Heartland Lodge; Illinois Deer Hunting Outfitter

By Josh SturgillFebruary 19, 20141 Comment

LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015

God has blessed me over the years and given me the opportunity to hunt monster whitetails all over the Southeastern United States. I have been fortunate enough to immerse myself in the hunt for these animals to the point that it was all I thought about. I relished the thought of sitting in a tree by myself and watching as an arrow I had just released as it sliced through the air toward that perfect kill shot on a monster buck. That way of thinking continued until my son turned six and I took him on his first youth Deer hunt.

The Heartland Lodge

Hunters can expect only the highest quality accommodations while staying at Heartland Lodge

As we sat in a box blind on a cold October morning, sharing honey buns and talking about super heroes and whether or not Wolverine could take Superman in a street fight, I slowly started to realize that my thoughts on hunting were all wrong. My pursuit of massive antlers had blinded me to what drew me to hunting when I was a kid. It was never how much game we took. What mattered when I was a kid was getting to spend time with my Dad and the rest of my family. The memories that stood out to me were never the animals that we had harvested, but instead everything else that happened on the trip. Whether it was someone falling in a creek or my uncle cutting a grape vine so we kids could swing on it and see who could do the best rendition of Tarzan, those were always the memories that I hold most dear.

As I looked at my son I realized that I did not want his experience to revolve around the harvest. Instead, I wanted his most precious memories to be about the journey to the harvest. These feelings I have were reaffirmed recently when I got to spend some time with Gary Harpole of Heartland Lodge in Pike County Illinois. Gary has spent many years creating an atmosphere that promotes the making of memories with families and friends and believes that is the most important aspect of hunting.

Q: Tell me how and why Heartland Lodge was started?

A: Heartland was started as a result of my passion for the outdoors. I grew up hunting and it was a dream of mine to be able to do something in the outdoor industry for a living. Outfitting was the perfect fit as I enjoy seeing other people’s dreams come true. The memories and traditions that are started and shared each year at the lodge are very special. Many father/son or daughter, hunting buddies, couples, business friends make Heartland an annual tradition. Being a part of it is the best reward a person could experience.

Mathews and Father with Buck

Mathew and his father making memories at Heartland

Q: Tell me about Heartland Lodge and why it is special?

A: Heartland is about the people. Our hunters become like family, our staff is like family, we even call it the “Heartland Family”. Each hunt and hunter is very important to me. I limit the amount of hunters we take each week to make sure we can spend quality time with each one of them. I want all of our hunters to come back next year and tell their friends about Heartland Lodge. I want them to be as happy when they leave as they were when they arrive. Our customer service separates us from most all other outfitters. Being a hunter myself and going on hunts with outfitters, I understand how important a hunt is to someone. I want to make sure we live up to their expectations.

Q: How much work and time has gone into making Heartland Lodge what it is today?

A: Years of hard work have gone into Heartland Lodge and make it what it is today. We try to improve a little each year. We also have an advantage that we are open all year so we have full time employees who are thinking about deer season 12 months of the year. Our cooks and other staff are also full time. Most outfitters have seasonal employees or cater their meals in. We do hire seasonal guides in the fall but we have a full time whitetail manager and a full time assistant manager that focus on whitetail hunting 24/7. Everyone works hard to make sure our hunters are happy with their experience.

Q: How does the process work for someone who wants to book a hunt?

A: The best way is to give us a call 217-734-2526 or you can e-mail me directly [email protected]

Q: What will people be most surprised about when they show up?

A: Our service and how much we care about each hunter and their hunt. Also our accommodations and meals are amazing and important part in being a successful hunter. Mental fatigue and physical tiredness play a factor on day 4 or 5 of a hunt and having a nice place to “recharge” helps when sitting on the stand for long hours. Our guides and land are also the best, but that is what one expects when they book a hunt with an outfitter.

Q: What has been the hardest thing you have had to overcome at Heartland Lodge?

A: When hunting free roaming whitetails you cannot control 100% of the outcome. You can have a week where everyone in camps see’s shooters and have awesome hunts. Then the very next group of hunters can have a slow hunt due to deer movement. As an outfitter you see the whole picture but hunters only see a short window during the time they are here. Making sure hunters have realistic expectations before they arrive is also important.

Pike County is famous and has been featured on many hunting shows. Those shows were not filmed in one day; sometimes it can take weeks to get a good buck on film. You don’t see all the hunts that were not successful. Fortunately, the majority of our hunters is repeat clients and has realistic expectations. They have seen the good weeks and also have been here during the slow weeks, but realize if you put your time in, the odds will increase your chances of harvesting the buck of a lifetime. Everything we can control we try hard to make perfect, the quality of the land we hunt, the guides, meals and accommodations will all be very good.

Mathews with a Hunted Buck

Mathew with a fine buck he harvested while hunting with his parents

Q: What are the do’s and don’ts for hunters when they show up?

