Better Late Than Ever

Iowa's late muzzleloader season provides what's arguably the best opportunity of the year for bagging a true whitetail giant. (January 2009)

Careful study of deer movement between bedding and feeding areas can maximize your odds of connecting with a buck during Iowa's late muzzleloader season.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Fortunately, some of my best friends are beyond obsession when it comes to chasing trophy whitetails.

Kyle Allen's name comes up at the supper table at least a couple of times a week between November and the end of Iowa's late muzzleloader season when my wife goes into her seemingly perpetual diatribe about "too much deer hunting."

Allen only missed "tree time" five days last season from the beginning of bow season until the final 209 primer popped; two of those days he spent in the hospital. He hunted three states and probably spent thousands of dollars on gear, leases, food plots and other trappings of tall tine hunting.

Allen has only been married four years, and his being out in the woods for two hours on either side of daylight for months has taught him the virtues of reaffirming devotion. "I make it a point to call my wife several times each day," Allen said. "I send her flowers and get her surprise trips to the spa. But it's those phone calls -- sometimes whispered from a tree -- (that) are most critical."

Allen didn't tie the knot until he was almost 40 years old, and his wife, Lori, knew that fleas were part of the package when she took the old dog home. "Chasing trophy whitetails and marriage are both lifetime commitments," Allen stated. "There isn't a single day that goes by where I don't at least call my wife and say, 'I love you, 'deer.'"

Kyle Allen spends a great deal of time in his home state of Wisconsin waiting for big bucks in one of his 94 tree stands. He leases some ground in Buffalo County -- perhaps the No. 1 trophy whitetail county in the world.

This year, Kyle drew a late-season muzzleloader tag in Allamakee County, where I've lived for the past two years. I moved to Allamakee County from Illinois for three reasons: outstanding fishing, low property taxes and the fact that Allamakee County is among the best counties in the world for producing trophy deer!

The only reason I missed 15 days of hunting last fall is found in the first two reasons for moving to Iowa. Allamakee County is heaven on earth.

Work as an outdoor journalist takes me to a half-dozen states every year. These travels beyond our borders reveal an understated excellence in our Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Complaining about IDNR rules and procedures is universal among sportsmen -- and the agency certainly isn't perfect. But the stewardship of our natural resources people is far better than you'll find in any state with which we share a common border.

Iowa deer management is a case in point. Those truly obsessed with whitetails know that the late muzzleloader season holds the very best potential for harvesting a trophy animal. Those hunters with enough restraint to wait for this season to fill a firearm buck tag realize success comes in careful study of deer habits and movement between food sources and bedding areas.

The single-shot nature of muzzleloading makes stand-hunting a better option than Iowa's favored method of whitetail pursuit -- the deer drive.

With all that crusty snow last year, a trophy buck had no trouble homing in on sources of potential danger literally a mile away when bedded down. The only window of vulnerability was on travels to and from food sources.

Several very nice bucks made this trek on a daily basis in late December on ground where I had permission to hunt. As many as 30 whitetails would sneak out of their beds in cedars about halfway up on the side of one of Allamakee County's "mini-mountains" sometime after 3 p.m. and make their way down to a 10-acre alfalfa field with no natural cover within 150 yards.

Does would come out first, followed by smaller bucks. The biggest of the bucks wouldn't appear until seven or eight deer with headgear had been chowing down with little evidence of concern for a good 10 minutes.

I watched him through a spotting scope in the farmer's barn three nights in a row prior to hunting. Trophy bucks will seldom give you a second chance. Statistics indicate most trophies are taken on a hunter's first trip to a given stand.

He was a typical 10-pointer with a narrow but tall rack that was almost as white as the surrounding snow. His bedding area was a little copse of cedars on a 2-acre woodlot surrounded by fallow grain fields, a half-mile from my vantage point in the hayloft.

The prevailing wind was from the northwest in the three days prior to the hunt. Mr. Big came out and approached the alfalfa field through a partially open gate at a point about 120 yards from a row of large round hay bales and about 400 yards from his bedding area.

