Hawkeye hunters are smack dab in the middle of some of the nation’s best whitetail deer hunting. Iowa big buck opportunities are no secret as many high-scoring deer get shot or arrowed in this Midwestern, predominately rural state.
With a lot of big deer and the attention that brings however, hunters have had to continually adapt. Big deer raise the bar. When big deer are on the landscape, hunters seem to get increasingly cunning not just to outwit the grey-muzzled, Roman-nosed buck, but also just to compete with other hunters.
When we look at what is a trophy whitetail, the method and story along with opportunities present always affect the score in this hunter’s book. Some hunters have access to large, private tracts of primo land that can be managed specifically for harvesting a mature whitetail with stud genetics. Other hunters hunt on the fringe where huge racks are still possible but not as probable.
Regardless of where a hunter stands in regards to access and opportunity, farming practices often dictate the savvy deer hunter’s strategy. Also, as farming practices, crop genetics and crop rotations have changed over the last twenty years, both deer and hunters have made adjustments out of necessity.
For many hunters, crops and agricultural practices dictate travel routes, bedding areas and, ultimately, stand placement — especially on tracts of land that do not have food plots.
FIELDS OF DREAMS
Corn is a commodity that has an incredible influence on both deer and deer hunters in the state of Iowa. Corn, or a lack thereof, drastically alters deer travel. On some ground, corn is rotated with crops like soybeans, for example, and as a result, hot funnels and travel routes can vary drastically from season to season by just the common variable of what adjacent crops are planted.
Iowa ranks number one in the nation in regards to corn bushels produced each season. In 2011, there were approximately 14.1 million acres planted into corn. An estimated 2.36 million bushels of corn were produced in Iowa during 2011. With CRP acres dwindling, the amount of corn produced has been increasing each year. This increase in corn, loss of CRP and, in some cases, late corn harvests are changing deer hunting strategy in Iowa.
“We used to have a lot more of CRP when commodity prices were lower,” explains Iowa deer hunting fanatic Mark Sexton. The CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) was a farm program that idled tilled acres back to native grasslands and was good habitat for wildlife. “The CRP has switchgrass and other good cover and when we had the CRP, the deer had a tendency to spread out more than they are now, particularly during the early bow season. These tracts of CRP produced a lot of nice bucks. Without as much CRP and more and more CRP contracts expiring each season, what was once grass is once again planted to crops like corn.”
According to Sexton, bedding areas get more defined and concentrated. Without the grass cover, the deer get concentrated moreso in fingers, draws and other cover with tangled brush and thick wood. With fewer deer after the hard winter of 2011 and more concentrated deer with less CRP on the landscape, there are fewer deer and many big buck opportunities are more concentrated in prime wood cover that might be more challenging to access.
With more corn and less cover, deer habits and movements have changed, which can create some challenges for hunters.
“When the corn is standing, deer often seem to move less as they have such an easy existence,” explains Sexton. “We often see deer bedding right in the corn or moving less than a half-mile from where they are bedding. When deer aren’t moving far on a travel route, it can become much easier to kick up deer trying to slide in or out of the stand location.” Sexton also observes that deer often move less during the day and can be hard to pattern. “You definitely have to do your homework more as it is much harder to go out without any prior knowledge and try and get lucky — at least until the rut begins.”
Many deer will indeed bed down in standing corn (especially if there are weeds and other cover in the field), which can offer deer more security. Sexton also focuses on thick draws or ridges that have good cover that somehow touches or intersects any standing corn. Sexton believes that big deer will often follow the cover a little more before the rut and late summer scouting is invaluable, particularly when the bucks are still in their small bachelor groups.
When deer are still in velvet, often before the season, one of Sextons favorite scouting strategies is to look for deer hitting soybean fields. Soybeans get harvested much sooner than corn and seem very palatable to deer late in the summer. Because deer are much more visible in soybean fields by late summer, hunters can assess the buck potential in an area. In many parts of Iowa, soybeans are often rotated with corn. While Sexton might not find solid patterns during the season where deer are hitting soybeans during daylight hours, particularly when there is abundant standing corn on the landscape, hunters can find deer that are using these crops during summer. This assessment of deer in the area where the hunter is scouting is invaluable.
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