A: I am fortunate to go on hunting trips with outfitters myself and I have learned a lot from the hunters who hunt with me. I use a milkshake analogy to best describe what I have learned over the years. Going on hunting trips, especially whitetail hunts, is a lot like drinking a milkshake. Many hunters get so focused on the cherry (harvesting a buck or any animal) they don’t enjoy the entire experience (milkshake). I have personally been on successful and not successful hunts but after I took on the milkshake mentality I have enjoyed them all equally the same. I have noticed those who hunt with me with the milkshake mindset often are the ones that are successful. They don’t put so much pressure on themselves and end up being more relaxed. So make sure you enjoy your experience even if you are not successful in harvesting an animal. You will get so much more out of your hunts if you do.

Q: What is the one thing people do not know about Heartland lodge that they should?

A: That we welcome our hunters to come visit us in the spring/summer before their hunt. This gives them a chance to get to know us and we get to know them before they arrive in the fall. Also it is a great mental boost to see all the bucks in velvet in the fields. Then when you come back in the fall to hunt, you know there are nice bucks and this keeps you motivate when you are not seeing a lot of movement.

Q: How has EHD affected you guys in the last couple of years?

A: Not much on the farms we hunt, but some of our neighbors have said they lost deer to EHD. We have not found many dead deer; the most is 4 on one of our farms. We had an over population in Pike County so a few less deer would not be a bad thing. When you are seeing browse lines in the timber or 30-40 deer herded up in the winter in Pike County, you know there are too many deer. But from an outfitter standpoint many hunters enjoy seeing deer to keep them mentally into their hunt. We have seen many deer and a lot of bucks during the late doe season this year (A healthy number. Not too many but not too few either). I believe with 2013 being a slow year for everyone, 2014 should be a good one. And if there are a few less deer as a result of EHD the stress on all the other deer should be less; resulting in better antler development.

The Dining Room

The dining room where family and friends can gather and make memories that will last a lifetime

Q: What are the most important things that a hunter can do to help increase their odd of taking a trophy buck when coming to Heartland Lodge?

A: Have the milkshake mentality along with what I call the Muskie mentality. If you have hunted with me you have heard my Muskie analogy, for those who haven’t I will give you the short version. I was an avid bass fisherman growing up. When I was 14 I went Muskie fishing with my Uncle. We fished from sun up to sun down and didn’t catch a fish! We had one swirl at our lure and that was it. When we got back into the truck I told my uncle it was the worst day of fishing ever. He looked at me and smiled and said son, it was a great day of fishing…did you see that sun rise…did you see that one swirl…did you see those ducks land on the lake? I thought he was nuts!

Fast forward 20 years…I noticed many of the successful hunters who hunt with me at the lodge or on their own property at home had a similar mentality as my Uncle when it came to trophy deer hunting. They can hunt day after day and not see a buck but be just as positive going out the next time. I soon realized there are two kinds of whitetail hunters. There are deer hunters (similar to bass fisherman) who need to see action to be happy and there are trophy deer hunters (similar to Muskie fishermen) who could hunt for 10 days straight without seeing a trophy buck and could go out on the 11th day and be as just mentally ready as they were on the first day. If you can adopt the milkshake and Muskie mentality your success and enjoyment of the hunt is going to be much better.

The Great Room

The Great Room at Heartland is the perfect place to unwind and relax after a day afield

Q: Tell me about a hunt that shows most what Heartland Lodge is all about.

A: We have a family that wanted their 11 year old son to experience “deer camp.” They wanted to start an annual family hunting tradition. Both parents grew up in families that shared the annual tradition of deer camp. Unfortunately both parents’ family tradition ended after the grandparents passed. They didn’t have a place to take their son, so they started looking for somewhere they could start their own tradition. They spent the next 8 years hunting with us building memories and a new tradition their son will always remember. Their son went off to college last fall and had to miss their annual hunt. Dad and mom still came, but it wasn’t the same without their son. Mathew (their son) called from school every day to see how the hunting was going. He told his parents that next year he was going to do whatever it took to be in “deer camp” again. His Dad and Mom where very proud and told me not only will they keep this tradition going as long as they can, they believe Mathew will carry on the tradition of hunting at Heartland with his own family someday.

I personally have been blessed with some amazing hunts and trophies over the years. But when guests ask about my favorite hunts the Alaska Moose, Arizona Elk, or the monster Illinois whitetails don’t crack the top ten. My best hunts are the ones I had with my late grandfather, my uncles, my dad, and other family. Deer camp was a tradition I looked forward to; much like Mathew does. The coolest thing about Heartland Lodge and what we are all about is those same memories and traditions are happening every day here with our hunters. I am very fortunate to share those types of memories with so many great people.

Q: What are the best ways to get more information about Heartland Lodge.

A: Our web site is full of great information www.Heartlandldoge.com or you can e-mail me at [email protected] or give us call at 217-734-2526

Josh Sturgill
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