Iowa's Best-Bet Bowhunts

Iowa's Best-Bet Bowhunts

Whether you're looking for a wallhanger or simply trying to fill the freezer, the Hawkeye State is full of public options for the whitetail bowhunter. Read on for the best of Iowa bowhunting. (September 2008)

Archers all over Iowa can expect superb public whitetail hunting this fall.
Photo by Michael H. Francis.

Iowa's bowhunting prospects are only getting better -- at least, that's the word from Tom Litchfield, the state's new deer biologist.

"Deer numbers are strong across the state, especially in the southern third, on the eastern side and along the western edge," said the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Litchfield. "There's also the potential for a new state-record typical buck. There are a number of bucks that are close to that size at any given time, and if someone catches the right animal at the right time, there'll be a new state record."

When a whitetail is old enough to produce a typical rack of this size, the window of opportunity may only last for a season. In another year or so, the rack will probably start to develop non-typical points.

Whether you're after that elusive trophy-class rack or a full freezer this fall, these are the places you'll want to bring your bow.

"Shimek is intimidating to many Iowa hunters because of (its) huge blocks of forest, but it's still the place to go," said IDNR wildlife biologist Bill Ohde. "I'd recommend the Croton Units in the forest because they're smaller and have a little more edge around them. These areas will require more scouting time than normal to find travel corridors and activity areas, because the deer aren't as concentrated as they are in the agricultural parts of the state."

Shimek State Forest sprawls over several thousand acres of dense tangle, woodlots and transitional cover. Walking through Shimek means you may have to pack a set of wings. The area is characterized by narrow valleys and drainages with thin, flat ridgetops. A compass and a good map will help you keep your bearings.

Oak and hickory trees are abundant here, making the mast crop an important forage source in Shimek. Look for stands on top of or along the sides of the ridges.

The Shimek SF is located in Lee and Van Buren counties in the southeastern part of the state. There are five main sections of forest with the smallest covering more than 900 acres and the largest nearly 3,000 acres.

The Division of Forestry maintains an office about a mile northeast of Farmington on county Route J56. For additional information, contact the forest office at (319) 878-3811 or the IDNR's Wapello Wildlife Management Unit at (641) 682-3552.

Though significantly smaller than Shimek SF, the Dekalb Wildlife Management Area offers plenty of prime whitetail country of its own. It covers 2,190 acres in Decatur County.

"The Dekalb and Sand Creek WMAs are probably the best bowhunting areas in this unit," said IDNR wildlife biologist Chad Paup. "If hunters go to the IDNR Web site, they can look up the interactive maps of these areas and can get a satellite view of natural funnels and pinch points. The woodland habitat is fantastic."

The deer numbers are looking good and the trophy deer potential is excellent at Dekalb. The area consists primarily of forested land with several hundred acres of upland fields and brush. The interior areas get less hunting pressure than the perimeter areas and archers can take advantage of this.

Smaller WMAs can be excellent big-buck territory because they're easily overlooked. On the other hand, too much pressure can spook the deer and push them onto the surrounding private properties.

Dekalb WMA is about five miles west of Grand River on county Route J20 and then three-quarters of a mile north on a gravel road.

If Dekalb is busy, it'll be worth checking out Sand Creek WMA. Sand Creek covers 3,550 acres with lots of edge habitat in the form of firebreaks and crop leases. Northeast of Mt. Ayr, Sand Creek WMA lies in Decatur and Ringgold counties about three miles north of Grand River off county Route R15. For more information contact the Mt. Ayr Wildlife Management Unit at (641) 464-0222.

These public lands in Lyon and Sioux counties are no secret when it comes to bow season, but they still hold a lot of deer, according to IDNR wildlife biologist Chris LaRue. This is another of those rare hotspots in the northwestern corner of the state that can save gas money for some archers by allowing them to hunt close to home.

"The Big Sioux River Complex has several state wildlife management areas that run along the Big Sioux River Valley," said LaRue. "They get pressured during bow and regular deer seasons, but the deer numbers have remained very stable. These deer are in quality habitat that allows the herd to move around between Iowa and land in South Dakota."