Winds were calm and the temperature hovered around zero when I left the farm buildings about 2 p.m. en route to the hay bales nearly out of sight of the little copse of trees.

The closest ambush point where the bales were at least shoulder width apart from the partially open gate was a good 150 yards. With 130 grains of Pyrodex, my 240-grain bullet would impact about five inches low at this distance.

The crusty nature of the snow made it easy to break off blocks of the frozen stuff to build a wall between the bales from the little foxhole I dug by hand for concealment. Requisite blaze orange was at a minimum. All other clothing -- and my gun -- was covered in snow camouflage.

Safety must be the ultimate concern anytime you enter the field. This is especially true with firearm deer hunting. During the shotgun season I wouldn't even think about leaving the house without looking like a giant blaze-orange pumpkin.

Brutal weather, the fact that I was the only person with permission and unobstructed visibility for at least a half-mile in all directions drove clothing selection on this hunt.

A pair of does came out, ate and left the field about 3 p.m. Shortly after 4 p.m. they came back, followed by another doe. By 4:15 there were maybe a dozen deer grazing in the alfalfa in front of me, 40 to 150 yards away. Several were bucks, and one was a possible "shooter." His rack was outside the ears and carried eight points. There was not much mass in the rack, but its tines measured six or seven inches.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught some movement near the partially open gate. Locomotive breath. Antlers. Nice buck. Was he the one I'd been watching from the barn a half-mile away? I wasn't sure.

He entered the field. Smaller bucks paid homage by backing away as he worked across the alfalfa. My body was trembling with cold -- not buck fever.

A muzzleloader affords you one shot. The buck was taking his time, walking in front of the barrel to a point at which I could fire with little movement. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. I placed my cross hairs near the top of his shoulder and silently told myself to wait until he dropped his head to eat. In mid-breath, sending steam into the air, I squeezed the trigger.

The buck dropped in his tracks. I reloaded. He didn't move a muscle. Ecstasy turned to gloom about halfway through the 196 paces to where the buck lay in the snow.

He wasn't Mr. Big! The tall, white 10-point rack, perfectly symmetrical, would only measure about 130 inches -- far short of the 150 inches I'd estimated through the spotting scope.

Nine days remained in the muzzleloader season when I filled my buck tag last year. There has been ample time to forget the experience of being really, really cold. My biggest regret came several months later on public ground near Waukon.

Serious deer hunters know the time to start hunting is in early spring after a rain has flushed the snow away. Shed antlers and deer trails covered with scat provide invaluable information for ambushing a big buck the following season.

I found 22 sheds last spring, several from 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-year-old animals. Nineteen sheds were found on food plots, two on trails and one in a bedding area.

The one that looked like half of a ribcage was in an unharvested cornfield leased by the IDNR primarily for upland game hunting. If I hadn't seen those deer feeding in the alfalfa on private ground just a little closer to home, this buck might have come down the trail past a hollowed cottonwood tree.

Deer spoor was literally more than an inch deep on several parts of this funnel trail between bluffs on private ground and the upland habitat in the cornfield.

Survival is Job No. 1 one for wildlife. When hunters are tromping and shotguns are blasting, deer hunker down to survive. But survival requires food, especially as temperatures drop.

Deer -- even monster bucks -- will take the shortest route between bedding areas and food within a week after the close of the second shotgun season in Iowa. It's like a stalemate checkers game in which the only remaining king can move back and forth in the corner of the board forever. If you could establish a field of fire where those two squares intersect there would be an immediate end-game scenario.

Imagine the 8,503-acre Yellow River State Forest in southern Allamakee County as a big checkerboard. You can write off 99 percent of this vast tract of unbroken forest during the late muzzleloader season. Deer will be moving at "the corner of the board" between bedding areas and food for the hour or so surrounding dawn and dusk.

Evening is by far the better window of opportunity because you can move to a stand at your leisure while deer are bedded down burning valuable energy and waiting until they think it's safe to move for food.

