How's The Hawkeye Herd?

Iowa's hunters are a fortunate lot, as they share the state with one of the nation's healthiest -- and largest -- deer herds. And Iowa wildlife officials are taking steps to maintain that level of excellence.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

As I sat in an endless meeting, the clock crept toward 4 p.m. Finally, it adjourned. Within seconds I was on my way to some land located roughly halfway between work and home.

I pulled coveralls over my dress clothes and a blaze orange vest over my jacket, and dropped a slug into my compact single-shot Topper shotgun. In only a half-hour the January sun would set over a snowy world.

It was 10 degrees below zero. I knew a herd of does had been bedding down near a fenceline where they'd catch the afternoon sun's warmth. Fortunately, a snowy knob let me sneak to within 90 yards of the spot. I peeked over the snow to discover a big doe eyeing me from her bed. She stared just long enough for me to settle the 12-gauge shotgun on a split-rail fence in anticipation of a shot. The accuracy of the rifled shotgun, combined with an accurate slug, put the deer down instantly.

In less than an hour I had the doe home, skinned, and stowed in a cold corner of my basement where it could age for a few days before butchering. The January deer bore a special late-season antlerless tag. It was my fourth deer of a season that had stretched from the balmy days of the October muzzleloading season to January's bone chilling cold. In just three full months I'd shot more deer than my deer-hunting father-in-law shot in a lifetime.

Dad's hunting ability wasn't at fault. In his day, deer were scarce, and seasons were short and restrictive; just spotting a set of tracks or catching a fleeting glimpse of waving tail could be the measure a successful hunting day. Fortunately, those days have passed. Iowa hunters had an amazing 2003 deer season. Few believed that 2004 could possibly be better -- but that's exactly what happened. And this fall looks as if it'll be just as good. The golden age of deer hunting is under way right now, and hunters have never had so many opportunities to enjoy their sport.

"I don't expect big changes in the 2005 regulations, and we're sticking with our long term goal of reducing the state herd slightly to reduce crop damage and auto collisions," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources deer biologist Willie Suchy. "We've also set the regulations and are seeking hunter cooperation in an effort to improve the quality of the state's bucks."

That's saying a lot. For many years Iowa has produced more record-book bucks than any other state, and Suchy is optimistic that it will get even better. "I have heard from hunters who believe they are seeing more older deer. It's important for them to continue to let the yearling bucks grow, and to shoot does. A good goal for a hunter is to not shoot any more bucks than does," said Suchy.

For the past few seasons, recently retired IDNR wildlife chief Richard Bishop has put a short article in the deer hunting regulations asking hunters to harvest more does to help the state management plan and put delicious meat on tables.

"Hunters have taken the message to heart. They are buying plentiful doe tags, shooting more and more does, and discovering how good they are to eat," said Matt Schrantz, a dedicated deer hunting and manager of the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store.

It's legal to put an antlerless tag on a button buck, but the IDNR and most serious hunters discourage harvesting young male deer. There are several ways to tell if an antlerless deer is a button buck. "In the fall when you see a group of antlerless deer, the bigger ones will be does," Suchy said. "The small ones are fawns, and usually the smallest fawns are females. Sometimes during the late season, bucks have already shed their antlers. They look big in the chest and neck, and appear to be blocky compared to sleek does."

Rick White has a simpler way to tell button bucks from does. "I always carry binoculars. When using them you can often see the stubby antlers nestled in the hair. Also, I target mature does that are bigger than buck fawns," he said.

Many hunters are buying combinations of tags that let them hunt from the start of the early October bow season to the end of the January Special Hunt. Some are shooting many does by taking advantage of special urban and park tags and general statewide tags.

Cedar Rapids archer Dave Heck harvested 10 deer in the 2004 season. One was a decent buck, and all the others were does. "I shot one with a muzzleloader but the rest were archery deer," he said. Most of the deer were harvested within a couple of miles of his Cedar Rapids home. Schrantz also shot several deer.

Increasingly, too, hunters are sharing their harvest with nonhunting friends and neighbors. "I gave venison to many of my friends, and they love it," said Schrantz. I had a somewhat similar experience. After I had shot my third deer of the season, the freezer was stuffed, and I was ready to stop hunting and let my January tag go unfilled. One evening the phone rang, and a friend asked if I planned to do any late-season hunting. He wasn't a hunter, but had friends who had fallen on hard times.

"I told him I had a tag and would try to bag a doe, which he could give to his friends if they would help me butcher and wrap the deer. My January deer ended up in the larder of several appreciative Iowa residents struggling to make ends meet."

At the time this article was written, the IDNR hadn't yet tallied up the total 2004-05 harvest, but it was probably around 200,000 deer. That's up from around 20,000 per year in the early 1980s. At a conservative 50 pounds of boned out meat per deer that's 10 million pounds of nutritious food for Iowa's people. And, the tenfold increase in the harvest is astonishing. More deer were legally harvested in Iowa than lived in the state just a few decades ago!

Two years ago outdoor writer Larry Stone was commissioned by the IDNR to write a comprehensive book on the history of Iowa's Whitetail Deer. The book, Whitetail -- Treasure, Trophy, or Trouble, is a must-read for anyone interested in Iowa deer.

According to Stone, deer were abundant in the state's early days and likely peaked at a herd of about 400,000 animals in 1850. Unfortunately, massive habitat damage and unregulated hunting extirpated the species in just 50 years. Gradually deer began trickling into Iowa from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri. Others were stocked or escaped from captive herds. By the 1940s, deer remained scarce, but were increasing.

