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NextImg:Illinois Deer Classic: Combining the legacy and the innovations

PEORIA, Ill.—Fifty minutes into opening day of the Illinois Deer Classic Friday afternoon, tornado warnings on cell phones all around the Peoria Civic Center blared. Show staff asked vendors and attendees to stand against an interior wall as a tornadic storm raced over.

“Imagine if a tornado actually hit us with all these knives and bows here flying around,” my daughter Sara mused out loud.

Add another chapter to the wild history of Illinois’ deer shows.

Tim Walmsley started the first Illinois deer show in Illinois more than 30 years ago in Decatur. The show moved around Springfield, Peoria and Bloomington. When Field and Stream took the show over, it faltered, then disappeared a few years. Then John Bunge of the Iowa Deer Classic planned to bring the show back in 2020, only to lose two years to pandemic impacts.

It’s back for a second straight year and true to its orgasmic deer-hunting roots, down to the big-buck contest.

“There were 170 brought in last year,” said Walmsley, a top measurer of record-book bucks in Illinois, in the measuring room. “Some really good ones are coming in because they killed some really big deer last season.”

The big bucks were just starting to filter in. Literally. A couple went in ahead of Sara and me from the parking lot.

“Hoping this 7x7 may be coming in,” said Walmsley, pulling out photos of a monster buck.

There’s also a shed antler contest.

One of the many styles of deer stands and blinds available at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center. Credit: Dale Bowman

One of the many styles of deer stands and blinds available at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center.

Dale Bowman

Another ubiquitous part of the show was deer stands of all shapes, sizes and configurations.

“That’s a pretty cool deer blind, though it would probably as cost as much as my rent,” said Sara of an elevated stand.

In a sign of a change in the outdoors world, multiple booths offered e-bikes.

A couple innovations caught my eye. There was a bow handle warmer (bowhilt.com), which works off your portable phone charger; it also works for warming handles of ice-fishing rods.

Booths offering sales of hunting land have become common. Now there’s a relatively new business specializing in financing through Buck Land Funding (firstbankers.com/BuckLandFunding).

Hunting in general draws innovators and hustlers. When the tornado warning had us lining the interior wall, Jason Essary sensed a captive audience and pitched his reversible goose decoy from Top Down Decoys (topdowndecoys.com). His dad, Bob Sr., said they’re patented and made in the U.S.

There’s seminars on hunting for turkey, elk and mule deer. Chef Jeremy Critchfield (huntchef.com) has daily seminars on deer processing and wild game.

Sara Twister (saratwister.com), an archer/contortionist/comedian who can shoot a bow with her feet, does multiple shows daily: “Ready, Aim, Fire.” That is how I enticed our Sara to ride along weeks before she graduates from the University of Illinois.

Archery trick artist/contortionist/comedian Sara Twitch prepares to shoot the apple off volunteer Marlon “Scott” McDonald at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center. Credit: Dale Bowman

Archery trick artist/contortionist/comedian Sara Twitch prepares to shoot the apple off volunteer Marlon “Scott” McDonald at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center.

Dale Bowman

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is all in at the show with license and permit sales, harvest pin sales, conservation police officers and wildlife staff answering questions and Illinois Recreational Access Program staff have details on IRAP.

I missed seeing Mel Johnson, the most-down-to-earth outdoors celebrity I’ve met, who died May 24, 2018. His Pope and Young Club world record for typical white-tailed buck (a replica was on display), stunningly, outlived him. On Oct. 29, 1965, Johnson arrowed a symmetrical 13-point buck, which was formally scored at 204 4/8 inches, in a Peoria County beanfield. Every year or two, rumors fly of the record being surpassed, yet more than 57 years later, it still stands.

It still says something about deer hunting in Illinois.

The show (illinoisdeerclassic.com) runs through Sunday, April 2.

A replica of the Mel Johnson’s world-record typical buck at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center. Credit: Dale Bowman

A replica of the Mel Johnson’s world-record typical buck at the Illinois Deer Classic at the Peoria Civic Center.

Dale Bowman