Iowa's 2007 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Top Areas For Trophy Bucks

You've seen the rest, now go after the best! (November 2007)

Photo by Mike Lambeth.

Fewer deer but more trophy bucks. That's the minimalist version of what trophy whitetail hunters can expect in Iowa this year.

"We're seeing a subtle shift in our deer population," said Terry Hainfield, Iowa Department of Natural Resources district wildlife biologist in far northeast Iowa. "We're starting to see a lower overall deer population that is higher in quality, as far as trophy bucks. Our hunters are buying into the philosophy of harvesting lots of does, passing on small bucks, and taking only the largest bucks."

Harvest statistics verify that our deer population is trending lower.

"By the numbers, our deer herd is down from what it was three years ago when it peaked at around 300,000 deer in the state," said Wille Suchy, DNR wildlife research supervisor. "There are places where we may have overhunted deer, and there are places where we still have too many deer. But statewide, 250,000 is about where we want to be on deer numbers. That will provide the good hunting our hunters have become used to, but minimize problems we had with crop damage and car/deer accidents back when the deer population was at an all-time high."

Suchy and his coworkers are confident that 250,000 deer will provide Iowa's hunters plenty of opportunities to cross paths with bucks that make visiting hunters from other states weak in the knees.

"I've noticed that non-resident hunters who get an antlered license often take the first 130- or 140-class buck they see," said Ron Munkel, DNR district wildlife biologist in west central Iowa. "Those are big bucks in a lot of states, so they're tickled to get one like that. Then they go back hunting to fill a doe tag, and start seeing 150- and 160-class bucks, and suddenly it dawns on them that trophy hunting in Iowa is a different ballgame from what they're used to in their home states."

Munkel, an avid deer hunter, has "adjusted his sights" in recent years to accommodate the improved quality of Iowa bucks.

"I've shot (with a bow) enough 140-class bucks that I don't even draw on them any more," he said. "If a buck won't score at least 150, I just watch it and try to learn something new about deer behavior. There are bigger bucks out there. Lots bigger. And I'm willing to wait for a chance to get one of them."

OUR TROPHY DEER, BY THE NUMBERS

A look at the latest round of entries in the DNR's Trophy Deer Registry supports the contentions of wildlife biologists that our smaller deer herd is producing bigger racks. Because the Registry is voluntary, it doesn't record every trophy buck harvested in Iowa. But the Registry is the only long-term, comprehensive record of trophy racks harvested in Iowa, and its statistics parallel the DNR's official county-by-county total deer harvest statistics, so it provides a valid view of where and how hunters take Iowa's largest bucks.

Whitetail racks that score more than 150 Boone and Crockett or more than 135 Pope and Young are eligible for entry in their respective gun or bow classes in the Iowa Trophy Deer Registry. Since 1953, when the Registry was started, more than 9,850 racks from Iowa have met those minimum standards.

That sounds like plenty of trophies, and could give the false impression that a trophy rack is easy to come by in Iowa. Divide those 9,850 deer over the 54-year life of the Registry and that averages out to only 182 trophy racks per year. Spread those 182 wallhangers evenly across Iowa's 99 counties and it would average out to be 1.8 trophies per county, per year.

But Iowa's deer herd isn't evenly distributed across the state, and neither are its trophy bucks. The steep, wooded ridges and bluffs of northeast Iowa and the rolling hills of southern Iowa provide more refuge for deer, and therefore have more entries per county in the Registry than heavily farmed, flat and relatively treeless counties in northwest and north central Iowa.

Allamakee County in rugged northeast Iowa, leads all other counties, with 416 qualifying racks. Marion County, with rolling hills bisected by the Des Moines River valley, has the second highest number of entries: 305. Clayton County, along the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, put 288 entries in the Registry, while Warren County, again in south-central Iowa, claimed fourth place with 282 trophy racks. Jackson County, along the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa, earned the fifth spot with 273 entries.

On the other end of the spectrum, Pocahontas County in north-central Iowa has generated only two entries in the 54-year history of the Trophy Deer Registry. In 2006, no trophies were registered from Pocahontas County, nor from Dickinson, Emmet, Franklin, Ida, O'Brien or Worth counties, though all those counties have submitted trophies to the Registry at some time in the past.

