editor
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Deer sign was everywhere. I saw rubs that looked as if they were made by construction equipment that had scarred the trees. The ground was littered with tracks, including the oversize splay-toed depressions that will make a hunter freeze in place like a pointer getting a noseful of wild quail. And each spot I hunted looked better than the last. Of course the monsters were here. They had to be. It was just a matter of time, right?Outdoor Life Online Editor
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At last some of my fellow hunters saw some bigger deer. A husband and wife hunting together even videotaped a 160-point-class bruiser, but all the bleats and grunts they could muster wouldn't entice him to come closer than 60 yards. These sightings sustained the rest of us, but whether it was out of a sense of "I'm next" optimism, ignoble jealousy or a mix of the two I couldn't say.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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The weather punished us. The gentle snow and breezes of that first afternoon turned into a maelstrom that drove the bitterly cold rain horizontal. Staying on stand became a brutal test of endurance. One afternoon I wondered whether my tree, which pitched at an alarming angle during the strongest gusts, would crack under the strain.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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Somebody finally got a buck down""a mature deer, his long muzzle flecked with white, his head crowned with impressive antlers. Then the weather broke and the temperatures dropped, but the wind still blew strong. The end of the hunt approached and no one else had tagged a deer. On the final morning we had the chance to go out for a few hours before leaving for the airport. The thermometer in the truck read 18 degrees. The wind was mild, but any breeze at that temperature gets your attention. At least the sun was shining, its light providing a false sense of warmth.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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About four hours after sunrise, a lone yearling appeared, moving through the timbered draw I was in to feed in a field. Cold like this forces animals to take in calories if they want to survive. Yet once again, this youngster excepted, the deer confounded our plans and didn't show.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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By the end of the morning I was wasted, my energy sapped. A week spent standing in the trees, exposed to the elements while wearing the lighter clothing that bowhunting demands, had taken its toll. Even through deliberate, conscious effort, I couldn't control the shivering. When I factored in the lack of sleep and the demoralizing lack of deer, this had easily turned out to be one of the mentally toughest hunts I had ever done. And yet, given the chance, I'd be right back in those woods. You just don't say no to a chance at paradise.Outdoor Life Online Editor
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By the end of the morning I was wasted, my energy sapped. A week spent standing in the trees, exposed to the elements while wearing the lighter clothing that bowhunting demands, had taken its toll. Even through deliberate, conscious effort, I couldn't control the shivering. When I factored in the lack of sleep and the demoralizing lack of deer, this had easily turned out to be one of the mentally toughest hunts I had ever done. And yet, given the chance, I'd be right back in those woods. You just don't say no to a chance at paradise.Outdoor Life Online Editor

For Executive Editor John B. Snow, getting the chance to hunt heartland bucks at the peak of the rut was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. See if he has the patience and persistence to take a huge whitetail with his bow. (Original photography by Jason Lindsey)