Older Iowans never saw deer when they were children. Deer gradually

increased, and the first modern hunting season was held in 1953, when 4,004 animals were harvested. The state's management plan was developed to allow the herd to gradually increase. They expanded their range to fill in gaps where the animals were absent and gradually beefed up their population density. In 1974 hunters harvested a record 17,990 animals, and that inched up to about 20,000 by the early 1980s. Then, phenomenal growth occurred. The harvest rose 10 times in the next 24 years.

But as the herd grew, so did complaints from farmers and urban gardeners griping about damage to crops, trees, and vegetables. Insurance companies chimed in, citing the alarming cost of vehicle-deer collisions. Even worse was the human toll, with nearly two people killed each year in Iowa year from these accidents.

In response to complaints, and with an eye on deer research, which was shaping the way biologist controlled herds while increasing the number of large bucks, the IDNR mounted its current management plan. The plan, in a nutshell, calls for expanding the harvest of does, reducing the harvest of young bucks, and opening urban fringe areas and parks to hunting to reduce damage.

"Back when I started deer hunting in the 1970s, I didn't have to worry about filling the freezer because I hardly saw a deer," said hunter Dave Novak. "That's really changed."

Novak hunts on private property close to an urban area that once was off-limits to hunters. "The landowner had planted hundreds of tree seedlings, and became more and more frustrated as increasing numbers of deer decimated her investment and work. She read up on deer management and lets me hunt, but only wants me to harvest does," he said.

Heck, however, mainly hunts on the private land of an owner who also wants to control deer numbers. "When this suburban season first opened the deer were virtually tame," he said. "It was hardly a challenge to hunt them; in four years, that's really changed. Enough deer have been shot that the others are now wary and behave just like their counterparts out on a public hunting area. I need to be more careful about concealment and scent."

Novak also noticed that the deer are more wary. His answer was to mount a scope on his Traditions muzzleloader. "I'm comfortable taking a deer out to about 100 yards, and that usually puts me in range of plenty of does," he said.

During the decades that Iowa's deer herd has exploded, firearm and bow technology has also advanced. Regulations have changed to give Hawkeye State hunters' opportunities to hunt that they wouldn't have imagined a generation ago.

For example, in 1980 most deer hunters used Foster slugs in a shotgun designed for pheasants. The combination of no sights, a loose barrel, and the modest accuracy of these old style slugs limited the range to 40 or 50 yards.

In 1987 the IDNR legalized the use of rifled barrels in shotguns. "We examined the issue carefully at several meetings and determined that the new barrels would enable hunters to more accurately harvest deer at greater range without reducing safety," said Marion Patterson, who served on the IDNR Commission and voted for the change.

In 1985 Tony Knight began selling his revolutionary MK 85 muzzleloader, which was made in Centerville. More reliable and accurate than side-locks, the new firearm let hunters reach out and harvest deer at 125 yards. More modern guns and bullets now nearly match the ballistics of some popular centerfire rifles, and give hunters outstanding hunting opportunities. The combination of improved muzzleloading firearms and the establishing of special seasons has resulted in whole new hunting experience. "I love hunting with my frontloader, because I can enjoy October's warm sun and colorful leaves and then have a completely different experience during the snowy late December season," said Novak.

In 1997 handguns were legalized for deer hunting. "I'm not seeing a real upsurge in people buying handguns for deer hunting, but the new law gives hunters the option to used these specialized firearms," said Schrantz, who manages the Cedar Rapids Fin and Feather Store.

Rick White serves on the pro staff for Hunters Specialties, an Iowa based manufacturer of hunting accessories and calls. He spends much of each fall hunting a variety of game across the United States and Canada. "I think we have the very best deer hunting right here in Iowa, but I'm a little worried about the future.

"The DNR is feeling increasing pressure from farmers, gardeners, and insurance companies to reduce the deer herd. Hunters need to make their voice herd so the DNR can maintain excellent populations of healthy deer," he continued.

White is also worried about another potential political threat: non-resident tags. "Many people would like to increase the number of non-resident tags in an effort to reduce deer numbers and encourage tourism. This happened several years ago in Illinois. It resulted in high-income nonresidents leasing big blocks of land for their exclusive use. Resident hunters who had access to that land for years were excluded. That could happen in Iowa," he cautioned. White thinks that the current level of non-resident tags is just about right.

Biologist Suchy predicts an outstanding season this fall. He will be recommending minor changes in regulations to the IDNR Commission. "Deer numbers appear to be down in parts of northern and central Iowa and we may reduce the number of antlerless tags there. But there are very large concentrations of deer in southwest Iowa, and we're trying to increase the doe kill there. Northeast Iowa and the Loess Hills in the far west look outstanding for hunters," he said. Suchy also believes there will be a few more special hunts this fall in the IDNR's continuing effort to reduce damage in parks and suburbanized areas.

Hunters in western Iowa have a slim possibility of encountering an Iowa novelty: mule deer. They are legal game, but are very scarce. "Once in a while someone reports seeing a deer during the hunting season that runs funny, and it's probably a mulie," said Suchy.

The golden age of Iowa deer hunting will continue this fall. Whether hunting whitetails from an October tree stand, conducting a drive through a woodlot during the shotgun season, or shuffling through winter snow, deer hunters will have a long season to look forward to. They will be able to buy numerous tags use a wide array of firearms and bows to pursue their quarry.

Although tags will be plentiful, Schrantz, Heck, Novak, White, and Suchy offer similar advice to Iowa hunters: Plan ahead. "Last season nearly all tags sold," said White. Some hunters procrastinated and weren't able to buy tags for their favorite season."

The fall deer hunting guidebook will be distributed by the IDNR in August. It lists seasons and tags. Summer is a great time to begin planning fall and winter hunts, and wise hunters buy their tags as soon as they go on sale.

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