Those entries prove there are/were trophy-caliber bucks in those counties. In addition, it should be noted that just because there were no entries in 2006 doesn't mean no trophy racks were taken from those counties during that time. It just means that nobody from those counties registered any trophy bucks with the voluntary Trophy Deer Registry.

"I'm confident there are trophy bucks in every county, every year," Suchy said. "Wherever there is habitat suitable for deer in Iowa, there are deer. And wherever there are deer, there is the potential for a trophy buck. It's just a matter of whether that buck has enough habitat and luck to escape hunting pressure for the three to five years it takes to develop a trophy rack."

A look at the top 25 trophy-producing counties in Iowa quickly identifies the regions with the best deer habitat. Those 25 counties -- out of Iowa's 99 counties -- produced 54 percent of all the trophies entered in the Registry. If you envision a swath two counties wide running along the Mississippi River on our state's eastern border, and another band of counties three rows deep along our southern side, then throw in the deer-friendly habitat of the Loess Hills Region in Monona, Harrison and Woodbury counties in far western Iowa, you've effectively mapped the origins of nearly 80 percent of all the trophies in the Registry.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON

A look at the county-by-county breakdown of trophies entered in the Trophy Deer Registry offers suggestions on where to hunt, based on the type of weapon used. Hunters in Allamakee County, the state's all-time leading trophy producer, used shotguns to take nearly 60 percent of its total of 416 trophy racks. Shotguns also significantly out-produced bows in Madison, Monroe, Ringgold, Mills and Adair, generally taking 50 to 60 percent of the total trophies registe

red in those counties.

Counties where shotgunners outperformed bowhunters tend to be in the southern part of the state. That region's rolling hills and broken timbered areas allow a healthy percentage of bucks to live three to five years, but are "huntable" by shotgunners who use block-and-drive tactics modified to comb the myriad nooks and crannies where those trophy bucks hide.

Suchy noted that Allamakee County's high percentage of shotgunned trophy bucks is related to the sheer number of deer in that far northeastern county, combined with a strong tradition of deer hunting.

"Allamakee County is always one of the top two deer-producing counties in the state in our total deer harvest statistics," he said. "Plus, they have a long tradition of shotgun hunting up there. The guys know the area and know how to hunt it. It's kind of the perfect combination of lots of deer with lots of good hunters, hunting in habitat that lets enough deer escape every year to maintain a very good trophy base."

Bowhunters claimed the highest percentage of trophies registered from a scattering of counties. Archers entered nearly twice as many racks in the Registry as did shotgunners in Benton, Cedar, Cerro Gordo, Iowa, Johnson, Palo Alto, Pottawatomie, Scott, Sioux, Webster, Winnebago and Woodbury counties.

Several of those counties are in the "tough hunting" regions of north-central or northwest Iowa. The success of bowhunters in tagging the proportionally fewer trophies available in those areas emphasizes the skill of those patient hunters, even under challenging conditions.

Wildlife biologists in northern Iowa note that the open terrain of that region allows shotgun hunters to use block-and-drive tactics to sweep through the limited timbers of that region and get a majority of the bucks before they have time to develop trophy racks. The few bucks that live in hard-to-hunt terrain or on land off-limits to hunters are the ones who grow to trophy standards.

"It doesn't matter if you're talking about the flatlands of north-central Iowa, or the hills and ridges of northeast Iowa, the biggest bucks come out of areas where the terrain or restricted hunting access gives them time to grow trophy racks," Suchy said. "Hunters who make the effort to hunt remote areas, or get access to areas off-limits to other hunters, are the ones who see the most trophy-caliber racks."

While shotgun hunters have taken the most trophies in Iowa because of their sheer numbers, trophies taken by bowhunters tend to average slightly larger simply because those hunters are famously selective.

"I still shotgun hunt, because I just plain love to hunt deer, but bowhunting is my passion," said 37-year-old Brant Fox of Colfax. Fox and several friends established RealHunting (www.realhunting.us.org), a Web-based company that produces videos of Iowa deer hunts. Collecting and editing videos of deer hunts from across Iowa underlined Brant's suspicions about the tactics and strategies of fellow bowhunters.

