By Cody Altizer

Two years ago I was very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to move to the Land of Lincoln (Illinois) and better myself as a writer, photographer, and person.  I jumped at the opportunity and made the move from the small town of Bath County, Virginia, where not a single stop light exists, to the suburban jungle that is Chicagoland in Northern Illinois.

I was moving North to accept an internship position at the office in Huntley, Illinois, where I would be working, hunting, filming and learning life alongside the masterminds behind, Todd Graf and Justin Zarr.  I only lived in Chicagoland for a little less than 6 months, but I learned more in that time that I can put into words.  It was a tremendous experience.

Obviously one of the perks about living in Illinois and working for a bowhunting only company was that I got to hunt, film, and breathe whitetails for the majority of my time in Illinois.  Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I had dreamed of hunting Illinois one day.  I thought my best chance would be with an outfitter on a micro managed piece of ground.  Fortunately, I got a little taste of all that Illinois has to offer as far as bowhunting opportunities.  I got to hunt the Chicago suburbs where deer were scarce and the people were plenty.  I got to the hunt the famed golden triangle where a Pope and Young is supposed to be hiding behind every tree.  And I got to film in northwest Illinois where the Chicago millionaires own the ground home to some of the biggest bucks in the state.  I learned a lot about bowhunting whitetails during that time, but perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was something I already knew.  Deer are slaves to their stomachs.

Food is King

Deer hunters often argue amongst themselves about which ingredient is more important to harvesting mature bucks, food or cover.  I always believed it was food, because deer are incredibly resourceful when it comes to finding places to hide.  If all else fails, they can simply move at night.  Their only agenda is to live another day.  Hunting the Midwest reinforced that belief.

As mentioned, I had 3 different unique opportunities to hunt and film in Illinois, and food played a unique role in each situation.  I’ll start close to my home in Chicagoland.  I was given access to bow hunt a small parcel of property that was surrounded by subdivisions and development.  It was a cattle farm, and there weren’t many deer on the property to begin with, so when I scouted the property in late September with Todd and Justin, we didn’t find very much deer sign.  However, the entire property was surrounded by food, split about half between corn and beans.  2010 was an exceptionally dry year, so the corn and beans had been picked long before the October 1st opener.  This forced the deer back into the timber where I had three different stands hung.  Since the majority of the understory vegetation had been molested or eaten by the cattle, there wasn’t much food for miles.  Needless to say, despite the low deer numbers and lack of deer sign, I harvested a giant doe during my third sit on that piece property.  Food was king.

We’ll take a quick 2 hour drive west to Jo Daviess County, where I had the opportunity to film quite a bit throughout the fall.  This particular property was pretty small according to my standards, about 60 acres.  Remember, I’m from Virginia where thousand acre family farms aren’t uncommon, in fact in my area they’re very common.  When I first set foot on the property, I thought there was no way a hunter could consistently harvest mature bucks here with their bow.  Again, I thought it was tiny.  60 acres?  That’s just a chunk of timber where I live.  But the property had more of one thing than any of its surrounding neighbor.  Food.  A lot of food, and a lot of different kinds of food.  There was corn, soybeans, clover, chicory, alfalfa, turnips, apple trees, and hard mast species like oaks and hickories.  The amount of food this little piece of property produces was astounding, and the fact that there was a wide variety of food kept this property highly attractive to both man and whitetail from opening day to the very end of the season.  Food was king.

Finally, we’ll take a trip down I-74 to Pike and Brown Counties, where I was very fortunate to hunt and film numerous times throughout the fall of 2012.  While the previous two properties had food sources actually on the property, this little gem of a property did not.  However, it was surrounded by food and loaded with great cover in the form of a giant CRP field.  This property was a dynamite spot in the morning because the deer would flood back into the CRP field from the surrounding food sources to bed down for the day.  However, as the season progressed, and the corn and beans were harvested, and eventually plowed under, this property became less and less attractive to the deer.  In fact, one morning in late October I filmed 32 different deer.  Just two weeks later, in similar conditions, we went deerless.  That statistic alone illustrates just how important food is to hunting success.  While there was never food on the property, there was plenty around it.  However, as the food disappeared, so did the deer sightings, even though the CRP still made a great bedding area.  Halloween weekend, I harvested a beautiful 120” 9 pointer with my bow (seen in the photo at the top of this article). Had there not been a quality food source surrounding the property, I likely wouldn’t have shot him. Food is king.

Conversely, on my property in Virginia, deer have plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in the mountains.  The slightest bit of pressure pushes them into those hiding spots and they’ll move almost exclusively at night, thus making them extremely difficult to hunt.  That was the case until 2011, when I planted two food plots totaling a little over 2 acres in clover, turnips, and oats.  My hunting opportunities exploded.  While hunting the two separate plots I would see upwards of 20 different deer each afternoon (too many deer, I know, but it speaks to the importance of a quality food source).  Further, in 2011 my brother and I shot the two biggest bucks to come off our property in 40 years as they were making their way back to their bedding area after feeding in the clover plot the night before.

Food is king.

– Cody Altizer