Iowa's 2006 Deer Outlook -- Top Areas For Trophy Bucks

Last month we profiled the best places for harvesting a deer; this month we track the big boys. Here are the Hawkeye venues with the highest wallhanger potential.

Math was never my best subject in school, but here's a calculation that really adds up for deer hunters in Iowa: Fewer deer + educated hunters = more trophies.

That formula may not make sense at first glance, but combine a look at the recent history of deer hunting in Iowa with the results of Iowa Department of Natural Resources surveys and scouting reports from avid deer hunters, and 2006 looks likely to be another banner year for whitetail hunters in the Hawkeye State.

TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

Our herd mushroomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, and that large population of deer translated into a proportionally large population of bucks. The downside of the large population of deer in Iowa was problems with crop damage and excessive insurance claims due to car/deer accidents.

The IDNR persistently adjusted and liberalized deer hunting seasons and regulations over the past decade in an effort to get ahead of our burgeoning deer herd, and last year hunters killed a record 211,000 deer in Iowa. Some hunters expressed concern at the high kill, adding that they'd seen fewer deer than they had in recent years.

IDNR deer management biologist Willie Suchy acknowledges that numbers in northwest and north-central Iowa are down compared to several years ago, but he's of the opinion that the reduction shouldn't affect meat or trophy hunting.

"Hunters may not see as many deer, but they should have the opportunity to kill as many as they did in years past," he noted. "Where there might have been 20 deer per square mile a couple years ago in areas of good habitat in northern Iowa, this year there might be only 10 or 15. We still have good deer numbers in those areas -- we just don't have excess numbers like we used to.

"The way things are going, we're going to have a lower total deer population, but trophy hunting equal to, or maybe better, than when our deer herd was oversized. Our hunters are doing an excellent job of buying into the strategy of shooting does to help us control the herd -- passing up small bucks and only taking older, larger bucks for trophies."

WHERE THE BUCKS WERE -- AND WHERE THEY WILL BE

Given that optimistic forecast for those searching for trophy bucks, a look at past harvests can help predict where to find wallhangers this year.

Our most comprehensive archive of trophy distribution and harvest is the IDNR's Trophy Deer Registry. As reporting is voluntary, the registry doesn't include every trophy-grade deer surrendered by Iowa's fields and woods since the list's inception in 1954. But the animals entered since these records first began to be kept closely parallel total deer distribution and harvest, so the registry offers a valid look at where and how the Hawkeye State's biggest bucks were killed.

Minimum scores for entry into the Trophy Deer Registry are 150 points Boone and Crockett for both typical and non-typical gun kills. Bow or crossbow kills have to be 135 points Pope & Young for typicals and 155 points for non-typicals.

According to the Trophy Deer Registry, northeast and south-central Iowa offer the best chance to tag a trophy-caliber buck in the Hawkeye State. Allamakee County, in far northeast Iowa, is our all-time top trophy producer, totaling 363 entries in the registry since 1954. Marion County, in south-central Iowa, holds second place, with 274 entries. Clayton County, again in far northeast Iowa, holds third place with 261 trophies, while Warren and Monroe counties, both in the south-central part of the state, hold fourth and fifth places with Warren at 255 entries and Monroe at 246.

"Northeast Iowa has the habitat to produce a lot of deer, and terrain that lets some of the bucks reach trophy size," said Suchy. "South-central Iowa has more broken terrain, which is actually good deer habitat. We're probably always going to see more trophies from northeast and southern counties, simply because those areas have larger populations of deer."

A careful look at year-by-year entries reveals trends: for northeast Iowa to enter more total racks in the registry, and for the racks from southern Iowa to be slightly larger. While both areas produced racks that scored 180 or more points on B&C and P&Y score sheets, southern counties tended to enter more racks in the 170 class and above, while entries from northeastern counties trended more towards 150- to 170-class racks.