"I'd say that bowhunters bring fewer deer out of the woods than shotgun hunters, but the deer that bowhunters bring out are significantly larger, on the average," Fox said.

Fox used to travel to southern Iowa in search of bigger bucks, but in recent years has found enough tantalizing bucks in central Iowa to reduce his travel expenditures.

"I'm not going to say exactly where they are, but there are a couple of bucks in central Iowa that are going to draw a lot of attention if somebody gets them," Fox said. "One is east of Des Moines, and the other one is southwest of Des Moines. Those are just two of the biggest I've seen or heard of. There are quite a few more in this area that are big enough that no self-respecting bowhunter would pass up a shot, if he got a chance. I've been hunting around here since I was 9 years old, and I'm convinced our hunters are slowly improving the overall size of our bucks by simply passing up shots at smaller bucks, and letting them get some age on them.

"RealHunting is involved with the annual Whitetail Classic held every spring in Des Moines," Fox added. "The size of the deer mounts that we saw at last spring's Classic was almost mind-boggling. We may be down on total deer numbers in Iowa in the past year or so, but you'd never know it by the size of the racks that the guys were bringing in."

PUBLIC POSSIBILITIES

The search for trophy racks leads many hunters in Iowa to forego public-hunting areas. Their thinking is that public areas are overhunted, and that few trophy bucks come from those oft-hunted tracts.

"Most of our public areas do get hit pretty hard during the shotgun seasons," said Hainfield, the wildlife biologist from northeast Iowa. "But up here, some of our areas are thousands of acres, with pretty rough ground, so there are places in the middle that don't see a lot of hunters."

Munkel, the wildlife biologist from west-central Iowa, noted that smaller public hunting areas actually favor early-season trophy hunters.

"Those areas have the habitat and food sources that attract deer through the winter, after the hunting seasons are over," he said. "They live there through the spring and summer, and they're often still associated with those areas when bowhunting season opens just before the rut begins. That's why bowhunters should never overlook public areas -- those places have the habitat, so they hold a lot of good deer during most of the year."

Munkel's mention of how Iowa's bowhunting season parallels the rut highlights the special advantage bowhunters have in the Hawkeye State. Bowhunting is the only hunting season open during the peak of the rut.

"That's good, but it can create a challenge if you don't understand deer behavior," Munkel said. "Everybody understands that bucks get a little crazy during the rut, so it gives hunters a chance to take bucks that are so preoccupied with sex that they do things that make them easier to hunt.

"The problem I see is that hunters spend a lot of time studying and patterning bucks pre-rut, then set up their stands and do their hunts based on those pre-rut patterns," Munkel continued. "But once the rut starts, the bucks change their patterns because they're chasing does. Personally, I scout does ahead of the season, because once the rut starts, the bucks will be where the does are. When I hear guys say that the bucks they've been watching all summer "disappear" during the rut, that just tells me that the bucks are with the does, and the guys didn't know where the does were."

Munkel noted that does in early fall are often widely spread across a variety of habitat.

"Does in Iowa spend a lot of time in corn fields and hay fields and CRP land," he said. "They don't show up in timbers until farmers harvest the crops and take away their cover. On top of those does that are scattered across open country prior to harvest, the rut itself scatters them even more. Bucks start chasing does and push them before they're

ready to breed, so it's really a challenge to predict where you'll find deer during the rut.

"But the one thing you can count on is that if you can find does during that time, bucks won't be far away. That's why I scout does in order to find bucks during the rut."

Whether you're scouting does pre-rut in hopes of arrowing a trophy buck during bow season, or using topo maps to plan block-and-drive strategies for shotgun season, statistics indicate there are trophy bucks in every county in Iowa this year. This year a few local legends could threaten world records, if someone manages to take those clever veterans of multiple hunting seasons.

So, just because you may not see as many deer during hunting season, don't let your guard down when it comes to trophy hunting in Iowa. Fewer total deer in Iowa plus selective harvest of bucks equals more trophy-caliber bucks. That's a formula that promises success for both hunters and deer population managers in Iowa.

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

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