My 6 year quest for an Illinois giant
By: Travis Dalton
I have been hunting my home state of Virginia since I was 5 years old. I can remember getting to carry the squirrels on my very first hunt with dad. I can also remember the first time I got to carry the gun while dad carried the squirrels. As I got older I progressed into deer hunting. A trophy buck for my part of the country was anything over 100 inches. I had taken a few deer over the 100 inch mark, but like most Bowhunters I wanted to get a buck over 125 inches. After 30 years of hunting it became obvious that I needed to hunt somewhere that produced big bucks on a regular basis. I always dreamed of going to Illinois to hunt, and after talking to my wife we finally decided to start saving for a trip.
My first trip to Illinois was in 2006. After doing quite a bit of research on the internet and calling 10 or more references I decided to book a hunt with Illinois Trophy Bowhunters. I called the owner, Steve Phelps, and I really liked what he had to say, so I booked a hunt for the first week. One reason I chose ITB was because they only hunt the 3 weeks of the rut. After arriving in camp I was put in a stand for the evening hunt even though my hunt didn’t officially start until the next morning. I saw 3 does and a small buck that evening. The next morning Steve told me to get my climbing stand and follow him. After showing me the tree he had picked out, I climbed up and waited for daylight. About 5 seconds after sunrise I saw a nice 8 point coming my way. ITB has a 125” minimum rule and I immediately thought “shooter” when I saw this deer. I made a good shot and we recovered the deer. That is when I noticed a kicker off the brow tine. It was the biggest buck of my life at the time, a 125” 2.5 year old. I immediately send in my deposit for the next year, and booked the first week again.
Now that I knew what a 125” deer looked like; I was determined to shoot nothing less than 135 inches. I passed several deer in the 125” range and saw several that were well over 130 inches but they were all out of range. I had an encounter with a 140” 11 pointer at 10 yards but never got a shot. I missed a 150” 10 pointer on the last day. I was glassing a small strip of woods, and saw a tree limb that looked like an antler. To my surprise it moved, and I realized it was an antler, but it was going away from me. I blew my grunt call and used my can to bleat and he started coming to me. At 50 yards he laid down in the field and that was when I realized he was with a doe. After about 30 minutes he finally got up and came to within 30 yards. The doe saw me draw and spooked just as I released my arrow. The buck turned to chase her and I missed. There is nothing worse than the feeling of missing a giant on the last day of the hunt. That taught me a valuable lesson that would pay off in the future. Always keep one eye on the doe. Steve offered me a late season muzzleloader hunt and I booked it. It never got over 20 degrees but, on the last day I shot a 140” 9 pointer that was 3.5 years old. I sent in my deposit for the next year, and booked the second week instead of the first week.
Now that I knew what a 140” deer looked like, that was going to be my minimum. This was the same year I applied for, and got accepted to, the Mossy Oak Prostaff. I sent out an email asking if anyone would be interested in filming my hunt. Dwayne Moore volunteered but… little did we know what we were in for. We arrived at camp with 70 degree highs and 90% of the corn still standing. Needless to say we didn’t see much that year. Obviously weather and crop harvests are two things an outfitter cannot control. I sent in my deposit for the next year and decided to book the third week.
I brought my dad with me that year hoping he would get an opportunity. I didn’t think the hunting could get any worse than the year before, but it did. Instead of hot weather it rained every day and 95% of the corn was still standing. I still saw a 160” 10 point twice but never got close enough for a shot. At that point I was feeling a little discouraged, but again the outfitter has no control over the weather or how much corn is cut. I sent in my deposit for the next year and booked the second week.
This time I made a trip to Illinois in the spring to shed hunt and scout the farm I would be hunting. I hunted the second week at “Grizzly Creek”. I passed two bucks that were close to 140” because I wanted one over 140. I also had an encounter with an absolute monster that would have pushed 200 inches. He bedded with a doe not more than 70 yards away for over 30 minutes. It was one of the best days I ever had hunting, even though I didn’t get a shot. I sent in my deposit for the next year and booked the second week again.