Hunting an area like the Wiese Slough WMA in eastern Iowa is even easier. This 1,707-acre matrix of timber, food plots and wetlands in Muscatine County sounds like a war zone throughout most of December. But in the last week or so of the late muzzleloader season, the guns are silent -- and the bucks are almost trotting from their beds to the food after 3 p.m.

The Loess Hills area in Monona and Harrison counties doesn't produce as many monster bucks as it did a few years ago. But there are still respectable animals present. You'll find them sneaking back into food plots near the Turin Preserve and Loess Hills State Forest before the invoice of your Christmas credit card purchases shows up in the mail.

By the time Iowa's late muzzleloader season rolls around, most hunters who are serious about harvesting a whitetail with a smokepole have probably spent a fair share of time in the woods with a bow or shotgun.

The Hawkeye state has a wealth of public hunting areas where you can fill a late muzzleloader tag. You can check the IDNR Web site at www.iowadnr. com/wildlife/files/logbook.html for insight into some of the more productive public areas for late-season hunting in the state.

You can peruse the pages of the Iowa Sportsman's Atlas -- which nobody who hunts or fishes in this state should try to do without (1-800-568-8334; www.sportsmanatlas.com) -- or you can bite the bullet, fill up with gas and go knock on doors of private landowners seeking permission to hunt.

The last option may make some hunters pipe-dreaming about big bucks uncomfortable. The best deer hunting in our state is on private lands. Deer hunting and deer management are held nearly sacred by many Iowa farmers. In many instances the annual deer hunt is a cherished family tradition.

This hunt is over. The crops are harvested. For the next couple of months, farmers won't venture far from the house except to do chores, buy groceries, attend church or cheer at the kid's basketball game. Iowa's farmers are some of the best folks you'll ever meet; now's the time to meet them.

You have a tag for a one-shot weapon, and you'd love to bag a big buck. Farmers tend to guard the trophies that frequent their property like they would a prize bull. However, in many of our state's deer management units with substantial whitetail populations, antlerless deer are almost a nuisance. They eat crops and take money out of the farmer's pocket.

Consider purchasing any available antlerless tags and promise not to shoot an antlered deer with your primitive weapon if the farmer will let you hunt. Some farmers will tell you to get off their property. But you will be amazed how easy it is to get permission with winter at hand.

My wife and I moved to Iowa in late August two years ago. We own just 5 acres, but Iowa only requires ownership of 2 acres to obtain a landowner tag. The whitetails that ate my wife's flowers and destroyed my newly planted trees were transformed into chili.

The neighbor who farms thousands of acres bordering our property didn't return phone calls or answer the letter using the self-addressed stamped envelope, which was enclosed. As mid-September arrived, it looked as if I'd either be setting up a ladder stand over gnawed-off tulips or be hunting public ground. Then a miserable, rainy day set in, and I drove several miles to where the neighbor who owned all that adjoining property lived.

A man carrying two five-gallon pails of feed noticed the Illinois license tags on my truck. When asked where I could find the

landowner the man replied, "He went to the river with a load of grain and won't be back until tomorrow."

I told him I was new to the area and been trying to contact the landowner for over a month. The man smiled wryly, set down the pails of feed and shook my hand. "I saw the out-of-state tags and figured you were a stranger," he smiled. "Welcome, neighbor. You have my permission to hunt."

A couple of weeks later after church, an older man who had a large farm several miles up the valley from our house came up and talked to me about hunting. I told him I hunted with a bow and a muzzleloader, touching on the importance of making one shot count and respect for the landowner's property. He also granted permission to hunt.

The Mississippi River is more than just some of the Creator's finest work. We are a western state with western attitudes -- an entirely different perspective than you'll find east of the River.

Non-residents feel lucky if they draw a buck tag every third year, gladly forking over hundreds of dollars for an antlered license. We only have to cough up $27. This license fee, a tank of gas and a little time have the real potential to set you up for an even greater expenditure: Do you know how much taxidermists are getting for a shoulder mount these days?

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