Rolling timber is intermixed with some high-quality prairie areas that are not only beautiful but hold good numbers of deer. Whitetails will occasionally retreat into the grass if that's not where the hunters are moving, and quite often they end up being completely overlooked.

Most of the state lands are also managed with grain and green-browse food plots that concentrate the deer, especially for early- and late-season bowhunters.

Combined, the Kroger, Nelson and Olson tracts of the Big Sioux River Complex cover 758 acres near Inwood in Lyon County.

The Gitchie Manitou WMA near Larchwood covers 91 acres along the river in Lyon County and the Big Sioux WMA near Rock Valley in Sioux County covers 367 acres. For additional information, call the Big Sioux Wildlife Management Unit at (712) 336-3524.

The West Fork Complex is another area where hunters can easily access good hunting, according to IDNR natural resources technician T.J. Herrick. The deer are plentiful and hunters can find plenty of elbowroom.

"Most of the habitat is lowland timber, grasslands and old river oxbows," said Herrick. "The tracts are in close proximity to each other and the hunting pressure ranges from low to moderate. The hunter willing to walk at least half a mile in from the roadway will find himself either alone or close to it, and he's likely to have a successful hunt."

The forests and wetlands that make up much of the complex are good places to put into practice the concept of going where n

o human has ever gone before. If it's wet, put on a pair of waders and pick out the nastiest, most inhospitable spots you can find. You won't find many other hunters in your spot and you may be onto the older, more experienced deer.

Some of these remote areas can be reached during dry weather, but even in the smaller tracts, there are spots where humans seldom venture. The average hunter isn't usually this ambitious. The problem lies in getting a big buck out once he's been tagged.

Aerial photos are probably the best way to find the remote sections. Just be willing to work to reach them.

The complex contains the 1,600-acre West Fork Wildlife Management Area and an assortment of smaller state-owned marshes and grasslands. Palo Alto County Conservation Board holdings contribute about 850 acres along the West Fork of the Des Moines River. The West Fork WMA is a nice mixture of floodplain timber, marsh and grassland. It's located north of Emmetsburg off state Route 4. For more information, contact the Ruthven Wildlife Management Unit at (712) 837-4850.

This is a good spot to hunt and has high numbers of deer, according to IDNR wildlife biologist Jeffrey Telleen. With approximately 16,000 acres, the area is big enough for archery season hunters to spread out and have a decent chance of connecting with a trophy buck.

"All of our areas have good deer numbers, but if I had to choose, the Rathbun WMA would be it," said Telleen. "It's large and provides the opportunity to get away from other hunters, coupled with the diversity of habitats that areas of this size can offer."

It's no surprise that whitetails are adaptable enough to be found anywhere in the WMA. Rathbun encompasses the reservoir of the same name, forested tracts and a lot of upland grass and brush, all of which are frequented by the healthy local herd.

Wait until the middle of the week to venture afield here rather than going on the weekends when the area is busy. Getting into the section you want to hunt before sunrise can be productive. Let the latecomers drive the deer right to you.

Rathbun is located in Appanoose, Lucas, Monroe and Wayne counties. Access is about 6 miles north of Plano on state Route 142. For additional information, contact the Rathbun Wildlife Management Unit at (641) 774-4918.

When you start talking about Saylorville, most outdoorsmen automatically think about fishing. But some of the public lands around the reservoir are open to hunting, and they're loaded with whitetails that can easily be overlooked by archers.

"After the season was over last winter, we flew over the area and saw a lot of nice bucks on the property," said Litchfield. "There are definitely some good bucks in there and good numbers of deer."

This is a great spot to fill antlerless tags along with the chance for a big buck. Des Moines-area archers descending on the area during the week will have a lot less competition than they'll have on the weekends.

Saylorville offers bottomland forest along the Des Moines River and upland forest from the Saylorville dam north to Big Creek Lake. Creeks, ponds and grasslands in various stages of succession break up the forest and provide deer with good access to fields and forage areas. Most of the property is open to bowhunting. Be sure to check the hunting map for no-hunting sections.

Deer are adaptable, and the fact that Saylorville is a far cry from a wilderness hunt isn't a problem. The area gets a lot of general recreational use and deer hunters need to be especially safety-conscious.