Suchy cautions against over-analyzing statistics from a voluntary record like the Trophy Buck Registry, but acknowledges that southern bucks could have a slight size advantage. "Northeast Iowa has a slightly harsher climate than southern Iowa," he said. "More snow, more days below zero. Rack production is directly tied to physiology, so weather plays a role in the ultimate size of a buck's rack. On the other hand, they've produced some world-class racks up in Saskatchewan, where it gets a lot colder than northeast Iowa.

"Weather does play a role, but the big factor is probably that heavier hunting pressure in northeast Iowa tends to crop off the big bucks sooner than in southern Iowa, where there might be a little less pressure on them."

The southeast half of Iowa dominates the sixth through 11th positions in the Trophy Deer Registry. Jackson County, in eastern Iowa, earned the sixth spot with 243 entries since 1954. Appanoose County, on the Missouri border, tallied 223 trophy bucks, Madison County added 194, and Lucas County totaled 192. Lee County added 191, and Des Moines County contributed 189 eligible bucks.

The rest of Iowa's top 25 trophy-producing counties are scattered across the state. Visualize those parts of Iowa east of Highway 63 and south of Highway 30, and you're looking at not only Iowa's most productive terrain for trophies, but also some of the best whitetail deer hunting in the country.

WHO TAGS OUR TROPHIES

Suchy says that one of the unique things about deer hunting in Iowa is that beginners and casual hunters regularly tag wallhangers even though the odds favor those who work at targeting a trophy.

"Shotgunners do get a lot of trophy deer, if only because there are so many of them," said Suchy. "Sometimes it's by sheer luck, because of the way the deer are moving during those seasons; sometimes it's because the old boys who run some of the drives really know their deer. But for the most part, "trophies in Iowa go home with bowhunters, muzzleloaders and guys who put in the time to figure out how to be in the right place at the right time."

The registry's num

bers reinforce Suchy's observations. Total submissions from bow and muzzleloader hunters already outnumber shotgun entries in Warren (140 bow or muzzleloader entries vs. 115 shotgun entries), Washington, (80 vs. 70), Pottawattamie (74 vs. 37), Woodbury (61 vs. 43) and a dozen other counties.

The success of bow and muzzleloader hunters in Pottawattamie and Woodbury counties also points up the trophy potential of a band of counties along the western edge of Iowa. "The Loess Hills have a lot of nice bucks, but you're going to have to work for them," said Suchy. "The terrain is rough enough that those bucks have places to hide, so they live long enough to develop some pretty nice racks."

Another advantage of hunting trophies in the Loess Hills is the relatively large amount of public land available to hunters there. Loess Hills State Forest offers more than 11,000 acres of nearly contiguous public land between Council Bluffs and Sioux City. Loess Hills Wildlife Area, near Turin, adds another 2,000 acres of public hunting. Add dozens of smaller county and state hunting areas, and hunters have ample opportunity to sample the trophy potential of the rugged Hills.

Brent Olson, IDNR forester at Loess Hills State Forest, crosses paths with both deer and hunters as he works in the Hills. "There are definitely deer that nobody sees, because they live back in the roughest areas," he said. "We get back into the middle of some of those areas because we have to for forestry work, and we see a lot more deer tracks than we do human footprints."

Olson offered a suggestion that might help deer hunters pattern trophy bucks in the Loess Hills and other areas of the western part of the state. "We've built several small dams in the Hills to control erosion in gullies, and I've noticed there are a lot of deer tracks around the ponds behind those dams," he said. "Western Iowa tends to be dry in the fall, so deer are going to be looking for ponds, springs or creeks that haven't gone dry."

"FEWER" DOESN'T MEAN "POORER"

Hunters in northern and northwest Iowa might feel jealous of their northeastern and southern counterparts after they first glance at their county's results in the Trophy Deer Registry. While Allamakee County has put up a tally of a whopping 363 trophy deer since 1954, hunters in Grundy County have entered only five deer during that same period. Pocahontas County, in northwest Iowa, has posted only two entries in more than 50 years.

