Well I am now two days back from Illinois and unfortunately it’s with a truck full of tree stands, mountain dew cans and used hand warmers, but no big buck. We hunted hard for six days in Fulton County, Illinois with Oak Tree Outfitters and unfortunately things just didn’t go our way. We certainly had the odds stacked against us with the IL gun season being the weekend before we arrived and the post-rut setting in. But despite the fact that I didn’t bag a giant buck, I did come home with a bevy of great memories, new lessons learned and the knowledge that I gave it my best.

Our time in Illinois was marked with periods of rough weather, distant encounters with big bucks and one really great turkey dinner! And it all began last Sunday with an early morning drive into the great state of Illinois. For the first time this year,  I was joined on this trip by my girlfriend Kylie, who was serving as my impromptu camera lady for the first half of the trip! I honestly can’t thank her enough for her camera work, support and patience with me through all of my hunting endeavors and obsessions.

On our first night in Illinois, I met with one of the guides, Josh Nehmelman, and we hopped in the truck to explore various stand sites. The evening ended on a high note when we spotted a nice 140 class buck out in a corn field on the property. Little did I know that this small section of property would become our main focus several days later.  And on that note our hunt began.

To keep it short, the next three days were filled with torrential rain, sleet, 20-30 MPH winds,  tornado watches and a few deer sightings. Incredibly, Kylie braved all the elements with me and I couldnt help but be impressed. Although she may have slacked off just a bit on occasion, unlucky for her I caught it on camera!

Over the first half of the trip, we saw a total of 18 deer, but all of them were during nasty, rainy, freezing cold weather and couldn’t be caught on camera. Much to my dismay, this became a consistent theme for the rest of the trip!

Wednesday evening my camera man and buddy Corey Fall and his wife Ashley joined us in camp and we immediately set about re-evaluating my game plan and putting together a strategy for the remaining half of my trip. One of the cornerstones of our new strategy revolved around the aforementioned corn fields where I had spotted that 140″ the first night. One of the guides had spotted him there again Wednesday night and had seen one there the week before, so Corey and I decided that it was time for us to make a move. The following night we moved a set into the back corner of this corn field, hoping to catch this shooter moving back out in the corn. But as the evening progressed we noticed the majority of the deer were piling into a more secluded corn field in the back, including one really big bodied deer. This is where we had to be. It seemed that most of the deer were bedding on the north end of the property and feeding in the corn fields and bean plots surrounding this area of timber.

The following morning we treked out to a stand near one of these prime bedding areas, but after 30 minutes of searching we came to the realization that we were lost! As a last ditch effort, we headed back out to the bean field and started getting set up in a field edge stand. We figured we could at least sit there for a couple hours or so and then get into our evening location early that afternoon. Corey climbed up into the stand first and set up his treestand above mine. When he was finished he motioned me up and I began my climb up the ladder. But half way up I heard a hoarse whisper and a few unmistakeable words.

“Big buck, big buck”. Corey looked at me with panic or excitement in his eyes, I’m not sure which. And I froze. With guidance from Corey as to when I could move, I as quickly as possible scurried up into the treestand, nocked an arrow and strapped on my release. All I can remember is shaking almost uncontrollably as I tried to nock that arrow and set it in my rest and I hadn’t even seen the buck yet! As I was climbing into the stand, Corey had spotted a GIANT 160 class buck with character slowly walking along the cut bean field about 100 yards to our south west. By the time I got into my seat, he had reached the inside corner and stepped inside the timber. After a couple soft grunts, I tried a snort wheeze and the buck came back out into the field to see his challenger. Unfortunately trees blocked my view, so I saw nothing more than a body and a flicker of a tail. But being unconvinced of a threat or just not interested, the buck turned and headed back into the draw to bed. We decided not to push the issue any further and soon began plotting our strategy for finding him that evening. Given his direction of travel, we were quite certain that he had been feeding in that back corn field and we intended on moving our set there for the evening. And that night we did just that, but with mixed results.

Over the course of  the next two nights on that back corn field we saw five bucks, including a 140″ and a 125″, and a bunch of doe, but never the real big boy. In fact, unfortunately, none of those bucks ever came remotely close enough to shoot or call to, except for one that ended up directly underneath our stand after dark as he munched on acorns and grunted along behind a doe. Our last morning we also saw a shooter, but he was trotting along a distant ridge far past the range of my bow. Staying consistent with the way the trip had gone, all of these deer we saw on the last three days either appeared very far away and behind thick brush, or after camera light, which resulted in us getting absolutely no quality deer footage for our entire week in Illinois. No big buck for my bow or the camera. Talk about depressing…

None the less, I have been reminded by family and friends recently that it is truly the experiences and good times that will stick with me in the long run and not the fact that I ate my Illinois tag. I will forever remember the excitement of scurrying into my treestand as Corey hissed “Big buck”, sitting in the truck singing self created deer hunting versions of country songs and  sharing a treestand with my ever so supportive and very attractively camo clad girlfriend.

I think this trip in the end was a pretty good microcosm of my entire season. We had crazy weather, some days filled with deer and others with none, but we always seemed to be just one day behind the action or one ridge away from the big boy. This season has been a learning experience and this trip certainly held a good number of those as well. So now in retrospect, as I look back on my quest for a giant Illinois buck, I realize that maybe those lessons learned and memories created will be even more fulfilling someday than a trophy on my wall.

All that being said, overall my trip to Illinois was terrific, my experience with Oak Tree Outfitters was fantastic and I left a better hunter, a more patient man and even more determined to bag a mature buck before the end of my 2010 season.

Check back soon for a full review of my experience with Oak Tree Outfitters and a more analytical look at the lessons I learned over my six days in Illinois!