This was my 6th year with ITB. I made a shed hunting trip in March and picked out two potential stand sites. On the first day of my hunt I witnessed two bucks fighting that were close to 140. Just as the fight ended I did a snort wheeze. Both bucks came by my stand 15 minutes apart and I passed on them hoping for something bigger. The second day of my hunt I passed a buck Steve had named “Off Limits” for obvious reasons. He is a 2.5 year old typical 12 point close to 140. Talk about genetics this is what managing a farm correctly will produce.
On the third day I misjudged the yardage and shot a 150 class 10 point through the backstraps. I was thinking “another year and I missed my opportunity again!” I take a look at the map and identified an area that nobody ever hunts. Walking in I immediately knew I had picked a good spot. There were several big rubs and scrapes along a well-used trail.
My wife had bought me a Lone Wolf Alpha stand just for this hunt because it can be hung in crooked trees, which was exactly what I needed. Checking the ScoutLook app on my phone I saw that there would be a south wind the next morning. Using my Hunter Safety System and lineman’s belt I hung my stand 20 yards north of the trail. The next morning I had a south wind which was perfect. Around 9 a.m. a doe runs in and starts feeding 10 yards from me. I heard a loud grunt and looked up to see a giant. He is standing 40 yards away and is starting to circle down wind. I was still sitting down but my sabertooth release was already on the d-loop on my Mathews Z7. I remembered what I had learned in 2007. Keeping one eye on the doe and the other eye on the buck I slowly started to turn in my seat as the buck circled to my right. He stopped broadside at 20 yards. At that point I have turned all I can because my right elbow was against the tree. I could see the doe had her head behind a tree and couldn’t see me. The buck made a quick glance back the other way and I stood and drew all in one motion. I kept saying to myself, “Take your time, pick a spot, and squeeze the release”. My Firenock lit up as I watched it pass through, and I heard the pop as my arrow exited the opposite shoulder. He walked down the hill about 5 yards and stopped behind a bush. I’m thinking he is going to drop any second. After what seemed like forever, which is probably ten seconds I started doubting my shot. I get out my Leupold RX-II rangefinder and I could clearly see the hole from my 4 blade “Slick Trick” right in the 10 ring. He took a couple more steps and I ranged him at 25 yards. I shot him again quartering away and I saw my Firenock disappear behind his last rib and reappear in the bank behind him. At this point he did the “tail wag” and his back end got heavy. He stumbled down the hill and finally went down. I started jumping up and down in the stand and the doe finally saw me and ran off which at that point it didn’t really matter. I called my dad and waited for him so we could both walk up to this deer together. We had several trail cam pictures from this farm and when I shot this deer I didn’t recognize it as one we had on camera. When I picked up the antlers I immediately recognized him as the buck we called “Unicorn”. I was the one that came up with that name because in the trail cam pictures he looked like he had a horn growing out of the middle of his head but it was actually coming off the base of his left beam. I had joked with my wife that I was going to get the “Unicorn” buck. He “unofficially” measured 161 7/8” (gross green score). Having my dad with me truly made this a “buck of a lifetime”.
It was by far the best year of hunting I have ever experienced. I would like to thank my wife for her patience and help in getting me this opportunity. I should also thank my dad for all his help. Contrary to what some people believe there are some good outfitters in Illinois and ITB is one of the best in my opinion. If you book a hunt expecting to kill a monster you might as well stay home. You have to go with the attitude of “I hope to see some good bucks”. With some patience and persistence I was able to finally make my dream of killing a monster buck a reality. I will be sending in my deposit for next year.
Mossy Oak Treestand camo, Mathews Z7 28” 60lbs., Gold Tip pro 5575, 100 gr. Slick Trick Razor Trick, Firenock lighted nocks, Montana Black Gold Flashpoint sight, T.R.U. Ball sabretooth release, Leupold RX-II rangefinder, , Lone Wolf Alpha treestand, Rocky Boots, Hunter Safety System, Log6 Ozone generator
Update: May 5, 2016
Please read this if you’re considering booking a hunt with Illinois Trophy Bowhunters https://traviswdalton.com/2016/05/04/illinois-trophy-bowhunters/