The entire area covers about 26,000 acres of land and water. Access is from state Route 17 north of Des Moines in the Des Moines River Valley. It lies in Polk, Dallas and Boone counties. For additional information, contact the Saylorville Wildlife Management Unit at (515) 432-2823.

The two top picks for archery season in this neck of the woods are the Bloody Run and Sny Magill areas in Clayton County, according to IDNR wildlife biologist Doug Chafa. Both of these areas offer the opportunity for the buck of a lifetime as well as plenty of opportunities to fill antlerless tags.

Bloody Run is difficult to access, which results in fewer hunters and better hunting, said Chafa. Access to Bloody Run is a half-mile west of Marquette on U.S. Route 18 and then a mile west on 128th. The WMA covers 610 acres.

The Sny Magill/North Cedar WMA is just the opposite. Access is easy on gravel roads that are provided throughout the 1,795-acre WMA, and there are plenty of walk-in opportunities. The area can be reached six miles south of McGregor on county Route X56 and then three miles northwest on Keystone Road.

"Don't be afraid that the easy access on North Cedar will mean lower numbers of deer or a lower quality of buck," said Chafa. "I've seen and heard reports from numerous hunters that took bucks during the 2007 season that scored over 150."

The challenge that faces hunters in Clayton County is the need to reduce the deer population, said Chafa. Taking advantage of antlerless tags, introducing new deer hunters to the sport and speaking with elected officials are all parts of a good deer management program. Deer hunters have been harvesting more does than bucks for three years running here, and the herd is responding favorably.

Contact the Sweet Marsh Wildlife Management Unit at (563) 425-4257 for more information.

Pickings are good in the river corridor and central Iowa hunters will find excellent bowhunting prospects on these public lands. The 6,500-acre Brushy Creek State Recreation Area is a good spot to start.

The area south of county Route D46 is a large tract that covers about 1,700 acres. The road just north of the southern equestrian area includes 300 acres, all of which can be good hunting for the archer. The Boone Forks area along the Boone River is open to public hunting and is mainly upland habitat. Boone Forks gets a lot of hunting pressure and is located just north of Stratford on county Route R21.

Brushy Creek is rough-and-tumble territory, and a good topographic map is a great tool to have. Potential funnels and corridors are evident and can eliminate a lot of nonproductive area and put a bowhunter onto moving deer.

The area is divided roughly into North, Middle and South units. All three harbor a lot of deer. About a third of the area is timbered with the rest being upland habitat with access to walk-in-only country.

Access to the SRA is three miles east of Lehigh on county Route D46 in Webster County. For more information, call the Chariton IDNR office at (641) 774-2958.


a lot of good bowhunting in the Cedar Rapids area, and some of the best is right where Hawkeye hunters would least expect it.

"There's deer everywhere," said IDNR wildlife biologist Tim Thompson. "We saw several nice bucks during the aerial surveys and I feel that the sleeper areas are going to be around the rural housing. If people can make connections with landowners, they should be able to have some very good hunts. Public land hunters will find their sleeper around Coralville (Lake). There is a lot of public land here that is accessible only by boat or via private land."

Last winter's heavy snows in the Cedar Rapids area were expected to impact small game but not significantly affect the whitetails, said Thompson. The aerial surveys have shown that though there are lower numbers of whitetails in Benton, Cedar, Johnson and Linn counties than in previous years, the herd is up in Washington County primarily because of the deer on Lake Darling State Park.

The reservoir wasn't planned with deer hunting in mind, and only the property needed for the impoundment was set aside with public money. The huntable portions don't abut the roadways much and access to them can be tough. The deer numbers are up on the southern part of the reservoir property, and the upper end of the reservoir is the Hawkeye WMA that covers nearly 14,000 acres. This section's deer count was down last winter and the hunting pressure was fairly constant through the January doe season.

For more information, contact the Coralville Wildlife Management Unit at (319) 354-8343 or (319) 335-1575.

For additional information on bowhunting in Iowa, contact IDNR research biologist Tom Litchfield at (641) 774-2958. For trip-planning assistance and information on where to stay, contact the Iowa Tourism Office toll-free at 1-888-472-6035.

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