NEBO, Ill. -- Matt Brunet sees lots of big bucks as he tends game plots or monitors trail cameras at Harpole's Heartland Lodge during the summer.
"One of the deer we have been watching is one we call ‘frog spear.' I have his sheds from the last couple of years and last year he was right at 200 inches and is looking like from the early pictures ... is going to be even bigger this year," Brunet said.
Brenda Middendorf of Pittsfield tracks "big bucks" of a different variety -- focusing on the money that comes into the region due to hunting and outdoor recreation.
As coordinator for Access Illinois Outdoors, Middendorf has a study showing that hunting and other outdoor activities bring about $20 million a year into Pike County. Another $25 million in indirect benefits are thought to accrue from that economic activity.
"There's been a real boom in Pike County," during hunting seasons and for other outdoor activities," Middendorf said.
Other counties in West-Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri also benefit from hunting dollars or visitors just looking for rural get-aways. But most don't have hard figures for the economic impact.
National statistics are available. The Bureau of Economic Analysis said the outdoor recreation industry accounted for $373.7 billion in spending during 2016 and was growing at a 3.8 percent rate, a full percentage point faster than the overall economy's growth.
However, the Outdoor Industry Association said the economic impact is actually $887 billion, based on gross output from the outdoor recreation sector. OIA includes the sale of outdoor apparel made in other countries in its figures, something that some other studies don't track.
Middendorf said Access Illinois Outdoors was launched in 1994 and she's been with the program from the start.
"In the late 1990s we recognized the demand to hunt whitetail and at that same time the ag climate wasn't conducive to farming. Some people were in jeopardy of losing the family farm," Middendorf said.
Hunting leases provided an income stream that helped landowners, but created some resentment among hunters who lost their favorite hunting sites.
"It was rough in the beginning. It took several years for people to accept that hunting is a sport and most sports aren't free. You don't play golf for free," Middendorf said.
It was a new concept for many local hunters. They were used to hunting on a relative's land or a neighbor's property. It took time for many people to adjust.
Access Illinois Outdoors is described by Middendorf as a match-making service, but it matches hunters or other outdoorsmen with landowners, rather than setting people up for dates.
A statewide Access Illinois database that includes 250,000 acres in 56 counties shows landowners who are open to leasing their land. Hunters pay a $25 membership fee, tell what type of game they want to pursue, what season they want to hunt and what counties they're interested in hunting. Middendorf then runs those preferences through a filter and puts hunters in contact with landowners -- who work out the details among themselves.
Although Middendorf doesn't get involved in lease arrangements, she's aware of deals worth between $16 per acre and $50 per acre. The price difference varies widely based on the quality of the hunting, whether it's mostly row crop ground or has timber, food plots and paths used by wildlife.
Gary Harpole II was a pioneer of sorts when he launched Harpole's Heartland Lodge near Nebo in 1995. The initial lodge, on Pea Ridge, is now surrounded by signs of a successful business model.
"We have three lodges of about 10,000 square feet each and a medium size lodge of about 5,000 square feet, and then we've just built four private, luxury cabins of about 750 square feet each. So we've got 35 total rooms in eight cabins," Harpole said.
Pike County's economy benefits from the 35 year round workers at Heartland and another 15 workers who come in during the peak season. There also are scores of landowners who receive lease payments that help them pay real estate taxes or offset the crop damage done by deer.
Brunet, Heartland's whitetail and turkey manager, has been a lodge employee for 11 years. His job is not seasonal.
"This time of year we are planting milo and corn for our upland and turkey food plots as well as mowing and spraying our clover for deer," Brunet said.
While hunting may have been the initial reason for building Heartland Lodge, Harpole said the off-season uses are just as important.
"The resort is the largest part of our business now," Harpole said.
"We do weddings, conferences and retreats for business groups that want to get away from the office."
All-terrain vehicles also have become a big attraction. People will bring in four-wheelers, side-by-sides or dirt bikes for trail rides. Horseback riding is still popular, but Harpole said the ATV craze is one thing he hadn't considered when launching the first lodge.
There are some cross-over attractions that combine hunting and resort offerings.
"We've had a lot of people coming here for hunting honeymoons. Sometimes the ladies are hunting, sometimes they're not. They're looking for a nicer room setup, and some of the couples come back on their anniversary too," Harpole said.
Some of his hunting clients also come back with their spouses and children during the off-season.
"I feel like (the lodge) is a carrot that gets people into the community. When we show them what we have to offer, some of them buy land here and start talking about plans to retire in Pike County," Harpole said.
And for other clients, lodges are considered well-appointed bed and breakfasts.
Dan Veihl of the Butcher Block in Quincy said hunting brings him business.
Although the Butcher Block no longer handles whole deer butchering, a lot of people still bring in deer meat to be processed into burger, sausage or other snack products.
Veihl said snow goose season also is a busy time. Last year his shop processed about a ton of goose and duck sausage.
Hunting is described by Veihl as a excellent source of tourism dollars for a broad range of businesses.
"The hotels and the restaurants welcome the hunters," Veihl said.
Jennifer Stendback, co-owner of the Green Acres Hotel in Pittsfield, said October through December is her best quarter for revenue.
"We are very busy during that time to the point that people, when they leave, they make reservations for the next year. Maybe they want to book the same room," Stendback said.
In addition to being profitable, Stendback describes hunting season as "a really fun time" with hunters telling about where they come from and visiting with Green Acres staff.
"We've got people who come from Vermont and bring maple syrup. We use Dial soap because one of our hunters works for the Dial soap company and we hear about it if we've got a different kind of soap in his room," Stendback said.
Each of the rooms also have menus from local restaurants and there often are fliers from taxidermists who want to leave their contact information where hunters can find it.
"Hunters are pretty resourceful. The first thing they'll ask is ‘where is Walmart and where is the farm store.' '' Stendback said.
Angie Tincher, who works at Green Acres Hotel, also said hunters are her biggest tippers.
Fitz Chandler has been an outfitter for 29 years and runs Royal Flush Outfitters in Arbela, Mo.
Chandler will have 25 to 30 deer hunters per year and 12 to 13 turkey hunters. He said that makes him a small operator.
"I'm from Ballwin, Mo., originally. I had been coming up to hunt and in the '80s I could generally contact a landowner and get permission to hunt. It got tighter and tighter as the years went on until I decided to go into the hunting business," Chandler said.
In the early days Chandler would go to hunting shows on the East Coast and book customers. He would furnish food, lodging, guides, transportation and people to skin out the deer.
"The hardest thing to get is a good cook. We've been pretty fortunate, we've had excellent cooks, but you've got to be pretty stalwart to get up at 3 in the morning and start cooking for the hunters," Chandler said.
Missouri is popular with out-of-state hunters because they can buy hunting licenses over the counter. Many states with limited big-game numbers have a lottery or draw system.
Hunting licenses are only the first economic impact for the region. Chandler said the hunters buy gasoline, ice, drinks, snacks, go to restaurants and they invariably forget something and go to a local store. Farmers also benefit from leases of up to $20 or $25 per acre in Chandler's immediate area.
There have been a few changes over the years.
Chandler said turkey populations are down considerably from the 1980s. He knows that bobcats have taken a toll on young birds.
The number of hunting outfitters is up, but Chandler said there's more to that story.
"Outfitters sprung up everywhere, but they weren't doing everything they should," Chandler said.
He urges clients to always check on whether an outfitter has liability insurance and a business license with the state. He's heard of hunters who fell out of tree stands and had to cover their own hospitalization. Chandler said four-wheelers also are dangerous.