Southern Illinois is whitetail deer country.
Advertisements, apparel, gun and bow shops cover the region. This is a premiere place for hunting in the country, according to several of those in the hunting business. And word has spread. Locals hunt on state-owned and private land, competing for the biggest doe with hunters from all over the country.
Southern Illinois hunting is widely sought after, said Southern Illinois Trophy Outfitters, director of operations Shaun Mulrooney.
He said, as an outfitter, he is looking for private land owners with an abundance of land. He will pay the land owner a flat price per acre, and then go out to find hunters to hunt on that land.
Typically, he said, he will sell about a five-day bow hunt with a place to sleep for about $1,350 to $1,500. Food and all other expenses are on the hunter. This is where Southern Illinois establishments near the property owner’s site begin to flourish during deer season, Mulrooney said.
After the hunter is paying about $450 for his or her out-of-state deer permit – an additional $300 for gun tags – there is substantial money flowing into the region from one person.
“The clients coming from out of state will pay about $200 to $300 a day to hunt,” Mulrooney said. “Plus their fees, and that’s not counting gas and food.”
He mentioned Murphysboro as a town that greatly benefits from hunters in Jackson County.
“We have probably, if not the best hunting in the state, it is definitely one of the best,” said Kevin Bach, owner of Kevin’s Archery, in Ava. “In Illinois, we have hunters all over the United States and all over the world to come hunt because of what we have -- the size of the animals, the quantity and the quality of deer we have.”
Not only are they going to see a lot deer here, Bach said, but they are going to see a lot of big animals.
“That is what makes it a high traffic area for your hunters,” he said.
Mulrooney said these are just not your average hunters looking to come into the area and get drunk at the local bar.
“These guys are professional. They are doctors and lawyers that take time off work to hunt land,” he said. “They are all after a trophy animal.”
Mulrooney said the region is full of 130 class white-tail deer or better.
“That is what everybody is after,” Mulrooney said.
Maintaining food, habitat
Keeping the properties flush with deer is something that must be worked at, almost year-round.
Mulrooney said the habitat, the row crop and the calcium in the soil are all contributing factors to increasing the land’s carrying capacity.
“To do that, you have to increase your land’s food, shelter and water capacity,” he said. “If a doe goes into heat and she doesn’t have a balanced environment, a lot of times she will just have one fawn. I want every doe to throw twins.”
He said Southern Illinois already provides the abundance of water, but he plants warm season grasses that grown high. The deer flock to it, and they can find shelter in the grass and feel safe.
Providing food is also essential, he said.
In the early fall, food is abundant with corn, beans and then acorns, but once those are gone, it is up to property managers to provide food.
“The idea is to create an annual nutrition program, so your deer never have to go without food,” Mulrooney said.
Marketing Southern Illinois outdoors
The appeal of hunting isn’t lost on tourism directors in Southern Illinois.
Cindy Cain, executive director of the Southernmost Tourism, said Southern Illinois is a mecca for outdoor recreation, including hunting.
“Hunting is really important because it brings in money during winter months, when it is slower than our peak times in the summer and fall,” Cain said.
She said there are an abundance of hunting groups in several counties that Southernmost Tourism promotes.
Cain said the tourism group is constantly at different trade shows, outdoor shows and conventions throughout the Midwest.
“Mostly, everything we do, it directly or indirectly involves the promotion of hunting,” she said.
The group wants hunters to come and hunt on the private lands or public lands because money is spent both ways. According to tourism records, each tourist in Southern Illinois spends an average of about $120 a day.
“It is definitely a ripple effect, as far as where they are spending their money in the area,” Cain said. “It impacts all sectors.”
Mulrooney said he doesn't advertise in Southern Illinois, in fact, he said he doesn't advertise within 200 miles.
“If people in this area know where my properties are, they are going to hunt my borders because they know the effort we are putting in to manage trophy whitetail deer,” he said.
Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and some of Virginia was his client-base focus.
“When they come and see what they like, they go back home and tell others who come back and hunt and the cycle continues,” he said.
Every hunter needs equipment, and Bach in Ava is a certified Hoyt and Mathews bow dealer, two of the top bow companies in the industry.
In the past four years, Bach said his business has doubled each year. He started by selling sights and bows out of his home in 2011 and expanded to grossing about a projected $500,000 in 2015.
“It is above and beyond what I ever thought it would be,” Bach said. “People don’t realize what hunting -- whether it be with guns or bows -- what it does to generate revenue in our state.”
Bach has several different facets of hunting incorporated into his business in Ava.
There is a Techno-hunt with a simulated video hunt at the facility. There is an indoor range where shooters can test their skills from different ranges. There is the 3-D outdoor shoot that has 30 targets at various lengths and angles.
“It gives it a realistic atmosphere of hunting and it gives them good practice,” Bach said. “It gives people the opportunity to shoot without harming an animal."
He said he is really trying to stress that shooting bow can be a family orientated event. Killing a deer doesn’t have to be involved.
Additionally, Bach’s store does something that is rare in the region -- he can make string for bows. He does it quick, too, with a turnaround time of about 24 to 48 hours on most cases.