Suchy says that trophy hunters in those counties shouldn't think they have no chance of tagging a wallhanger buck. "First, the registry is voluntary, so there may have been trophy bucks killed in those counties that weren't registered," he said. "Second, the number of trophies killed in those counties is probably proportional to the total deer population available. There's not a lot of trees and deer-friendly habitat in some parts of north-central and northwest Iowa, so there can't be as many trophies as in places where there's lots of habitat.

"But where there is sufficient habitat, there are deer, even in those counties. Because the habitat is so limited, hunters do a good job of getting to the deer, so not many bucks have a chance to reach the age of 3 or more years, which is when they start to develop trophy-caliber racks.

"There are areas in all those counties that -- because nobody pays attention to them, because landowners don't allow hunting, or because they're in parks or urban areas -- bucks get enough age to grow nice racks," he noted. "Hunters in those counties just have to be more creative in figuring out where those bucks are, and how to get shots at them."

HIDDEN BUCKS

Steve Cannon, Brant Fox, Kevin Lanphier and Bill Jackson support Suchy's contention that there are trophy-caliber bucks in all of Iowa's 99 counties. This quartet of fanatical deer hunters has formed RealHunting (www.realhunting.us), an Iowa-based company that is compiling video footage of trophy Iowa deer.

"Our plan is to collect videos from Iowa hunters and create an all-Iowa video that showcases the state's best hunters on some of their most interesting hunts," said Cannon. "People are going to be amazed at the quality of deer that are running around Iowa."

Cannon and his collaborators point both to videos of their own hunts and to footage obtained from trail cameras to support their contention. "Just in central Iowa, in Madison County, we have video of a buck that is arguably a state-record 8-pointer, who snuck in on us and got so close that all we could do was video him," said Cannon. "He was less than 10 feet from our stand, and we couldn't get the bow up. We saw him in 2004, didn't see him in 2005. But farmers in the area say he was there, and have seen him again this year.

"Southwest of Des Moines, not far outside the city limits, we've got trail-cam footage of a buck we call 'Buckethead.' "He's a huge, long-tined 8-pointer that just plain disappears during hunting season. East of Des Moines, not far off I-80, there's a buck that we drool over. We've scaled out the pictures on the videos, and that rack has to have at least a 30-inch spread. Nobody has gotten him yet, and we've certainly tried.

"We've got videos like that from all over the state," he continued. "Either Iowa's hunters are getting better at filming big bucks or there are just that many more big bucks to video in Iowa. Personally, I think there are just that many more big bucks -- this state is becoming unreal for trophy whitetails -- if you know where to look."

STRATEGIES FOR 2006

Knowing where to look for Iowa's trophy bucks requires average hunters to make themselves into above-average hunters.

"The average hunter hunting in the average places will get an average buck," said Suchy. "Research shows that to live beyond their third year, bucks in Iowa have to live in different places and develop different behaviors than an average buck. If a buck lives to be 4 or 5 years old in Iowa, he probably behaves a lot differently and uses his habitat differently than the average buck.

"I'd say the Iowa hunter with the best chance to put a trophy rack on the wall would be an above-average bowhunter or muzzleloader who's willing to travel to northeast or southern Iowa," he continued. "Western Iowa has a lot of potential, too, and there are places in south-central and central Iowa that have some outstanding bucks."

Suchy emphasized that every county has yielded trophy whitetails. "That's the nice thing about deer hunting in Iowa," he said. "There's a chance to tag a trophy-caliber buck in every county in Iowa. Some counties may offer more trophies than others, because of habitat, but a good hunter who puts in the time and makes the effort to scout and work for his deer has the potential to find and tag a trophy-caliber deer just about anywhere in the state."

Find more about Iowa fishing and hunting at: IowaGameandFish.com

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