Hunting mature bucks in Western Illinois can be very challenging due to the wide array of terrain changes and different landscapes. This county has been a mecca for hunters looking for the very best opportunities for fair-chase whitetail hunting for many years, but you must be prepared to adapt your hunting strategies to the varying terrain of the land.
This area is bordered on each side by two substantial river valleys, the Mississippi and the Illinois. This provides a natural “wave” of terrain throughout the region where hunting strategies must be modified throughout the curve of this “wave” to be successful with a bow in your hand.
Along the banks of each river and between the timbered bluffs, there is fertile tillable land that lies relatively flat where woodlots and long lines of sparse timber are common. The occasional bigger block of flat timber, grass waterways, or swampland provides ideal habitat for deer in the area. This flat terrain provides more obstacles regarding accessing your stands than it does actually preparing and planning your hunt around the terrain.
Simply put, wind direction is everything in this terrain. The winds typically remain consistent in these flatter areas making it easier to determine your stand locations based on movement of the deer in the specific area you are hunting. The smaller woodlots and ample pinch points make for more identifiable stand locations by letting the habitat dictate how and where the deer will travel. A good rule of thumb in the river bottoms is to stay on the edges of these wood lots and hunt mature bucks as they travel from block to block. Trying to enter a larger woodlot, which may likely be a big bedding area, might end your hunt before it even begins.
If you find yourself in a situation where you’ve got a mature buck using a specific area on a consistent basis, choose your battles wisely, consider only accessing your stands on the correct winds and be prepared for long sits. The more you pressure these bucks in sparse timber by walking in and out of your stand, the lower your chances of getting close enough for a shot will be. These tactics in the river bottoms change throughout the course of the season while deer patterns transition from feeding patters to the rut phases. I find it most effective to watch your wind direction and make your entries and exits to your stand as non-intrusive as possible in this flatter terrain.
At the edge of the river bottoms heading toward the heart of the region, you’ll find large and heavily timbered bluffs that present a totally different set of obstacles to consider regarding terrain. This represents the top of the “wave” throughout the area. These bluffs, like the river bottoms, are a “target rich environment” and provide major opportunity to harvest a buck of a lifetime if hunted correctly.
Unlike the river bottoms, these large hills and ridges change in elevation dramatically. Abundant acorn crops and smaller secluded ridge top fields provide ample food and set the stage for what could be the best hunt you’ll ever experience. Focusing again on wind direction, the bluffs will NOT be forgiving due to the way wind travels through the varied angled hills and hollows. If you are going to be successful in the Bluffs you need several stand options. Swirling winds are common and limiting the amount of scent you put off in varied directions is key to a successful hunt. Stand placement in these hills can be a very humbling experience if you don’t consider the way bucks use these hills and ridges to their advantage. We could talk about different scenarios that the bluffs will present for weeks due to the vast terrain changes and curveballs you’ll be dealt. Let’s just focus on a couple key factors to consider that may help you connect the dots if you find yourself hiking these hills looking for ideal stand locations.
Sometimes Less is More
On days where the weather forecast calls for varying winds you might be time and money ahead not hunting your favorite stand deep in the timbered hills. If you can’t get some level of consistent wind direction your chances of disturbing or bumping a trophy buck are higher than your chances of harvesting him. Possibly try another stand location on a field edge that is easy to access and will give you both a shot opportunity, and protect your more aggressive stand locations. On days with low or steady wind conditions you can move to your higher traffic areas and reap the benefits of your patience and this trophy-rich area.
Try Not to Give Up the High Ground
When you’re looking to hang your stand, try to use the terrain and elevation to your advantage. If you can stay above the trails and ridges that the bucks are using to travel throughout the property you have a fighting chance of not being detected. A common mistake made on windy days is getting in creek bottoms at the bases of these larger hills. Most often, this only compounds your problems as thermals come into play and wind swirl cannot be controlled.
Toward the middle of Western Illinois, you’ll find more gently rolling terrain of mixed cropland, creek bottoms and blocks of hardwood timber. This area gets us back to the bottom of the “wave”. Although this area is not generally flat like the river bottoms, and not necessarily as varied in elevation change like the bluffs, it does present many of the same scenarios and challenges found in both the bluffs and the bottoms at less drastic levels. You’ll quickly notice that this area is essentially a combination of both. Stand options for different wind directions are key in conjunction with sets that are geared specifically toward morning and evening hunts. Knowing the areas that deer use to feed in the evenings, and the areas deer use to bed throughout the day are vital to understanding the land you are hunting in this terrain. In the prairie, these areas tend to be easier to identify because of the more defined and contrasting changes such as creek bottom pinch points, bedding thickets, and heavily timbered blocks that all link together.
At a basic level these areas can be identified by using both aerial and topographical maps, making a product like Hunterra that overlays topographical features onto a high quality aerial photo, invaluable by giving you the best of both worlds. It will save countless hours of boots on the ground scouting and help you be very efficient. In all three scenarios and terrain types, using the Hunterra map to identify high percentage locations is step one of the process to understand the land and terrain features.
Strategizing and factoring in how deer utilize and move throughout the land and terrain we hunt will be the most consistent portion of the equation to a successful season. By taking a closer look at the terrain, understanding areas to target and areas to avoid, will undoubtedly result in better and more successful hunts when you visit famed Western Illinois.
Best of luck this season!